Milwaukee has given us Liberace, the Harley-Davidson and, lately, baseball's unlikeliest reclamation projects. Last year in the Tap City an outfielder who spent nine years in the farm systems of three other teams wound up second in the National League Rookie of the Year vote ( Scott Podsednik); a 29-year-old reliever released by the Rangers in March 2003 became a lights-out closer ( Danny Kolb); and a journeyman discarded by Texas in April and then Toronto in July became one of the league's most effective starters over the final two months ( Doug Davis). "This is kind of a land of opportunity," says general manager Doug Melvin, who while in Texas resurrected the careers of two players who would win the American League Comeback Player of the Year award—outfielder Ruben Sierra and shortstop Kevin Elster. "We give guys chances here that they can't get anywhere else."
Melvin's latest pickup from the bargain bin: outfielder Ben Grieve, the 1998 AL Rookie of the Year with the Athletics. Grieve had two good follow-up years in Oakland, hitting 28 and then 27 homers, but after he was traded to the Devil Rays in 2001 his game rapidly deteriorated. The team's highest-salaried player at $5.5 million last year, Grieve batted .254 with 34 homers and 153 RBIs in 345 games and became a frequent target of Tampa Bays' fans' scorn. The 27-year-old hit bottom last June when manager Lou Piniella went off on Grieve, who was hitting .236 at the time, after he had struck out looking to end a game against the Yankees; the tongue-lashing in the dugout was aired repeatedly on national TV highlight shows. "The two of us, we just don't have the same personality," the soft-spoken Grieve says of Piniella. "Because of that, sometimes he thought I didn't care."
Grieve entered the free-agent market last fall and didn't have a seriously interested suitor until December when Melvin came calling with a one-year, $700,000 non-guaranteed offer. "The way I've played over the last three seasons, I don't deserve a guaranteed contract," says Grieve. "Frankly, I'm just happy with the opportunity." After doing research on Grieve, Melvin concluded that he had become too passive at the plate in Tampa Bay. "There was a season where 53 percent of his strikeouts were called strikeouts," says Melvin. "He's always been a patient hitter, but we've talked to him about being more aggressive while still being selective."
Grieve will begin the season as the starter in right, and manager Ned Yost believes Grieve can reach his former home run totals playing at Miller Park. "This ballpark is tailor-made for Ben," says Yost. "It's a park made for fly-ball hitters with power to the alleys, and that's what he is."
Grieve is one of many new faces in the Brewers' clubhouse, which underwent an extreme makeover following the Dec. 1 trade of All-Star first baseman Richie Sexson to the Diamondbacks—a deal that brought Milwaukee four every-day players in second baseman Junior Spivey, shortstop Craig Counsell, first baseman Lyle Overbay and catcher Chad Moeller. Sexson's 40-homer power may be gone, but as leftfielder Geoff Jenkins, a close friend of Sexson's, says, the team is "much more well-rounded as a result of the trade."
Says Yost, "When we traded Richie, the whole complexion of the team changed. We always seemed to be sitting back and trying to hit the home run. Now we've got guys in the lineup who work the counts, get on base and manufacture runs. That's the kind of baseball we want to play here."
Strong seasons from their outfield of Grieve, Jenkins and Podsednik, who led NL rookies in nine offensive categories, would give the Brewers a competitive lineup, but the tattered rotation gives a franchise that's had 11 straight losing seasons little reason for optimism. Limited by ever-tighter purse strings—the team's league-low $40 million payroll in 2003 was slashed over the winter to $30 million—Melvin was unable to upgrade the rest of his rotation behind 25-year-old Ben Sheets. Instead the G.M. will hope for overachieving seasons from Davis, Chris Capuano and Matt Kinney, who are a combined 44-55 in their careers.
Goals in Milwaukee are appropriately modest. "We've got to find a way to get to .500 first, and if we can get there this year or next, then we can think about being competitive," Yost says. "Right now, we're battling no one but ourselves."
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