Packers vs. Brewers

Darryl Krejci makes an interesting comparison of the Packers to not other NFL teams, but the pro team on the other end of future Interstate 41:

Two years ago when the Brewers made their postseason run they did so on the backs of two primary players and numerous key contributors.  The Brewers had two primary stars in Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder and personalities like Nyjer Morgan and Craig Counsell cementing the bench.

The chemistry that the team had that year propelled them to the National League Championship Series.  Afterward, Prince left for big money from Detroit, Braun was plagued by PED accusations and Morgan and Counsel moved on.

Since then the Brewers have stumbled to sub-par performances.  The reason for this is that they no longer have multiple star players to build the team around and the role players who brought personality and a spark to the team are gone.  Plus injuries have created a hole from which they have not been able to crawl.

What does this have to do with the Packers?

Well the comparison is what is important. The Packers have two star players in Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews.  Both who have now been locked up in long-term deals – cementing the foundation that is necessary for a prolonged run at success.  Secondly, they have continued to maintain key and valuable supporting pieces in the likes of guys like Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, Sam Shields and Tramon Williams and then the influx of current rookies Datone Jones, Eddie Lacy, and Jonathan Franklin who have bolstered the ranks.

Depth and more importantly solid key role players have continued to foster the necessary support that has sustained success for the Packers.  When you compare this to the Brewers after their NLCS run, it is evident that the loss of Fielder and the lack of significant role players in the rotation and in the field have caused the Brewers to become less than successful.  If the Brewers would have been able to keep Fielder and Braun, I truly believe success would have continued.  If you look at the fact that Detroit was able to secure Fielder, coupled with the play of Miguel Cabrera as he took the Triple Crown, it is no wonder why the Tigers have been successful while the Brewers have fallen apart.

I believe that in order for a team to be successful, there needs to be at least two primary stars.  In the case of the Packers you have Rodgers and Matthews (back in the 90s, you had Brett Favre and Reggie White).  Then you include key pieces and characters who help to create the chemistry and environment that is conducive to winning.  Most importantly, you jettison those players that can no longer contribute or factor in the long-term growth of the team.

When you use this overview for a team to have success and apply it to the other teams in the NFC North, no team has the same nucleus and supporting players that can sustain the type of success the Packers have.

Krejci’s comparison is interesting, but I’m not sure how much you can compare the Packers and Brewers, because I’m not sure how much you can compare the NFL and Major League Baseball.

The Packers’ player approach under general manager Ted Thompson has been to develop from within. Regardless of the sport, developing your own means you don’t need to spend money chasing free agents. The downside is that when players want to make more, or have a bigger role, than the than the team agrees upon, they leave. Greg Jennings goes to Minnesota; Prince Fielder goes to Detroit. (As did, by the way, Cabrera, originally with the Florida Marlins.)

The problem with baseball’s build-from-within approach is that baseball player development is considerably less exact than pro football’s, because of the existence of college football. NFL teams draft players who are 21 or so years old, and have such measurable skills as 40-yard dash times, weights able to be lifted and jump heights. Baseball teams draft three groups of players — high school graduates, college players, and players from outside the U.S. Trying to predict the future of 18-year-olds and those you didn’t see develop in the U.S. is inexact, as demonstrated by the number of top draft picks who don’t hit against or throw one pitch in the major leagues.

You may not remember, in the Brewers’ case, shortstops Tommy Bianco and Isaiah Clark, first baseman Dan Thomas, third basemen Gordon Powell and Anthony Williamson, outfielders David Krynzel and Chad Green, catcher Nick Hernandez, or pitchers Butch Edge, Richard O’Keefe, Tyrone Hill and J.M. Gold. All were Brewers’ number one draft picks. Not one played a single inning for the Brewers or any other MLB team.

The legendary Brewers’ teams of the late 1970s and early 1980s had three number one picks, shorstop-turned-outfielder Gorman Thomas, shortstop/center fielder Robin Yount and shortstop-turned-outfielder-turned-infielder Paul Molitor. First-round picks that followed Yount and Molitor included shortstop Dale Sveum (now the Cubs’ manager), relief pitcher Dan Plesac, shortstop-turned-catcher B.J. Surhoff, outfielder Gary Sheffield, infielder Bill Spiers, starting pitcher Cal Eldred, outfielder Geoff Jenkins, and starting pitcher Ben Sheets. The current team includes two number-one picks, second baseman Rickie Weeks and outfielder Ryan Braun. Do the math, and between 1970 and now that’s not that many number one picks to start. (Or stay, in the case of Surhoff, Sheffield and Spiers.)

