Here's a club in the second division of the NL Central with a message of hope.

Brewers: Melvin raises the bar
By Dennis Semrau

Doug Melvin has earned a reputation for his shrewd wheeling and dealing while trying to rebuild the moribund Milwaukee Brewers franchise.

He also showed his dry wit while asking for forgiveness from the fans for trading the club's most popular player in each of the past three seasons.

But what endeared Melvin to baseball fans the most at the Dug-Out Club's 25th annual banquet at the Concourse Hotel Tuesday night was his passion for turning the Brewers into winners.

"I don't think people took us seriously because we weren't (over) .500. In the National League West, they were below .500 but a team at .500 could win the division. But because St. Louis was so far ahead and Houston's pitching, I don't think we were taken seriously," Melvin said of last season.

"We were in a pennant race. We expect to be in a pennant race again."
After 12 straight losing seasons and countless promises that this would be the year that the organization would turn things around, 2005 made believers out of its many skeptical fans.

Melvin, though, said last season's 81-81 finish is just the beginning.

"We all want the bar raised. The bar was pretty low," said Melvin, who drew a roar of approval when he said the best accomplishment a year ago was "we finished ahead of the Cubs."

"The bar was low enough that I challenge anybody to do the limbo," he added. "We made a lot of strides but we need to continue to build on those."

Rather than focus on the end of last season, Melvin said a recent conversation with manager Ned Yost centered around the progress made since last spring.

"There were a lot of big question marks last year," Melvin said. "I think we all feel a little bit better.

"We were in the wild card race until perhaps the last two weeks of the season. Going into Houston we were four games out. If we had swept them, we'd have been one game back."

Instead, the Brewers lost three straight to the Astros and had to settle for a .500 finish: not a winning season but not a losing one.

But Melvin said an indication the organization is headed in the right direction was the hiring of Hall of Famer Robin Yount, who played 20 seasons for the Brewers, to serve as the team's bench coach.

"For two years, I tried to convince him to come back. But he just didn't feel right about it. He didn't feel the team was headed in the right direction," Melvin said.

"But Ned finally wore him down in the off-season and he felt the timing was right to come back. He's like a rookie putting the uniform on. We're happy to have him back and I know I will get a thrill watching Robin run out to first base on Opening Day."

Melvin showed his sense of humor when he poked fun at himself for his penchant for trading the fans' favorite players.

"My first year on the job, I ended up trading Richie Sexson, who was the team's most popular player," he said of the trade that netted the club six players.

"The next year I go out and end up trading Scott Podsednik, again, the team's most popular player. I said, 'God, I can't be doing this every year."
But then again, why mess with success?

"So we get down to Dallas this year and all of a sudden I get an offer for Lyle Overbay and, I'm thinking, 'oh oh,'" Melvin said, drawing a hearty laugh from the crowd.

"So three years in a row I've had to go and trade the most popular player on the Brewers. So I hope we don't have a popular player but a popular team next year. Those are the tough deals."

Not as tough, though, as turning a stagnant franchise into a potential wild card team this season.

So don't expect Melvin, Yost and Co. to be satisfied with mediocrity.
"We're not going to be satisfied by being .500. It was important to get there. Now we need to take the next step and become a playoff contender," Melvin said.

Melvin likes the everyday lineup, which has a good mix of promising players like versatile infielder Bill Hall, shortstop J.J. Hardy, second baseman Rickie Weeks, first baseman Prince Fielder and outfielder Corey Hart, who gained valuable experience last year, along with solid veterans such as outfielders Carlos Lee, Brady Clark and Geoff Jenkins and catcher Damian Miller.

Third baseman Corey Koskie, whom Melvin stole from Toronto in an early January trade, provides another veteran presence. He has three years of postseason experience from his time with the Minnesota Twins.

But it is the pitching staff - one that was loaded with question marks last spring - that gives Melvin the most optimism.

The starting rotation a year ago entering spring training was Ben Sheets, Doug Davis and flip a coin.

While Sheets is coming off a shoulder muscle injury that cost him the final five weeks of the season, Melvin said he is recovering well.

The steady Davis, who ranked fifth in the NL in strikeouts a year ago; lefty Chris Capuano, who won 18 games last year; and Tomo Ohka, who has filed for salary arbitration, round out a solid starting quartet.

Former 20-game winner Rick Helling, off-season acquisition Dave Bush - picked up in the Overbay trade - and lefty Dana Eveland will vie for the fifth starting spot.

After sending All-Star closer Dan Kolb to Atlanta a year ago, the bullpen was full of holes. But a year later, Melvin can turn to Derrick Turnbow as the closer and Matt Wise and the reacquired Kolb as setup men.

Budgeting for playoff tickets, it seems, is no longer a pipe dream.

"A club like ours, a lot things have to go right," cautioned Melvin, who won't put a number on the victories he expects the club to earn this season. "You've got to have a lot of guys have good seasons and your best players have to have good seasons."

Some luck would help, too.