Grading the Brewers: Doug Melvin

Milwaukee general manager Doug Melvin pulled off the biggest trade of the year in getting CC Sabathia, but what about his other moves surrounding the 2008 Brewers?

He may not be the Frank Lloyd Wright of general managers, but Doug Melvin remains one of the best architects in the major leagues, having slowly built the Brewers up from the rubble he inherited in 2002.

His blueprint was simple: create the foundation from within, which is the cornerstone of any small-market franchise, and add the other appropriate pieces along the way.

And with the infusion of extra finances since Mark Attanasio bought the team in 2005, Melvin has had the luxury of buying bigger and better accessories.

Melvin is negotiating an extension of his contract as this hits the information superhighway while reportedly meeting with Dale Sveum about whether to take the interim tag off the latter's title.

Milwaukee was the best team in baseball from May 20 through Aug. 31, which allowed it to overcome a horrendous September—and the puzzling New York Mets—to earn the National League's wild-card berth and break a 26-year postseason drought.

But how the Brewers got to that point is the topic of this discussion, and that means it's time for Melvin to receive his report card and final grade for 2008.

So, that means stepping back to the end of 2007 to see how and where Melvin obtained the building blocks that made the difference in losing the Central Division race by two games a year ago to winning 90 games for the first time since 1992.

But in order to build, Melvin also had to replace some parts, namely relievers Scott Linebrink, whom he had gotten from San Diego for three minor league arms for last season's stretch run, and Francisco Cordero, who bolted for Cincinnati because he had to have $11.5 million per year instead of the $10.5 million or more that the Brewers would pay him.

Melvin chose to retool the bullpen with flexible, veteran guys. Unfortunately, none of them were southpaws.

Nov. 20: He traded catcher Johnny Estrada to the Mets for Guillermo Mota.

Dec. 5: He signed free agent David Riske from Kansas City to a three-year deal with a club option for 2011.

Dec. 7: He stole Salomon Torres from Pittsburgh for righties Marino Salas and Kevin Roberts.

Dec. 10: He inked free agent Eric Gagne, who had spent 2007 with Texas and Boston, to a one-year, $10 million pact.

In the meantime, Melvin had signed free agent catcher Jason Kendall to a one-year contract Nov. 28, plus a vesting option for 2009 that kicked in.

One of the team's biggest goals was to improve defensively. Kendall more than did his part by handling the pitching staff and throwing out 40 percent of runners attempting to steal. The outfield also improved after Bill Hall's one-year experiment in center field, which belonged to Mike Cameron after the free agent joined the club Jan. 14, although his services were delayed because he served a 25-game suspension to start the season.

To that end, a rather unnoticed move occurred Dec. 20, when Melvin brought outfielder Gabe Kapler out of retirement. Kapler filled in nicely while Cameron was out and Tony Gwynn suffered an injury, becoming the team's most productive pinch hitter.

But it wasn't until the heat of summer that Melvin got hot. Prompted by Yovani Gallardo's supposed season-ending knee injury May 1 and knowing that quality starting pitching would help a suspect bullpen—which included Gagne's ineffectiveness as the closer and Carlos Villanueva's move from the rotation to a relief role—Melvin pulled the trigger on one of the biggest midseason trades ever.

Getting the jump on other potential suitors July 7, Melvin shipped four minor leaguers—including top prospect Matt LaPorta--to struggling Cleveland for big lefty CC Sabathia, what nearly everybody labeled as a three- to four-month rental.

The rest is history. While most of the team went in the tank during a stretch run swoon, Sabathia carried the limping Brewers into the playoffs, adding more cash to his already looming free agent contract negotiations.

Melvin also sent two farmhands to San Francisco for switch-hitting second baseman Ray Durham, who picked up some of the slack from a mostly disappointing season from Rickie Weeks.

And although a footnote to the season, Milwaukee signed righty Todd Coffey from Cincy on Sept. 10, a move that could pay dividends down the road.

All of that maneuvering couldn't help the Brewers catch Chicago in the Central and didn't save manager Ned Yost his job. Melvin's second-biggest move—or should we say Attanasio's—was firing Yost after a 3-11 start to the final month and giving Sveum the unenviable task of righting the ship during the final 12 games.

Sveum, despite another injury to Ben Sheets, the self-destruction of Jeff Suppan and Manny Parra and the offense's continued malaise, accomplished the goal that the shocking switch was meant to achieve.

Although a ton of work remains to be done while the calendar still reads 2008, construction on the season that was finished when Milwaukee lost Game 4 of the NLDS to Philadelphia.

So, it's time to add up the pluses and minuses.

The market dictated that Melvin overpay Gagne, but obviously it wasn't money well-spent, although the latter performed well down the stretch. The Riske signing, also because of injury, doesn't look good after year one. And the Cameron deal was 50-50 in my book. And Melvin deserves some of the blame for the continuing struggles of Weeks and Bill Hall.

However, except for a dismal stretch, Mota was serviceable and it got Estrada out of town, Torres and Kendall proved valuable, Kapler was a refreshing, feel-good addition, and the Sabathia blockbuster was an A.

Final grade: B

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