After long, successful tenure, Doug Melvin steps down as Brewers' GM
Doug Melvin, who turned 63 on Saturday, announced on Tuesday that he’d be relinquishing his position as the Brewers' general manager, a job that he has held for Milwaukee since September 2002. He steps down as the fourth-longest tenured general manager in baseball, behind only the Yankees’ Brian Cashman (since February 1998), the Athletics' Billy Beane (since October '97) and the Giants’ Brian Sabean (since September '96), and as one of the two most successful general managers in Brewers history.
Melvin’s place in the franchise is rivaled only by that of Harry Dalton, the one-time architect of the Frank Robinson-era Orioles who served as Milwaukee’s general manager from 1978 to '91. Here’s a quick snapshot of how Melvin and Dalton measure up against each other as well as the other six men to serve as Brewers general manager combined. (Notes: Years denotes full seasons as general manager, including 2015 for Melvin; >.500 denotes winning seasons; 1st or 2nd denotes first or second-place finishes in the division; Division denotes division titles, including 1981 when the Brewers had the best overall record in the AL East and were the second-half division winners.)
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Melvin’s tenure as the Brewers’ general manager predates the current ownership, which purchased the team from the trust of former commissioner Bud Selig in late 2004. When Melvin joined the Brewers, fresh off guiding the Rangers to the first three playoff appearances in that franchise’s history, Milwaukee was finishing off its 10th straight losing season and on its way to a franchise-worst 106 losses. It took Melvin a few years to dig the Brewers out of that hole, but by retaining scouting director Jack Zduriencik, who had drafted Prince Fielder just before Melvin’s hiring in '02, he made good use of the high draft picks that resulted from those poor showings. In '03, the Brewers drafted Rickie Weeks second overall. In '05, they tabbed Ryan Braun with the fifth pick of the draft. They also made several astute late-round picks, taking Yovani Gallardo and Lorenzo Cain in the second and 17th rounds, respectively, in '04; Michael Brantley in the seventh round in '05; and Jonathan Lucroy in the third round in '07.
Meanwhile, Melvin’s first major trade at Milwaukee's helm remains one of the most lopsided trades of the new century: a nine-player blockbuster that sent star first baseman Richie Sexson, who was entering his walk year, and two pitchers to the Diamondbacks for five major leaguers and lefthanded pitching prospect Jorge De La Rosa in December 2003. Lyle Overbay and Chris Capuano, both acquired in that deal, were key members of the '05 Brewers team that nearly snapped the team’s losing streak, finishing at 81–81, and helped convince the team’s new ownership to begin expanding payroll.
In Melvin’s first two years with the Brewers, Milwaukee ranked 28th and 29th in the majors in end-of-the-year payroll. That ranking improved under the new owners in 2005, but only because of cost-cutting elsewhere in the league: The '05 Brewers spent less on player salaries than the '03 team. In '06, however, they saw their payroll increase by more than a third. In '07, the Brewers enjoyed their first winning season in 15 years thanks to the emergence of a generation of young talent including Fielder (23), Weeks (24), J.J. Hardy (24), Braun (23), Corey Hart (25) and Gallardo (21). In '08, Melvin added free-agent centerfielder Mike Cameron and catcher Jason Kendall to that young core, then traded Brantley and three other minor leaguers to Cleveland in early July for impending free agent and defending Cy Young award winner CC Sabathia. The result was the team’s first playoff appearance in more than a quarter century as Sabathia turned in one of the greatest rental-player performances in major league history (11–2, 1.65 ERA in 17 starts with seven complete games and three shutouts).
With Sabathia gassed by the time the Brewers reached the Division Series as the NL wild-card team, Milwaukee lost to the eventual world champion Phillies in four games. However, after two years of retooling, they returned to the postseason via their first division title since 1982, winning a franchise-record 96 games with a team that was much more fully of Melvin’s making. Only Fielder and Hart pre-dated Melvin on that '11 squad, which fell just two games shy of the franchise’s second pennant, defeating the Diamondbacks in a thrilling five-game Division Series, then once again losing to the eventual world champions—this time the Cardinals—in the National League Championship Series.
Sustaining that success proved to be expensive and elusive. The team’s payroll again stagnated, never surpassing its 2010 year-end ranking of 13th. Fielder left as a free agent following the '11 playoff run, and would-be ace Zack Greinke, who had been acquired from the Royals prior to the '11 season at the high cost of Cain, Alcides Escobar, Jake Odorizzi and reliever Jeremy Jeffress, was traded to the Angels at the '12 deadline in anticipation of a similar departure. That second Greinke trade, headlined by shortstop prospect Jean Segura, has failed to compensate for the talent lost in the first and likely never will.
Within his limitations, Melvin continued to make smart moves, signing veterans Aramis Ramirez and Kyle Lohse as free agents and continuing to give young and otherwise unproven players such as Lucroy, Segura, John Axford, Jim Henderson, Khris Davis, Scooter Gennett, Mike Fiers, Wily Peralta and Jimmy Nelson opportunities to succeed, even if those opportunities came at the expense of established veterans. The emergence of Carlos Gomez—acquired straight up for Hardy in November 2009—as an all-around star in the wake of Fielder’s departure stands as a late-career highlight.
In 2012, Milwaukee made a late surge toward wild-card contention, but ultimately fell five games short. In '14, with a payroll topping $100 million for the first time in franchise history following the signing of free agent Matt Garza, the Brewers stood in first place in the NL Central for all but three days through the end of August, but fell out of a playoff position via a 9–17 showing in September. Those struggles carried over to this season and, buried underneath the Cardinals, Pirates and Cubs in what is arguably the game’s toughest division, Melvin was forced to start selling off pieces of his team. That process started with trading Gallardo prior to his walk year over the off-season and accelerated at the non-waiver trading deadline as Melvin dealt Gomez, Fiers, Ramirez, outfielder Gerardo Parra and reliever Jonathon Broxton.
The team Melvin hands to his successor comes with just two significant financial commitments: the two years and $25.5 million (plus a $13 million vesting option) remaining on Garza’s contract and the five-year, $105 million extension for Braun from April 2011, a deal which begins next season. Both players will turn 32 in November and both contracts are problematic. Still, it’s worth noting that Braun, though no longer the superstar he was at his peak for various reasons and no longer worth $21 million a year, is in the midst of his most productive season since '12. Melvin also passes on Lucroy under team control at well below market value for two more years thanks to a five-year extension signed in March 2012. In addition, the Brewers possess some good, young, team-controlled starting pitchers in Nelson and Peralta (both 26) and Taylor Jungmann (25) and near-ready shortstop prospect Orlando Arcia, ranked the eighth-best prospect in baseball by Baseball America last month. Milwaukee also has control over Segura and Gennett (both 25) and the 27-year-old Davis, though all three have disappointed since their initial breakthroughs.
As for Melvin, who has held a front-office position for one of four different teams in all but one year since 1983, he will remain in charge of the Brewers’ baseball operations until his replacement is hired and has an agreement to stay on board beyond this season as an advisor to that replacement, as well as to team owner Mark Attanasio. Also remaining in Milwaukee will be manager Craig Counsell, hired in May and signed through 2017. Attanasio has already announced that he intends to retain Counsell, who had been a special assistant to Melvin prior to moving down to the dugout, under the new general manager. Counsell is reportedly not under consideration to take Melvin's job, but Attanasio said on Tuesday that the organization will be casting a wide net for Melvin’s replacement, who may not be named until after the season, looking both internally and externally and perhaps even beyond baseball. The only limitation Attanasio placed on his search was a desire to have a new GM in place for this December’s Winter Meetings in Nashville.