Jim Souhan: Brewers swing for the fences

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 26, 2011 - 1:13 AM

In dealing loads of prospects for established pitchers, the Brewers have made it clear they are looking to win now.

Brewers left fielder Ryan Braun has become one of the most feared hitters in the National League. He is signed to a long-term contract, but first baseman Prince Fielder can become a free agent after the season.

Photo: John Ehlke, Associated Press

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MILWAUKEE — Doug Melvin belonged to a Brat Pack long before he ran the Bratwurst Pack.

In 1978, Melvin, now the Milwaukee Brewers general manager, was pitching in the Yankees minor league system. They cut him, then hired him as assistant scouting director. John Gordon, the Twins' venerable radio announcer, joined the Yankees as a broadcaster that year, too, along with a handful of other eager young baseball men.

More than three decades later, Melvin has built one of the most talented rosters in baseball while displaying a willingness to trade top prospects for star pitchers, moves that set him apart from most midmarket and Midwest general managers. Gordon knew him when Melvin's primary concern was staying awake on the drive to Yankee Stadium.

"We worked from 9 in the morning to 11 at night," Gordon said. "We were groupies, we were rookies, and we were all together, this group of guys who all started out with the Yankees together.

"We both lived about 56 miles away from the stadium, in different directions."

A sleep-deprived Melvin found himself dozing behind the wheel, so he found a device that beeped when it moved. "I had to find a way to stay awake," Melvin said on Saturday, before the Brewers played the Twins at Miller Park, the second of six interleague meetings between the border rivals. "So it was radio up, window down, beeper in the ear."

Brewers fans no longer need such a device at the ballpark. Melvin became the Milwaukee GM in 2002, and in 2008 he coaxed the Brewers into the playoffs for the first time since 1982.

This year's Brewers might be Melvin's best team, and it is a team built to win this year, before first baseman Prince Fielder leaves as expected in free agency this winter. Instead of cautiously hording high draft picks like most midmarket general managers, Melvin has traded top prospects for top-of-the-rotation starters in CC Sabathia, Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum.

His 2011 rotation features Greinke, Marcum, Yovani Gallardo, Randy Wolf and Chris Narveson. With that pitching, and a lineup featuring Fielder, Ryan Braun, Rickie Weeks and Corey Hart, the Brewers have the talent to challenge even the richest franchises.

"We're a club that did a very good job of drafting offensive players, and I don't think you can do both," Melvin said. "If someone asks how the Giants got Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain, well, it's because we have Fielder and Braun. It's hard to do both, land pitching and position players. So we've been short on pitching, and the only way to get it was to trade for it."

To acquire Sabathia for a pennant run in 2008, and to land Greinke and Marcum this winter, Melvin traded nine players, including four first-round draft picks. "He pieced this team together," said Brewers reliever and former Twins righthander LaTroy Hawkins. "He did a lot of stuff this offseason that probably surprised a lot of other GMs. He pulled it off, and he didn't even have to spend a lot of money.

"That says a lot about him, right there."

Melvin worked his way up to scouting director with the Yankees. In 1986, he became the Orioles assistant general manager and farm director, and worked for his "mentor," Roland Hemond, who will receive the Buck O'Neill Award for lifetime achievement during Hall of Fame weekend in Cooperstown this year.

"Roland worked with the White Sox, under Bill Veeck," Melvin said. "He told me once he was leaving for the winter meetings in Miami, and he wanted to make some deals, and he asked Bill, 'What's our budget?'

"Bill told him, 'We don't have a budget. You have to have money to have a budget. We don't have any money. Just go find some players.' "

Hemond became renowned for finding sleepers, such as unheralded Mexican players. He also traded Cy Young Award winner LaMarr Hoyt in a deal that landed the White Sox a young shortstop named Ozzie Guillen.

"When I worked under Roland as a farm director, I didn't want to trade prospects," Melvin said. "When you sit in a different seat, you might have to consider it. I remember years ago, with Baltimore, there was talk of trading Pete Stanicek, and we could have used him in a deal to get Dave Winfield. We didn't do it because Pete was a top prospect. Two years later, he was out of the game.

"There are a lot of deals you have a chance to do, and you look back and say, 'Damn, I'd make that deal now,' because the windows of opportunity for winning are so small.

"There are probably three teams that know they're going to win. They're the three highest-payroll teams, New York [Yankees], Boston and Philadelphia. There are 27 other teams fighting for the other five playoff positions. We draw well, and I have to take into consideration the fans who come out, and yet we do have limitations."

Melvin was an all-around high school athlete in Chatham, Ontario. He became known, as a minor-league pitcher, for keeping a basketball in his trunk in case he ran across a pick-up game. He's a movie buff, and one of the most likeable and straightforward characters in the game.

He likes to think out of the batter's box, telling associates that doubleheaders should consist of two seven-inning games, that home teams should take batting practice later so fans can see them, and seasons should be split into two halves so low-revenue teams would have a better chance to make the playoffs.

His primary goal as a GM is quite conventional. He'd like to bring a World Series to Milwaukee.

"People say we're all-in on this season," Melvin said. "Well, Greinke and Marcum are still young, and they'll be on our team next year. If you're in our situation and you want good, young pitching, you have to trade for it. Those are our circumstances."

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon and weekdays at 2:40 p.m. on 1500ESPN. His Twitter name is Souhanstrib. jsouhan@startribune.com

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