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Strange Brew, February 28, 2001

Congratulations to Milwaukee GM Dean Taylor, for, somehow, finding $4.1 million dollars (due 2002) in his couch.

Well, that's basically what he did. Taylor somehow, someway, convinced the Dodgers to take Marquis Grissom for Devon White. The two players are nearly identical: Both are centerfielders past their prime, suited for fourth-outfielder duties. But the catch, as usual, is in the accountant's ledger; while both make $5 million (jeez) this year, Grissom costs another 5 million bucks come 2002. White, on the other hand, has a buy-out for a comparatively low $900k. Congratulations, indeed, are due.

That is, unless Taylor uses that $4 mil plus to ink Jeromy Burnitz. Before the year is up -- and, for that matter, Burnitz's current contract - the Milwaukee slugger will be 32. The Associated Press reports that he and Taylor are close to a two-year extension, worth around $19 million, binding Burnitz to the Brewers through 2003. If Milwaukee were a current contender for even the Wild Card, the investment would be well worth it. Except the Brewers have as much of a chance as making the playoffs as spam has being served at a White House state dinner. At best, Milwaukee will play a few games over .500 this year.

With Ben Sheets, Geoff Jenkins, and Richie Sexson maturing, the Crew could be contenders in 2002, but 2003 is more likely. Burnitz will be 34 and cost eight figures. In 2000, Jeromy barely batted his weight -- .232 and 205, respectively. This accounted for much of his 151-point OPS tumble from the year prior; a falloff Burnitz attributes to his attention-splitting contract negotiations during the season. (The AP reports that he vowed to 'never discuss a contract with any organization again during the year.') At best, this makes him a risk for 2001, let alone 2003. At worst, well, let us just say the Brewers do not have ten million big-ones to blow on Henry Rodriguez-type numbers. It is a risk the Brewers simply cannot afford.

Right or wrong, teams in small markets (even those with brand new stadia) are ill equipped financially to commit dollars to 34-year-old question marks. Doing so should be reserved for such times when the playoffs are likely, and championships may be on the horizon. Until that point, teams in situations like the Brewers should deal high-priced talent for cheaper prospects. If worst comes to worst, none of the talent pans out, but the Brewers have $19 million to spend on a free agent to put them over the top when the time comes.

An uncommon route? Sure, but not unheard of. In 1997, the A's were a horrid 32 games under .500. Mark McGwire -- en route to a 58 home run, 123 RBI season -- was traded at the deadline to St. Louis for Blake Stein, T.J. Matthews, and Eric Ludwick. In retrospect, that was a horrific deal for the Oakland hopefuls; the triumvirate of pseudo-prospects is nothing to write home about, and McGwire the Redbird -- his patellar tendinitis notwithstanding -- has been nothing short of majestic. But the A's made the playoffs last year even without McGwire, ceding the first base job to AL MVP Jason Giambi. They did so with an opening day salary just under $32 million; in St. Louis, McGwire alone made almost $10 mil. The savings allowed Oakland to acquire Johnny Damon for the upcoming season; again, the A's are favorites to win West. Realizing that re-signing McGwire was an expensive endeavor and a risk they did not have to take, the A's made a bad trade and still came out winners.

The Brewers should do the same, with hopefully better results in the prospects department. Milwaukee's farm system features Olympian Ben Sheets and. . . oh, yeah, that's it. The Brew Crew Nursery is ranked #28 by this outlet, a feeling shared by many. There may be some outfield help in 2004, as Christian Guerrero (cousin of Vladimir and Wilton) could be up by then, but one-and-a-quarter players of talent does not a system make. Getting three guys who could potentially help out in two years would turn a .500 team into a contender. Obtaining young talent should not be difficult, as there is plenty of demand for Burnitz. Many of the teams currently in contention for a playoff spot could both use and afford a 30 home run, 100 RBI corner outfield to plug in the #5 hole. In return, these contenders -- the Mets and Braves, for example -- would have to provide the Brewers with a young outfielder to replace the slugger, a young pitcher, and another prospect -- players who will mature just in time to be lead by Jenkins, Sheets, Sexson, and Jeff D'Amico.

Will Burnitz help lead the Brewers to the playoffs? Maybe. Will he become an old, useless player with a bloated contract, like Grissom? Again, maybe. Small-market teams cannot afford that risk; it is best to get all your ducks in a row. Taylor's ability to get rid of Grissom's contract was like pulling a rabbit out of a hat. Spending that money on two useless years of Burnitz turns magic into a mere parlor trick.