Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Melvin's Mistake?

The Milwaukee Brewers last Friday awarded GM Doug Melvin a three-year extension that will keep him in the Beer City through 2012. The move was well-deserved as Melvin, who took over for Dean Taylor at the end of 2002, guided the Brewers to their first playoff appearance in 26 years as well as their first back-to-back winning seasons in 16 years. He’s also presided over what has become one of the game’s premier scouting and player development systems.

Despite Melvin’s accomplishments, he might have made a crucial error last week when he decided not to bring back interim manager Dale Sveum for 2009. Sveum, you might recall, replaced former skipper Ned Yost on September 15th while the Brewers were in the midst of a 3-11 slide which saw them relinquish a seemingly ironclad grip on the Wild Card lead (sources maintain this highly controversial and unprecedented move was carried out at the behest of team owner Mark Attanasio, not Melvin). Under Sveum, Milwaukee posted a 7-5 record and edged out the Mets for the National League’s final post-season birth on the final day of the regular season. Milwaukee’s celebration was short-lived, however, as the Phillies beat them in four games in the NLDS.

Although 16 games is indeed a small sample size, the 44-year-old Sveum displayed more than enough managerial moxie to warrant a chance to guide the Brewers in 2009 and beyond. The former infielder proved to be a calming influence in a young clubhouse that had experienced much infighting and turmoil under the stewardship of the high-strung Yost. He also garnered praise as an able strategist whose decisions to pitch ace C.C. Sabathia on three days rest, replace the underachieving Rickie Weeks with veteran stalwart Ray Durham and remove the gassed Manny Parra from the starting rotation were all instrumental in reversing the Brewers’ fortunes during the team’s traumatic second consecutive September swoon. And, let’s not forget the none-too-important familiarity concept – in his three years on the coaching staff Sveum was a key figure for Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder, J.J. Hardy, Corey Hart and the rest of the young Brewers as they made a successful transition to the major leagues. Retaining Sveum would inject the Milwaukee clubhouse with much-needed stability as the team’s young core continues to mature and faces much higher expectations in coming seasons.

In his search for the Brewers’ new manager, Melvin has supposedly set the bar high. He’s looking for not just an experienced big league manager, but one who has also enjoyed a high degree of success. Multiple sources have confirmed that Melvin has zeroed in on the following five candidates:

1) Buck Showalter
2) Willie Randolph
3) Ken Macha
4) Mike Hargrove
5) Bob Brenly

Their compelling resumes notwithstanding, all five candidates have major warts. Showalter has displayed an excellent baseball mind and essentially built the expansion Diamondbacks from the ground up. However, in each of his three managerial stints – New York, Arizona and Texas – Showalter was known as a tightly wound control freak who had trouble connecting with today’s player. A six-time all-star as a player and long-time coach with the Yankee dynasty of the late 1990’s, Randolph presided over the Mets’ record-setting collapse in 2007 when they failed to qualify for the playoffs despite enjoying a seven game lead with just 17 to play. Macha and Hargrove have enjoyed sustained managerial success, but both left their last posts under inauspicious circumstances. By the time Macha was dismissed from Oakland at the end of 2006, he was known as a mere puppet of A’s GM Billy Beane who had lost his grip of the team (current Brewers catcher and clubhouse ringleader Jason Kendall included); Hargrove’s departure was even more bizarre. He “retired” from the Mariners’ post in the middle of 2007 citing burnout even though the team was in contention. Finally, there’s Brenly, whose 2001 World Series win with Arizona makes him the most qualified of the five. Yet, those close to the former catcher say his sweetheart broadcast deal with Cubs carrier WGN would be a substantial impediment to any future managing gig.

It’s obvious that Sveum’s resume isn’t as glitzy as any of his potential successors. He never put together an expansion team like Showalter, never was selected to the all-star team as a player like Randolph, and hasn’t enjoyed long-term success as a big league manager like Macha, Hargrove or Brenly. But what Sveum did do was take over the controls of a Brewers ship that was sinking fast and steer it to safety while earning the respect of an entire roster in the process. For this he should have been rewarded but wasn’t. He definitely deserved better. So did Brewer fans.

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