Milwaukee Brewers principal owner Mark Attanasio (left) and general manager David Stearns talk to reporters at a news conference before their team's home opener Monday at Miller Park. Mark Hoffman/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. 636582816455717625-MJS …
There was a time when Mark Attanasio tried to explain what he calls the “calculus” of operating a small-market franchise, with the financial constraints that come with it.
It didn’t take long for the Milwaukee Brewers principal owner to discover that few people really, truly care.
“My favorite comment, and I’ll never forget, was, ‘Hey, Mark, how about some cheese with that whine?’ ” Attanasio said with a laugh Monday morning in his traditional media session before the home opener at Miller Park.
In other words, the Brewers never are going to be able to spend money with their NL Central rivals in Chicago, where the Cubs practically are printing money in the basement. That means Attanasio and his ownership group have to spend wisely, and general manager David Stearns has to avoid egregious contract mistakes that will hamstring him.
Attanasio and Stearns are OK with that. They did splurge over the winter with the nearly simultaneous acquisitions of outfielders Lorenzo Cain, who signed an $80 million free-agent deal, and Christian Yelich, acquired via trade with some $58 million remaining on his contract, including a club option.
Spending that much money to boost their offense meant $100 million deals for pitchers Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta were out of the question, no matter how much speculation surfaced to the contrary. Attanasio and Stearns want some flexibility for in-season acquisitions, should the Brewers be in the thick of the playoff race, as they expect.
“We’re always prepared to lose money,” Attanasio said of spending more on players than revenues might warrant. “David has the discipline where he asks for a budget and I say no, then he asks for a budget and I say no, then I finally give him a budget.
“We look at what we need to do for the team, then look at what we think the attendance might be. The math almost never works to say, ‘We’ll add this player and make it up with attendance.’ We just focus on the baseball side of things and then readjust the business budget, not in the other direction.”
The Brewers rely heavily on ticket sales in their market, and Attanasio said the season-ticket base is up 20% from a year ago. The current budget is based on a projected attendance of 2.7 million but the team’s baseball boss said that figure could rise if a banner first-half showing gooses it.
After stripping the team of veterans to rebuild the roster nearly from scratch, the Brewers operated the past two years with an opening day payroll below $60 million, lowest in the majors. They boosted it to $90 million or so this year ($100 million if you include other commitments) but that still ranks in the bottom five in the big leagues.
That’s the challenge faced by Attanasio and Stearns, and they aren’t cowering in a corner because of it. In fact, Attanasio made it clear he never would lower his expectations because of budgetary constraints.
“From what I’ve read, the criticism of me is I want to win too much and I push too hard on the general managers to add players,” said Attanasio, who remains in constant telephone contact with Stearns when the two are physically apart.
“We punch above our weight. I don’t think we behave or think like a small market. We know we’re not a large market.”
But what about the starting pitcher that the entire outside world, seemingly, screamed for the Brewers to acquire after adding Cain and Yelich? Do the Brewers really think they have enough experienced starting pitching? They say yes.
Milwaukee Brewers fans talk about what makes Opening Day so special, including a couple who met on Opening Day and became engaged on Opening Day. Mark Hoffman/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
“Mark’s always been supportive of our baseball initiatives,” Stearns said. “Whenever we’ve come to him with a signing or transaction or trade, regardless of what the financial pieces of those deals have been, if we want to do it from a baseball sense, Mark has been supportive.
“We also understand we want to win for multiple years. This is a longer-term strategy. Our core focus is to create a team and organization that can compete consistently in this division, a very well-run division, and in certain cases, a very well-financed division.
“We want to be competitive in this division, year in and year out. So, in some respect, discipline and maybe restraint does come into play there. Making sure we are setting the foundation for long-term success is a priority of mine.”
Should the Brewers be in the market for in-season help for the playoff push, Attanasio will have financial resources at the ready. The bigger question, he said, might be the cost in terms of minor-league talent.
“The biggest challenge is going to be for David in terms of the kind of prospects he might be willing to let go of, or not being willing to let go of,” Attanasio said. “It’s as much as how we’re going to balance the prospects.
“Even after the Christian Yelich trade, we have a very, very strong farm system. And a lot of players who may help us this year. So, it’s going to be that balance for a team that expects to compete for a number of years, not this year.”
As for competing with the big-budget Cubs, Stearns said, “We all get into the industry understanding it’s not a completely even playing field. We have to be OK with that. We’re certainly not going to use that as any kind of excuse.
“Both of us, and our entire organization, firmly believe we can and will win here. So, with that mind set, it’s not productive for us to spend time focusing on anybody else.”
Vogt making progress: Sidelined since March 12 by a right-shoulder strain, Stephen Vogt is inching closer toward being cleared to begin throwing full-throttle.
“Feeling good. It’s progressing really well,” Vogt said on Monday morning, shortly after completing a plyometric throwing regimen. “I’m seeing the doctor later today and then hopefully that’ll push things forward a little bit.
“The pain from the initial injury has kind of subsided. Now it’s just kind of getting the shoulder into shape after five weeks of no throwing. Build up that progression. I went into this injury strong and I’m still feeling very strong, so it should progress.”
Vogt put himself through a rigorous off-season throwing regimen only to suffer through several stops and starts in spring training brought about by his shoulder, which he initially aggravated early in camp.
There was speculation initially that the Brewers might not keep Vogt, who came into camp on a one-year, $3.065 non-guaranteed contract. But, valuing his left-handed bat and veteran presence, instead placed him on the disabled list to open the season while going with Jett Bandy as the backup to Manny Piña.