To describe May, 2013 as an awful month for the Milwaukee Brewers would not do it justice.
In fact, the Brewers were downright putrid, winning only six games the entire month. Their record in May was so bad (6-22) that it tied the worst month in franchise history: the August turned out by the 1969 Seattle Pilots, who ended the following season in bankruptcy, followed by a permanent road trip to become the Milwaukee Brewers.
The Brewers ended the month of April only a half game out of first place. The Brewers ended the month of May 15 games behind the St. Louis Cardinals, managing the impressive feat of losing 14.5 games in the standings in one month. Now that is a tailspin.
CoolStandings.Com currently gives the Brewers a 1 in 250 chance of making even the wild-card play-in game. GM Doug Melvin admitted there is no chance the Brewers will be buyers this year at the trade deadline. Rather, they will either be in a sell mode, seeking high-ceiling prospects a few years away, or keeping the assets they have, presumably only if they cannot get anything in return. In short, the Brewers are suddenly rebuilding, and are focusing on stocking up their farm system and developing controllable rotation talent.
But, rebuilding is a complicated topic in small markets like Milwaukee. As Wendy Thurm has noted, the Brewers, with their limited geographic reach, have one of the smallest television contracts in the league. Thus, the Brewers rely upon strong attendance to deliver profits for Mark Attanasio and his ownership group. In recent years, the Brewers’ attendance fortunately has been some of the most impressive in baseball, particularly in comparison to the size of the Milwaukee metropolitan area. Over the last five years, the Brewers have consistently approached or exceeded three million fans, despite challenging economic times. So, one thing the Brewers cannot afford is a collapse akin to the mere 1.7 million fans they drew in 2003 during a terrible season — not if they want to make the investments in future talent required to make the franchise a perennial contender.
So, the Brewers face an obvious challenge: the team needs to lose enough games to obtain a prime draft position, and thereby maximize its chances to draft a top-ceiling player with minimum bust potential. At the same time, the Brewers need to avoid losing in any drawn-out fashion, because a corresponding and sustained decline in attendance could hemorrhage desperately-needed cash from their balance sheet. As Ryan Topp and others have argued, this need to maintain attendance in the short term seems to be one reason why the Brewers have systematically traded away what previously was an excellent farm system, with the apparent goal of maintaining the aura of a competitive team.
How does one navigate this problem? Well, the best solution could be to experience a May like the Brewers just suffered. Doing so addresses two problems: (1) it abruptly puts the team on course to get a top 5 draft pick, and (2) it achieves this result so abruptly, and in this case so early in the season, that the fan base can still — at least in theory —enjoy much-improved baseball for the remainder of the season without jeopardizing that draft slot. In short, when you can take your medicine over the course of one month, instead of over an entire season, you really ought to do it.
As to the draft:
Thanks to May, the Brewers currently have the fifth-worst record in baseball at 23–37. As of the morning of June 8, 2013, FanGraphs predicted that the Brewers will end the season tied for baseball’s fourth-worst record with the New York Mets at 73–89. Provided that 2013’s top five draft picks all reach agreement with their teams, the Brewers are on pace for a top-5 draft slot in 2014.
The Brewers have not had a top-5 pick in the Rule 4 draft since 2005, when they picked some guy named Ryan Braun. Before 2013, the top five slots in the draft provided, among others, Buster Posey (#5, 2008), Stephen Strasburg (#1, 2009), Manny Machado (#3, 2010), Dylan Bundy (#4, 2011), and Byron Buxton (#2, 2012) — the types of superstar prospects the Brewers have been denied for years, and which they need to anchor their next generation of players. At the end of April, and before May occurred, the Brewers were on track for yet another mid-round pick slot.
As to the rest of the season:
It is unlikely that the Brewers will continue to suffer the combination of injuries and dreadful rotation pitching that helped ruin their May. FanGraphs seems to agree, predicting that the current Brewers roster (or something like it) will essentially play .500 baseball for the rest of the season, even while maintaining one of the five worst records in the game.
Average baseball is not contending baseball, but average baseball at least would offer Brewers fans — already pleased with Miller Park’s immunity from rain delays — a reasonable likelihood of seeing a win on any given day. In 2009, the Brewers were able to bring in over three million fans, despite finishing under .500 overall. In 2010, the Brewers ended up eight games under .500, but still brought in 2.7 million fans. It remains to be seen whether playing .500 baseball for the rest of the 2013 season would be sufficient to keep fans coming through the Miller Park turnstiles, but if so, the increasing remoteness of May could be a significant factor, particularly if the team can convince fans that “one bad month” does not represent the current Miller Park experience or true caliber of the team.
Of course, it is also possible that the Brewers will be able to trade significant assets at the deadline in exchange for the prospects Doug Melvin wants. If so, their projected record could, and probably would decline. (This is necessarily not a bad thing, given that 68.5 wins is the average cut-off to secure a top 5 draft spot from 2003 through 2012). If that happens, the Brewers will have a further challenge on their hands in trying to provide even average baseball for their fans, and maintain the attendance they need.
That said, the Brewers’ remarkable close to 2012 — an incredible .610 winning percentage from August through October — was accomplished after trading away Zack Greinke and calling up minor league talent to plug gaps in the rotation left by Greinke’s trade and Shaun Marcum’s injuries. If the Brewers are once again able to make advantageous trades at the deadline, and also able to play even .500 ball for the rest of the year, they are still in a position to do so without hurting their chances to get the impact player they need in the 2014 Rule 4 draft.
If they can pull both of these things off, much of the thanks should be given to the horrible month of May.
Jonathan Judge has a degree in piano performance, but is now a product liability lawyer. He has written for Disciples of Uecker and Baseball Prospectus. Follow him on Twitter @bachlaw.