Schlesinger discusses Brewers as camp lifts off

Milwaukee's COO is confident club will bounce back from tough '13 season

Schlesinger discusses Brewers as camp lifts off

From his office overlooking the field at Miller Park, Brewers chief operating officer Rick Schlesinger took part in a wide-ranging question-and-answer session with MLB.com about the team's prospects for 2014, its bottom line and some trends in Major League Baseball that could dictate where the franchise goes from here.

MLB.com: As one of the guys in charge of the bottom line, what was your reaction when the team committed $50 million to Matt Garza?

Rick Schlesinger: First and foremost, what I understand is that whether you're signing a pitcher or a hitter, anytime you're signing [a player] for that kind of money, there's risk. Of course there's risk of health; there's risk of performance. There are unknowns. You're dealing with human beings, especially with pitchers. The nature of throwing a fastball at 95 mph is going to do some violence to your arm, so there's always a risk.

That said, I think there is a commitment from ownership that we are a team that can be competitive -- very competitive. This is not a season where we are going to be an also-ran. If you look at our team, Mark [Attanasio, the Brewers' principal owner] and Doug [Melvin, general manager] and the baseball side are committed to being very good. I thought it was a great statement. It's a vote of confidence in our other 24 players by adding a guy like Matt Garza, who comes with great talent and certainly some risk, and that's true of everybody. So I was very excited and I was fully supportive, recognizing that in this business and with our franchise, we're going to have to take some risks. You don't ever achieve greatness without taking risks.

MLB.com: We get into trouble when we start talking about payroll, because there are so many different ways to measure it. But in general, is the payroll beyond what you expected going into this offseason, and, generally, where is [that number] going to be?

Schlesinger: You're absolutely right that there are so many different ways to measure payroll, and it's not that people are playing games. It's, how do you look at deferred salaries? What about incentives? What about other factors in how you look at contracts? I can tell you this: Whatever our payroll finally is, it's going to be an all-time Brewers record as of the start of the season. We are invested. With Matt Garza and raises to our existing players ... we will have the highest payroll in Brewers history.

The way I look at it, you look at the growth of the industry, in general, and how we're doing in revenues, locally, and it makes sense. Mark has always said, "Listen, I'm going to take every cent I can and invest it back into the stadium and invest it back in the players."

The fans over the years have supported us, the national-television dollars are increasing, the health of the game, from a revenue perspective, has never been greater, so it's only natural and fitting that we use those moneys to invest in our product.

I think fans have a correct instinct that, yes, payroll should be going up. With the way our team is constituted, we should have a payroll that stretches us. I don't want to have a payroll where it's very comfortable that, no matter what happens, we're going to have a positive income. I want us to be challenged as a business. ... And we go for it and take risks and stretch ourselves from a financial perspective in a rational way. That's what our fans want. I want to be in that position, to stretch ourselves financially so we have a chance to win a World Series."

MLB.com: So if it's an all-time record, we're taking about a payroll north of $100 million?

Schlesinger: Yes. I think no matter how you look at it, it's going to be north of $100 million. No matter how you measure it, and there are a lot of ways to measure it. I can tell you that it's going to be north of $100 million.

MLB.com: How is the recent boom in local television contracts changing the game?

Schlesinger: We're still waiting to see, but there's no question about it, that that the explosion in local cable television deals is having some major implications. It obviously is causing teams to be able to spend more for players, and in your local market, you want that. The average fan wants the team in their local market to have the best chance of winning. ...

My concern at the Brewers, obviously, is not to have a situation where [between] the haves and have nots, there's such a dichotomy that there is a lack of competitive balance. We've been fortunate in baseball that we've done some things to improve competitive balance. If you look at teams in the last seven or eight years, the Oaklands, the Tampa Bays, they have small payrolls and they made the postseason. The Brewers have made the postseason twice, and we are certainly aren't a top revenue team. My concern is, let's not lose the momentum created by those young, inexpensively produced teams making the postseason, [and create an environment] where you only have five or six or eight teams that realistically have a chance. That's going to be a problem.

