- The Washington Times - Monday, July 28, 2008

This time of year, the sporting populace in the state of Wisconsin usually has moved on to other things besides baseball - and with good reason. The talk typically surrounds University of Wisconsin football and the Green Bay Packers, with the Milwaukee Brewers languishing about as far back in fans’ consciences as they are in the NL Central standings.

The pigskin-addled state isn’t dramatically different this year - especially with the Brett Favre saga seemingly changing by the day - but one thing has changed. For just the sixth time in the last 27 seasons, the Brewers are a legitimate part of a pennant race.

They are a game out of first in the NL Central after making up five games on the Chicago Cubs in nine days, and they’re on pace to set an attendance record at Miller Park after drawing more than 1.82 million fans in their first 51 home dates.

A gutsy front office and a bit of luck have attributed to that development. This Brewers team likely won’t look the same next season.

Its top two pitchers are free agents, and it’s no secret that slugger Prince Fielder could be following Ben Sheets and CC Sabathia out the door. This may be Milwaukee’s one shot.

But if the Brewers, like so many of baseball’s small-market teams, only have a limited window to win something, at least they’re going for broke.

General manager Doug Melvin is employing what might be the most effective way for a team on a budget to contend: Build a core of talented young players, back up those players with depth in the minors and then do one of two things - either trade the minor leaguers for the remaining (and likely expensive) pieces needed to win a title or use them as parts of an insurance policy once the first wave of stars gets too pricey to keep around.

It’s a strategy the Florida Marlins have used to make periodic playoff runs, and the Brewers seem to be trying it now. They lucked out in the sense that Sabathia’s contract year fell in the same season as Sheets’ did, meaning he was expendable when the Cleveland Indians struggled early.

Melvin got Sabathia for four players July 7, ending the sweepstakes for the left-hander early and giving the Brewers the one-two combination at the top of their rotation that could take them far into the playoffs. Sabathia has won all four of his starts for the Brewers, the last three of them complete game victories.

The trade also firmly established the Brewers as buyers in the month of July, which Melvin confirmed again when he got second baseman Ray Durham from San Francisco last week.

It doesn’t guarantee them anything. St. Louis is still only three games back in the division and wild card standings, and Milwaukee fell apart last August. In fact, it could backfire if both Sheets and Sabathia leave via free agency and Fielder forces the Brewers to give him a hefty raise in his first round of arbitration this winter.

And there are other ways for small-market teams to win; the neighboring Minnesota Twins have all but sworn off splashy July moves, yet have won four AL Central titles in six years by picking the players they will keep and filling in other holes as best they can.

That’s not how the Brewers have chosen to do it, however. They’re trying to win now, then regroup with what’s left or a fresh pile of draft picks and prospects coming in return for players leaving.

For a fan base that hasn’t seen postseason baseball since the Brewers’ lone World Series appearance in 1982, one glorious October seems like a worthwhile payoff.

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