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Brewers: A team that won’t go away

By Paul Sullivan Chicago Tribune (MCT) • Dec 17, 2015 at 6:58 PM

Everyone keeps waiting for the Brewers to fall on their faces, pointing to the Pirates’ young talent and the Cardinals’ pitching.

Sooner or later, the experts say, the cheeseheads will get moldy, and it’ll be time for Wisconsin to give its undivided attention to the Packers again.

But as manager Ron Roenicke has his team to Wrigley Field for series against the Cubs, the Brew Crew is still standing, leading the Cardinals and the Pirates as of Sunday night in one of the most intriguing races in baseball.

Deal with it, America.

This is a team Cubs fans would love to call their own, a collection of blue-collar types who don’t impress on paper but know how to play the game together. The Brewers even managed to tick off tightly wound Cardinals manager Mike Matheny with a video touting the All-Star credentials of catcher Jonathan Lucroy, taking some light-hearted jabs at the Cardinals organization.

While Ryan Braun is their only big star, their MVP is Lucroy, by far the best bargain in baseball. He signed a five-year, $11 million deal before the 2012 season and is making only $2 million this year. Yet he began Sunday ranked third in National League hitting (.312), second in doubles (38), sixth in hits (129) and ninth in on-base average (.377).

The Brewers are doing it with smart moves by general manager Doug Melvin and solid managing by Roenicke. They have a franchise-record payroll of $103 million, a $15 million boost over last year, but still rank only 16th in the majors. Over the years they’ve been unable to retain superstars like CC Sabathia and Prince Fielder.

Like the A’s, the Brewers have to grow their own, make some economically sensible signings and try to win before the window closes and they’re too expensive to re-sign.

“You shouldn’t evaluate a player on how much money he makes, but it’s the system we have,” Melvin said. “When Prince Fielder hit 50 homers for us, we paid him $450,000. And when he hit 28 homers, we paid him $14 million.

“I would rather have paid Prince Fielder $6 million the year after he hit 50 instead of $450,000 and have had a chance to keep him later on.”

Braun makes only $10 million this year and $12 million in 2015 before his five-year, $105 million extension kicks in in 2016. But he’s a homegrown product, and the likelihood of the Brewers adding another $100 million player to the roster is slim.

“Probably not,” Melvin said. “But we don’t worry about it. It’s starting to get to a point, you can only have so many of those on 25-man rosters.

“There’s an old scouts’ saying — ‘If he’s a good player, we didn’t pay him enough, and if he’s not a good player, we paid him too much.’ Very simple, but that’s what it comes down to. Going into the offseason, we know what list of free agents we’ll be involved with.”

The Brewers lost 88 games last year, so expectations weren’t exactly high in spring training. They’d added Matt Garza to the rotation on a four-year, $50 million deal, got Braun back from his PED suspension and were counting on a healthier Aramis Ramirez, who missed 70 games last year with a left knee injury.

Melvin had to count on little moves paying big dividends. In spring training, the Brewers re-signed reliever Francisco Rodriguez and first baseman Mark Reynolds to minor league deals. Rodriguez turned into their closer and was tied for the National League lead with 35 saves Sunday, while Reynolds had 19 home runs.

They didn’t make a splash at the trade deadline, getting Diamondbacks outfielder Gerardo Parra, a Gold Glover who had a .305 OBP in Arizona.

Whether it all works out remains to be seen. They can’t afford any significant injuries, but Garza went on the disabled list with a strained oblique. He had the same injury with the Cubs in 2013 and missed seven weeks but allegedly will be back sooner with the Brewers.

With Garza out, Roenicke turned to 29-year-old Mike Fiers, whose arm was broken by a line drive last year in Nashville. Fiers outdueled Dodgers All-Star Zack Greinke on Saturday at Miller Park in a series of division leaders the Brewers won 2-1.

“It’s always nice when a guy goes through quite a bit of adversity, bounces back and gets up here and has a game like that,” Roenicke said.

It doesn’t make sense, so go ahead and count these guys out.

They’ll thank you later.

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