If it becomes a problem, I have a lot of confidence that the industry is going to address it, but what you're talking about is a very real scenario. It's happening. We have to figure out, as an industry, how to deal with it. We don't want to lose the incentive for teams in big markets to generate large dollars. They should. They're in big markets, their assets are very expensive, and they should draw big television dollars. How do we split that up so there is more equitable distribution? You're going to get a lot of different opinions, but I have a lot of confidence that the industry is going to figure it out, because competitive balance makes every franchise more valuable.

MLB.com: You have been firm in not revealing details of the Brewers' television deal, but it could help fans understand what the team is up against. Can you say anything about how much longer this current contract lasts, and what sort of number you're looking at for the next deal?

Schlesinger: The reason I can't be too specific is we have a confidentiality agreement with our partner, FOX Sports Wisconsin, and as a lawyer, I take confidentiality agreements very seriously. That's why you're not going to see the Brewers out there talking about specifics of our deal. ...

Certainly, [the Brewers' contract] is one of the smallest in baseball, but I'll tell you this: We have ticket revenue that's higher than a lot of other teams, simply because we are able to draw so well. At the same time we have a small television deal, we've drawn 3 million fans three times in the last six years. Very few franchises can say that, so I don't look at our television deal and say, 'Woe is me.' I look at the totality of our collective revenues, and from ticket revenues, sponsorships, suites and television and radio and all the other ancillary revenues, we can be competitive. It's not as easy for us. We can't just throw away $100 million or $150 million on a pitcher -- we're never going to do that -- but we can be competitive, aggressive, thoughtful, strategic. We're going to have to make fewer mistakes than other teams, but again, Tampa Bay has figured it out, Oakland has figured it out. There are ample opportunities for small-market or mid-market teams to be successful, and that's our goal. We don't look at what we don't have; we look at the opportunities we do have.

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"I think with the way we are situated with the talent on our field, we should be competitive all the way through, and that means playing very meaningful games in September."
-- Brewers COO Rick Schlesinger, on expectations for 2014

MLB.com: With pitchers and catchers arriving in Arizona this week, you're in a series of one-year options with the city of Phoenix at Maryvale Baseball Park. Where do you see the future of Brewers Spring Training? Is there a possibility of moving into a new facility as other teams have done?

Schlesinger: We've looked into it. Bob Quinn, our chief financial officer, has been taking the lead, and we've had a lot of discussions with a lot of different partners and a lot of different government entities. I don't want to get into specifics, because those conversations and discussions are really meant to be confidential. Candidly, it's in the Brewers' best interest to keep things confidential.

But, as you said, we are in a series of one-year options. That gives us to flexibility to stay in Maryvale if we so choose, and also gives us the flexibility to explore. So we are having exploratory discussions. There are things that are very positive about Maryvale and the site, there are things that obviously that we look elsewhere. The trend in baseball is new Spring Training facilities, so we're looking into that. Who knows what the future is going to be, but the focus is having the best environment for our players, and also having a great environment to watch the games. We're confident, whether it's Maryvale or another site, that we are going to be able to reach that point.

MLB.com: There is this sense that because Mark Attanasio is from Los Angeles, the Brewers will stay in Arizona. Is that accurate?

Schlesinger: You know what, let me put it this way: We're looking at Arizona. That's where we've been for our entire history. But I will tell you that Mark has said, 'Listen, whether I have to fly an hour and a half to Phoenix or longer to Florida, the reality is, what is the best situation for us?' He is very sensitive to finding the best environment for players.

A lot of players will tell you that the Phoenix location is good because there is less distance between the teams and less travel and less time on buses than Florida. People will also tell you that the weather in Phoenix in spring is more conducive. Less rain, more likely for games to be played. But that doesn't mean there aren't opportunities elsewhere. I think, candidly, there are a lot of good things about Phoenix. The Cactus League is very vibrant. But if an opportunity presented itself in Florida that made sense for us, Mark is not going to say, 'Well, because it's a longer flight for me, personally, I'm not going to do that.' He does not think that way.

