Melvin, Builder Of Winners, Fell Through Orioles CracksPosted on October 14, 2011
By Jim Henneman
With the passing of each of the Orioles' 14 straight losing seasons, or the latest changing of the guard in the front office, there always seems to be a reference to the "one who got away," the person who could have held it all together and averted the trend that is now well into its second decade.
Inevitably, the masses pointed to the departure of reigning Manager of the Year Davey Johnson after the division-winning season of 1997, the last winning record on the ledger, or recently installed Hall of Fame general manager Pat Gillick the following year -- or a combination of those two events -- as the beginning of the demise.
The loss via free agency of Mike Mussina to the hated Yankees plus the retirement of Cal Ripken get honorable mentions when it comes to tracing the decline -- and, hey, there are even some out there who think that radio-TV personality Jon Miller's move from the Chesapeake Bay to the City By The Bay has something to do with all this losing.
The person whose name never seems to find its way into the discussion is the one who is possibly missed the most, the one who left before any of those mentioned above. He also happens to be the one who has fingerprints on two of the four teams still playing in mid-October.
Say hello, or perhaps re-introduce yourself, to Doug Melvin.
You might remember Melvin, but chances are it will be a test. Edward Bennett Williams hired him near the end of the Hank Peters era on the recommendation of former Sun scribe Ken Nigro, who had spent a year in exile as public relations director for the Yankees. After pitching seven years in the minors, Melvin had a front-office career that included stints as assistant scouting director and "spy in the sky" press-box observer for the Yankees, where he and Nigro crossed paths.
Melvin served here under three ownership groups as director of player development and later as assistant general manager to Roland Hemond under the watch of Larry Lucchino. In fairness to Peter Angelos, his group wasn't on the scene long enough to get a full evaluation of Melvin -- although the Texas Rangers' interest in interviewing him for their vacant general manager's position was at least an indication that he was viewed as a promising young (42 at the time) executive.
Following the 1993 season, less than six months after Angelos bought the team, Melvin became the first member of the front office to leave, and his departure hardly created a stir -- but it should have. Melvin not only knew the O's player development system inside and out, he also had more than a working knowledge of every other team's organization. That is the kind of continuity the Orioles have never been able to replace through their constant organizational makeovers.
It didn't take long for Melvin to make an impact in Texas. He inherited a veteran underperforming team that went 52-62 during the shortened 1994 season under a relatively inexperienced manager, Kevin Kennedy. When the O's fired Johnny Oates after that season, Melvin moved quickly.
"I told Kevin I felt it would be best for both of us if I had somebody with experience with whom I'd be comfortable," Melvin said when he decided to make a change. "When Johnny became available, I knew he'd be comfortable to work with and that he'd bring the leadership I felt we needed."
During their tenure together in Texas, Melvin and Oates won three divisional titles and even though the Yankees wiped them out each year, making postseason play for the first time in history awakened the fan base and seemingly set the stage for the future. But baseball's most disastrous contract (at least at the time) signaled the end for both. The signing of Alex Rodriguez to a 10-year contract, which Melvin vigorously opposed, proved disastrous.
Oates did not last beyond the second month of that contract and Melvin himself left after the 2001 season, when the Rangers went 73-89 (the first of three straight losing seasons during which the Rangers were 54 games worse than .500 with A-Rod).
It wasn't until the Rangers got out from under the A-Rod contract (if you can call paying the Yankees $70 million for the remaining seven years "getting out from under") that they were able to regroup.
Before he left, Melvin made a couple moves that would set the Rangers' direction for the future. In 2000, he traded pitcher Esteban Loaiza to Toronto for Mike Young, who would become the face of the franchise for most of the next decade.
A year later, he presided over the draft that produced Mark Teixeira, who was instrumental in the one division title Buck Showalter won in Texas (2003) and ultimately was traded for a boatload of prospects, who fortified what is now considered one of the best minor league systems in the game.
After working as a consultant for the Red Sox in 2002, Melvin embarked on his biggest challenge -- taking over as general manager for the woeful Milwaukee Brewers. There was no instant success this time, as there had been in Texas, and it has been mainly through the amateur draft that the Brewers have made their mark. They drafted Prince Fielder in 2002, the year before Melvin came aboard, then added Rickie Weeks, Yovani Gallardo and Ryan Braun, among others, during the next three years.
Melvin is the first to point out he was there for the last four years of the Brewers' streak of 15 straight non-winning seasons (sound familiar?). The Brewers managed an 81-81 finish in 2005, and two years later, they got over the hump with an 83-79 record.
It was a year later that Melvin took advantage of the Brewers' emerging minor league system to make the bold move of acquiring CC Sabathia at midseason, a move that paid off with an 11-2 record for the lefthander and a wild card postseason berth. Then the Brewers were victims of the Phillies' march to a World Series championship.
A two-year relapse preceded Milwaukee's run this year, which was heightened by a couple of trades (for Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum) that have set the rotation for the next two years at least. When he made it, Melvin called the Greinke deal a "now" trade, making no bones that anything short of a division title would be a disappointment. He then traded his best prospect, Brett Lawrie (who appears to be an Evan Longoria clone), for Marcum, a trade made for the short term rather than the long.
Fielder and Weeks will be free agents after this year and it's doubtful the Brewers will re-sign either of them. It's not so much because they can't, but because it might not be necessary and Melvin can take his four draft choices as compensation to reboot the minor league system and move on with a roster that has only one starter older than 29 this year. That would be the 30-year old Nyjer Morgan, who fit into the Milwaukee clubhouse better than he did in Washington, D.C., but still figures to be little more than a short-term rental.
Meanwhile Melvin, at the age of 59, has built himself a pretty good track record -- first with a star-studded veteran team that didn't know how to win and now with a team he has put together from the ground floor. And it shouldn't be forgotten that he also was in charge when the Orioles drafted Ben McDonald, Gregg Olson and Mussina in successive years.
Whether or not they meet in this year's World Series, the Rangers and Brewers figure to be part of the October landscape in the foreseeable future. And if you look closely, you will see the fingerprints of Melvin -- who just might be the big one who got away from the Orioles.
Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com.
Issue 166: October 2011