More broadly, the best Brewers teams were as much built by acquisition than by development. The home grown Brewers besides Yount, Molitor and Thomas were catcher-turned-right fielder Charlie Moore, second baseman Jim Gantner and third baseman-turned-designated hitter Don Money. Outfielder Sixto Lezcano and pitcher Lary Sorenson were Brewers until they were traded away to bring in catcher Ted Simmons, starting pitcher Pete Vuckovich and reliever Rollie Fingers. Also brought in were first baseman Cecil Cooper, third baseman Sal Bando, outfielder-turned-DH Larry Hisle, third baseman-turned-DH Roy Howell, and left fielder Ben Oglivie, plus pitchers Mike Caldwell, Randy Lerch, Doc Medich and Don Sutton.

The 2011 Brewers, which got to the National League Championship Series, added a lot to their core of Braun, Fielder, Weeks, outfielder Corey Hart and Gallardo, acquiring, before the season, pitchers Shawn Marcum and Zack Greinke and outfielders Mark Kotsay and Nyjer Morgan, and, during the season, reliever Francisco Rodriguez and infielder Jerry Hairston Jr. All of those players subsequently left, though Rodriguez is now back.

This year’s team has Braun, Weeks, Hart and Gallardo, plus catcher Jonathan Lucroy (a rookie on the 2011 team) from the farm system. They traded for center fielder Carlos Gomez and shortstop Jean Segura, signed third baseman Aramis Ramirez from the Cubs and right fielder Norichika Aoki from Japan, signed pitcher Kyle Lohse as a free agent, and, well, have never really replaced Fielder.

One thing the 2008 and 2011 teams had that this one doesn’t (besides major-league-quality pitching) is important veteran backups, guys who could perform well when called upon, even if not often. Fourth outfielder Gabe Kapler was invaluable for the 2008 Brewers. So were Kotsay, Hairston and Morgan  for the 2011 Brewers; in fact, Morgan ended up starting in center field because the guy who was supposed to play center, Carlos Gomez, couldn’t hit, and Hairston played a lot of infield because Weeks got hurt and their shortstop and third basemen underperformed at the plate..

One thing you may notice in the previous few paragraphs is a lack of mention of homegrown pitching. The top non-acquired starter for the  ’81 Brewers was Moose Haas, who started one game each in the ALCS and World Series. The late ’80s Brewers teams that contended included starters Higuera, Chris Bosio and Bill Wegman to start games to go with Plesac to finish them. Eldred and Sheets were the Brewers’ number one pitchers until their arms gave out, which should be an object lesson for fans of Yovani Gallardo.

The Brewers’ biggest failures in player development have been in the game’s most important area, pitching. Were it not for the ability of former general manager Harry Dalton to deal for veteran pitching, the late ’70s and early ’80s Brewers would have been known as teams that scored a lot of runs and gave up more runs. The 2008 Brewers got to the playoffs on the left arm of mid-season acquisition C.C. Sabathia, who then left for the Yankees.

(Since the Brewers have been unsuccessful in developing more than one starting pitcher at a time, one wonders if it’s a systemic problem. Atlanta had an embarrassment of riches in pitching in the ’90s, nearly all developed in the Braves’ farm system. Baltimore was great at developing pitching in the ’60s and ’70s, and the Los Angeles Dodgers have usually been successful at developing their own pitching. The Brewers? Not so much.)

There are two big additional differences between baseball and football. The latter has 16-game regular seasons; the former has 162-game seasons at the major league level, and 140 or so at the minor-league level. You’d think that after even a 14o-game season teams should know if someone can play at the major league level, but that’s apparently not the case. Players usually take at least three years to get from the minors to the majors, and major league rookies in their late 20s are not unheard of, particularly pitchers. (The Brewers’ 2004 first-round pick, pitcher Mark Rogers, is still in the Brewers’ farm system, having gone through repeated injuries while in the minors.)

The other major difference, as I’ve discussed here before, is the economics of baseball. There is a huge gulf in team revenue between big-market teams (the Yankees and Dodgers) and small-market teams (the Brewers). Revenue isn’t everything (if it was, the Cubs would be contenders every year, and their lack of World Series title since 1908 and World Series berth since 1945 shows otherwise), but being able to eat your player acquisition mistakes as the Yankees can makes life much easier. If baseball were serious about competitive balance, it would (1) share nearly all revenue, not just ticket and national broadcast revenue, and (2) institute a hard salary cap. Baseball is apparently perfectly fine with teams like the Kansas City Royals and Pittsburgh Pirates never being contenders, and bigger-market teams snapping up free agents from smaller-market teams that have successful seasons (for instance Sabathia signing with the Yankees and Greinke signing with the Dodgers).

Baseball teams can build from within as the Packers have, but free agents and trades have  to have a larger role than in football, and the margin for error is far smaller.

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