MLB.com: What about here at Miller Park? What is the next big infrastructure project?

Schlesinger: That's a good question, because one of the things we do internally is every year we do our research and diligence and come up with 10-15 possible upgrades to Miller Park. It could be anything from the scoreboard to the Wall of Honor recognizing the Brewers of the past, to new sponsor areas.

What we're running into, and I think it's a good problem to have, is we're running out of space. I think we've done a nice job using ownership funds to enhance the ballpark, but there is only so much we can do. We don't want to take away from the ultimate character of Miller Park. The concourses are wide and open, and I don't want to clutter the ballpark or put in things that are inconsistent with the look and feel of Miller Park. So I've got a lot of ideas for 2015-16, but a lot depends on what kind of space we have. As we start to get the interior of the ballpark full, maybe [the club will explore] things on the plaza, maybe things in the parking lots. There are always technology upgrades we're looking at. We just put a new scoreboard in, but soon enough, we'll have a conversation about the next generation of scoreboards. The good thing is there's no shortage of projects. Mark and the ownership group have been great about giving us the funds to do it.

MLB.com: Do you see the area around Miller Park developing in terms of restaurants and bars in the Canal Street area and down in the Menomonee Valley?

Schlesinger: It hasn't been a primary focus for us because we've been focusing on the ballpark experience when fans get here. I think a lot of folks have a lot of different views. Some feel that building sort of a second downtown would create traffic and other issues. Other people think, yeah, Miller Park ... could really create a nice environment [for development]. I'm not saying no, and we're certainly paying attention to what's going on in St. Louis with Ballpark Village.

But that's a downtown ballpark. I think Miller Park, the character we have here is important. I don't want to get away from having ample parking lots for tailgating. That is a quintessential Miller Park experience, and we're not going to do anything that takes away from that experience. So that limits us in some respect to what we can do and what we're going to do, but I never say never. We have a long-term lease here, and there's a lot of land and a lot of [opportunity for] development. What comes in the future remains to be seen.

MLB.com: From your perspective, has Ryan Braun done what he needs to do?

Schlesinger: That's an easy answer, because to me it's not what Rick Schlesinger thinks or Mark Attanasio thinks or Doug Melvin thinks. It's what our fan base here in Wisconsin thinks. I don't worry so much about what the national press is saying about Ryan, or what fans in Philadelphia or Los Angeles are saying about Ryan. I care what our fans in Wisconsin say, and they are going to be making the ultimate judgment. Has he made steps? Absolutely. Does he need to continue to make steps? Absolutely. Does he need to continue to perform on the field? Absolutely. It's not just one thing, it's a totality of things that Ryan needs to do.

I expect a big year from him on the field. I expect him to continue to do things in the community. I do think he's contrite. I think he's made that clear, and I think the reality is we'll see how fans respond. We saw at Brewers On Deck, the fans obviously were very excited except for one person who made a little bit of a heckle -- and I respect that -- Ryan was well received. It's not just 2014; this is going to take time, and we probably won't know until Ryan is long retired whether he has done everything he needed to do to fully rehabilitate himself.

MLB.com: You're obviously biased because you're sitting in an office overlooking the field at Miller Park, but what do you think are the realistic expectations for this team in 2014?

Schlesinger: I think with the way we are situated with the talent on our field, we should be competitive all the way through, and that means playing very meaningful games in September. I'm not going to sit here and say that we're going to make the playoffs. I don't want to be one of those guys who promises and then we fall a game short. But our team is constituted to be competitive all the way through, and when you get into September and you're in the race, factors come in such as luck, injury, intangibles.

I just want us to be playing a meaningful game on the last day of the year. We had that in 2011, obviously, when we won the division. In 2012, we were a game out with a week to go. In 2013, we didn't have that situation, and it was a tough year. I do not think we're going to have another 2013. I think we are more talented than what we showed, and I think we are going to have more health, simply because I don't know how it could be much worse.

Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Brew Beat, and follow him on Twitter at @AdamMcCalvy. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.