The cost of winning: Brewers payroll continues to climb
Sitting alone behind a table of microphones in the media room prior to first pitch on Opening Day, Milwaukee Brewers principal owner Mark Attanasio couldn't help but smile.
It was similar to the grin his manager, Ron Roenicke, unsuccessfully tried to stifle the day before when talking about this Brewers team.
And why not?
Despite a consensus among national prognosticators that pegged his team no better than third in the National League Central, the owner of the reigning division champions felt good about a roster that lost only one key cog in its lineup and returned the same starting rotation from a 96-win season a year ago.
"If you compare last year's team, at this point, and this year's team, I think this year's team is better," said Attanasio, the gold accents in his navy Brewers tie shining nearly as brightly as his eyes. "If we can stay healthy and we perform to expectations, we're going to be a very tough team."
To help offset the loss of Prince Fielder, Attanasio authorized the signing of free agent third baseman Aramis Ramirez (three years, $36 million). He allowed general manager Doug Melvin to upgrade the defense with the signing of shortstop Alex Gonzalez (one year, $4.25 million, with a $4 million vesting option for 2013).
He posted $2.5 million just to talk to Japanese outfielder Norichika Aoki, and then hooked the three-time Central League batting champion with a two-year, $2.5 million deal.
He said he was excited when reliever Francisco Rodriguez accepted arbitration for another $8 million.
The Brewers payroll has pushed to near – or above – $100 million for the first time, nearly four times the payroll of the organization in 2004, a year before Attanasio bought the team.
"That comes with winning," Melvin said simply. "When you win, you gotta play the players if you want to continue to try to win and be competitive. If you don't, you tell people you may have to take a step backwards."
It's a number that is inching halfway to the $223 million purchase price of the entire franchise back in 2005, but Forbes recently listed the franchise value at $448 million.
"It's not always about the money but there are times when you feel you have to spend the money to remain competitive and to try and get to the postseason," Melvin said. "There's no doubt that Mark has been very supportive in where we've put our payroll."
Player salaries across baseball are rising, especially for teams that win. And make no mistake; the Brewers have been winning under Attanasio's stewardship.
In his seven seasons, the Brewers have won 51 percent of their games (582-552), posted four years with a .500-record or better, made the playoffs twice and won a postseason series.
Attanasio calls it "fundamentally competitive."
Fans can call it a renaissance.
The last time the organization had such sustained success was the seven-year stretch from 1986 to 1992 when the team went 585-548 with five seasons with a .500-record or better. But, without the wildcard, the team never made a playoff appearance.
Melvin says he is continuing to have talks with free agent-to-be Zack Greinke, and whether or not the former Cy Young winner re-signs can go a long way in determining whether this age of Brewers baseball is similar to what Milwaukee got used to in the 15-year period from 1978 to 1992 when the team won 90 games five times and posted a .500 record or better 11 total times.
But even if, like Fielder, Greinke prices himself out of Milwaukee, Attanasio has proven how far the organization has come since it signed Jeff Suppan to a $42 million, four-year contract in 2006.
Now, players want to come to Milwaukee, evidenced by Ramirez and Gonzalez.
Players want to stay in Milwaukee, evidenced by Ryan Braun and Rickie Weeks.
"There's been a sea change in that," Attanasio said. "I know there was a lot of conversation back when Jeff Suppan signed – and Jeff pitched a lot innings for us and quite well for a few years – but at that point one of the things I was trying to do was just get on the board with a free agent because we would call agents and they would basically 'well, we'll get back to you,' which is their way of saying 'We're not interested.' Now the calls are coming inbound to us from players and their agents, both players who are outside of the organization and players here. Players are generally interested in staying, and that feels good."
The $100 million mark in payroll is only as significant as any given individual wants it to be. It doesn't mean much beyond the ink it's printed on or the server space it's coded into, really.
What matters is the dedication Attanasio has to winning. That's been proven, now, both in in the standings and on the balance sheet.
"It's a function of our confidence in this team. If we didn't feel as confident on the field, we wouldn't be spending money like this," he said, smiling. "Were definitely trying to win, there's no doubt about it."
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