A conversation with GM Doug Melvin

A conversation with GM Doug Melvin

SAN DIEGO -- Mark Attanasio and Doug Melvin sat glumly in the back of the press box on Sunday afternoon, looking like someone had just stolen their Dodger Dogs.

The Brewers' principal owner and general manager, respectively, had just watched the team get swept away in a three-game series at Dodger Stadium, Milwaukee's fifth loss in its last six games. Ben Sheets had been scratched from the start with some shoulder stiffness (he will try again Thursday) and super-rookie Prince Fielder had left the game after tweaking his groin.

Still, Attanasio and Melvin left with their heads up. A fifth of the way through the season, the Brewers' record is even at 16-16, exactly where they stood in 2005 after 32 games. Last year, that was good for second in the National League Central, but this time the Brewers are fourth, five games back of upstart Cincinnati in what is proving to be one of the tougher divisions in baseball.

Before busing to San Diego with the rest of the team, Melvin sat down with MLB.com for a brief progress report.

MLB.com: After making 34 starts in three straight seasons, Sheets seems snake-bitten with injuries during the past two years. Are you concerned that these setbacks are starting to slow his upward rise?

Doug Melvin: Yeah, any injury hurts his progress. One of the advantages of Ben over the years is that he'll give you 200 innings, and now he's battled these injuries. You just hope he gets over them.

He's young enough that he can get over this, though. It may just be a bump in the road for him for a year or so.

MLB.com: You have been very tentative about giving pitchers multi-year contracts, even back to your days as the GM of the Rangers. Is Sheets a perfect example of why those deals are risky?

DM: Absolutely. You can do a history of all the long-term contracts with pitchers, and not many of them pay off. Greg Maddux is one of the few guys who gave his team the full value -- his performance and health didn't change dramatically. You can go through a lot of other guys -- Darren Dreifort, Russ Ortiz, Chan Ho Park, even A.J. Burnett and Roy Halliday recently -- have not necessarily. Those things happen -- that's the risk of pitching when you're talking about power-type arms.

MLB.com: Tomo Ohka went on the disabled list last week with a shoulder injury, Rick Helling is still weeks away from recovering from an elbow injury, and now Sheets is questionable. How do you feel about this team's pitching depth at this point?

DM: It's starting to get a little concerning. We had pretty good depth -- that was one of the keys with having Ohka as the fifth starter. Last year we turned it around when he started pitching really well for us. Now being short, it affects your bullpen, too.

We still have Dana Eveland [at Triple-A Nashville] and we could go to him. We'll wait and see here how things go with Sheets, but you're talking about a lot of innings to make up with guys like Ohka, Helling and Sheets. But it does give other guys opportunities to take key roles. [Relievers] Jose Capellan and Justin Lehr are guys who have a chance to step up out there. The big thing that happens is you go from experience to inexperience. That's the toughest part.

MLB.com: The other young pitchers in the Nashville rotation are Dennis Sarfate and Zach Jackson. Is the feeling that they still need time down there?

DM: Yeah. They're not ready yet. We hope we don't have injuries to the point where we need to go that far down.

MLB.com: Knowing what you know now about Sheets' balky shoulder, would you have called up Eveland last week instead of moving Ben Hendrickson into the rotation and calling up Jared Fernandez to serve as the long man in the bullpen?

DM: I don't think so. The thing right now is that Eveland is not matched up right now with the days we need him on. We felt that Eveland would only have pitched Saturday, and then not again for a week. Now we may adjust again with Eveland [who is scheduled to start Tuesday for Nashville] this week to have him ready in case Ben can't go.

MLB.com: Eveland is a guy who struggled in Spring Training and failed to win a spot in the rotation, but has gone down to Triple-A and pitched with some purpose. What's been the difference for him?

"It's not something that we're focused on yet. We're focused on trying to play some consistent baseball and we don't want that stuff to be a distraction. ... You can never tell. You never know what someone might offer you in return for a player, so I guard myself against predicting those things. Ideally, he's a big part of our club. For us to win, he's a big part of our club right now."
-- Doug Melvin on whether Carlos Lee would be shown the door at the trade deadline

DM: The best thing we did was send him out early, instead of trying to have him straightened out in [Big lLeague] Spring Training. We let him go out and get straightened out on the Minor League side, and he did that. He's been very, very good. He's throwing strikes with all of his pitches -- I think he's only walked four guys. That's been the key.

MLB.com: Your offense has really struggled to consistently hit with runners in scoring position. Is it too early to conclude that it may be a problem this season?

DM: I think so. We'll get our timely hits, and we're probably blessed with more power than most clubs so we'll drive in some guys from first base. That doesn't show up when you're looking at hitting with runners in scoring position. But on the other hand we tend to strike out and we may not put the ball in play enough.

We definitely need to get more consistent with big hits like Billy Hall delivered Saturday night. We've done it in some games, but you need to do it on a more regular basis. The good thing is that we get a lot of men in scoring position -- more than a lot of clubs.

MLB.com: Has Prince Fielder exceeded expectations so far?

DM: I don't think it's so much that he's exceeded them as mush as it's happened quicker than we thought. I thought that he would be a good hitter for average. Everybody is looking for the power and I always said everybody forgot that he's just a good hitter.

The one thing we did think is that maybe he would go through four to six weeks of development and adjustment in the Big Leagues. It looked like that in the first 11 at-bats [when Fielder had no hits and seven strikeouts].

MLB.com: In seasons past, it might be a foregone conclusion that an impending free agent like Carlos Lee would be shown the door at the trade deadline. Do you see it as important, symbolically, that a player of his stature is not necessarily out the door?

DM: It's not something that we're focused on yet. We're focused on trying to play some consistent baseball and we don't want that stuff to be a distraction. ... You can never tell. You never know what someone might offer you in return for a player, so I guard myself against predicting those things. Ideally, he's a big part of our club. For us to win, he's a big part of our club right now.

MLB.com: Brady Clark is really struggling this season. Are you convinced it's just a slow start?

DM: I don't see any reason why he shouldn't be able to bounce back. It's the exact opposite of last year, when he got off to a great start and he just rode that highway of confidence the whole year. The big thing now is that he isn't off to a good start, and we have to get him back into it. He won't lose confidence -- he's one of the most confident guys in the world -- and we won't lose confidence with him, either.

But we're a deeper club now. Last year, we didn't have a Gabe Gross or a Billy Hall who could go out there to center field. So there's no sense ... if a guy is struggling a little bit, you might as well take the opportunity and run a hot bat out there.

MLB.com: There have been internal discussions in the past about Bill Hall as a potential long-term option in center field. Is it time for those discussions to pick up again?

Billy Hall could probably be an "everyday" a lot of things if he puts his mind to it. He's very talented and he probably could play any position and be good at it. It's too early to talk about [a permanent change]. This is the kind of club where players are going to be mixed and matched.

MLB.com: From what you've seen in the first five weeks, do you still believe that this team can be a playoff contender?

DM: Yeah, I think we have a chance. I look at the other divisions and, yes, it's early, but it appears the Wild Card could come out of the National League Central. We need to get a streak going and overcome this bump in the road with the pitching, but I think if you look around you see that we're as talented as any other club. We just need to find some consistency.

Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.