The last team (only team?) to ever switch leagues was the Milwaukee Brewers. They moved from the AL Central to the NL Central for the 1998 season, when the Tampa Bay Rays and Arizona Diamondbacks came online for the first season. It was a move that was supposed to "balance" out the leagues, but in essence, it just created a problem that wasn't fixed until 2013, when Houston will switch leagues again and give both the AL and NL 15 teams.
Because Houston played Milwaukee this weekend, it's a great time to look back at what the Brewers did in preparing for that switch and how they've handled rebuilding to see if we can learn anything about what Houston will be in for starting next year.
Before the Brewers switched leagues, they hadn't had a winning season since 1992. They had lost 93 games in '93, but hovered right around .500 until the switch. In fact, they had finished 80-82 two years before making the move, so the team wasn't exactly bad.
In 1997, the Brewers best player was a 27-year old third baseman named Jeff Cirillo. He wasn't a huge power hitter, but he got on base and he hit a ton of doubles. Really, looking at his peak, he's somewhat similar to Jose Altuve, though 'Tuve has better stolen base numbers.
MIlwaukee at the time had a young nucleus built around Cirillo, Jeremy Burnitz, Fernando Vina, Mike Matheny and Jose Valentin. Every single one of those guys would be gone before Milwaukee had another winning season. Most went on to have success with other clubs, but Milwaukee languished in a period of non-rebuilding but non-contending.
After losing 88, 87 and 89 games in their first three years in the National League, Milwaukee lost at least 90 for the next three years, with the worst season coming in 2002, when they went 56-106. Since then, they've had winning seasons, and then losing seasons, and then winning seasons, and then losing ones.
After looking like a playoff team this year, the Brewers have tanked once again and sold off high-profile starter Zack Greinke at the trade deadline. It's yet another puzzling move from a team that has either traded for or traded away stars almost every season.
Yes, the Brewers are in a unique situation of never having enough money to keep certain guys. Prince Fielder left in free agency, along with C.C. Sabathia and I'm sure there are more guys out there. They traded Greinke because he's in line to be a free agent and they didn't want to lose him like the other two guys.
Meanwhile, this team is again one of the worst in the league, despite having two of its better players in Ryan Braun and Rickie Weeks. Of course, Weeks has been really bad this year, but there's no denying his talent. Houston would love to have a nucleus like those two guys.
If we're comparing situations, it appears Houston may be better off in the short-term because they've agreed to make this switch while in the midst of a full-on rebuild. This is not a club on the cusp of contention; this is a club which is very much growing. In that situation, you would think that Houston's return to respectability might happen sooner than it did for the Brewers.
The other factor is that Jim Crane has committed to spending money when they have to. Did you see the quotes he gave Zachary Levine the other day?
"When you look at Oakland, they weren’t supposed to be able to compete for a few years and they’re running after the wild card," Crane said. "The good thing about our situation: We’ll have a lot more money than they will at the end of the day and we should be able to build."
We know Houston has the fan base and ballpark to support bigger payrolls when they need to. It's good to see Crane acknowledging this. But, let's hope he doesn't overreact and start spending just to spend. I don't imagine he'll be hands-on enough for that, but you never know.
We have very little to go off of on these league switches, but as I said, it appears Houston has already put itself in a better position to compete sooner than the Brewers did. Whether they actually can? That's another story.