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Creating a new Brew from scratch

Trevor Hoffman has yet to allow a run or a walk in '09. Oh, and he's 11-for-11 in save opportunities. Bob Levey/Icon SMI

Sure, Doug Melvin stood at the podium for that $252 million Alex Rodriguez signing in 2000 and pulled off the CC Sabathia blockbuster last summer. But the Milwaukee Brewers' general manager is more in his element making creative, under-the-radar deals than holding news conferences, and he prefers tapping the minor league system to raiding owner Mark Attanasio's bank account.

Melvin, a Chatham, Ontario, native, is very methodical and understated in his approach. Maybe it's a Canadian thing.

NL Central showdown

In December, after the Brewers failed to re-sign Sabathia, Melvin was close to trading outfielder Mike Cameron to the Yankees. But after careful consideration, he decided to exercise Cameron's $10 million option. Then he opted for fiscal restraint and signed free-agent starter Braden Looper for $4.75 million rather than overpaying for, say, Oliver Perez.

"At first we said, 'We have to go after some pitching,'" Melvin said. "Then we came to our senses and said, 'You don't want to be paying a pitcher $50 million if he's not worth that.' We figured the best way to improve our pitching on a day-to-day basis was to continue to have a center fielder who can play defense."

It's not quite the battle cry that's going to rally the populace for the winter caravan. But when you're playing .600 ball in late May, it'll fly.

Milwaukee is one of baseball's early success stories. Sabathia and Ben Sheets are gone, and Mike Maddux, one of baseball's most acclaimed pitching coaches, is bonding with the staff in Texas. Yet here are the Brewers, with their underpublicized rotation and a bullpen anchored by 41-year-old Trevor Hoffman, leading the National League Central at 27-18. That ties them with Boston for the second-best record in the majors.

After losing three straight in Minnesota this past weekend, the Brewers regained their footing on Memorial Day in one of the most entertaining games of the season. Starter Yovani Gallardo combined with Hoffman and Carlos Villanueva to throw 10 two-hit innings, and Bill Hall delivered a dramatic game-winning single to beat St. Louis 1-0.

The Brewers enter Tuesday night's game against the Cardinals with a 4.01 team ERA, seventh-best in the majors, and they're tied for second with 26 quality starts. Since opening the season at 4-9, they've posted a record of 23-9 -- best in the majors during that span.

Do the Brewers have staying power? According to the FanGraphs Web site, the Milwaukee pitching staff has yielded a batting average of .270 on balls in play -- the lowest in the majors. That would suggest the Brewers are in for a reality check once opposing hitters begin to find a few more holes.

But once the ball is on the ground or in the air, the Brewers are adept at catching it. Milwaukee leads the majors in Baseball Prospectus' defensive efficiency rankings, which measure the rate at which balls in play are converted into outs.

The Brewers' rotation includes two No. 5-type veterans in Jeff Suppan and Looper and an underrated strike-throwing machine in David Bush, whose 1.14 WHIP last year was ninth-best in the majors. For point of reference, Johan Santana ranked 10th at 1.15.

The best pure stuff on the staff belongs to Gallardo and Manny Parra, and they're both still learning. As wondrous as Gallardo can be, his location tends to wander when he overthrows. That has been the case in his two clunkers this season against Houston and Cincinnati.

"I don't think we have a guy that sticks right out and you say, 'That's your No. 1 guy going out there today,'" Brewers manager Ken Macha said. "Even though people are going to be pointing at Gallardo to do that, I don't think he's there yet. In time, that could happen."

Although Maddux is receiving a great deal of credit for the pitching staff's resurgence in Texas, the Brewers have quickly warmed to his successor, Bill Castro.

Castro, 57, was a reliever for the Brewers and two other clubs for 10 seasons in the 1970s and '80s. He spent 17 years as bullpen coach in Milwaukee under Phil Garner, Jim Lefebvre, Davey Lopes, Jerry Royster and Ned Yost before getting his big opportunity.

Bullpen coaches put in long hours, but they're generally perceived as the guys who tote the sunflower seeds and bubble gum to the 'pen and answer the phone when it's time for somebody to get warm. For all the public knows, they might even be calling for pizza delivery.

But with staffs now routinely carrying seven or eight relievers who share a confined space for three hours at a stretch, the bullpen coach needs to be part mechanic, part advance scout and part cheerleader and grief counselor. Melvin always has advocated having a pitcher as bullpen coach, even as some organizations choose to give the job to former catchers.

"It's an underrated position," Melvin said. "It's somewhat similar to the first-base coach. People think the first-base coach is just a helmet picker-upper, but he's the guy who keeps the runners alert over there. It's the same with bullpen coaches. The pitching coach gets credit if the bullpen goes well, and not the bullpen coach. That's unfair."

For many years, Castro aspired to the job of pitching coach, but he had reason to wonder whether he had been typecast.

"A lot of people told me, 'I can't believe you've been there that long and you haven't gotten a chance to be a pitching coach,'" Castro said. "I think one reason is I don't know many people outside the organization, because I've been here such a long time. And I'm not a self-promoter type of guy. I always believed if you do your job, somebody will recognize you down the line."

Luckily for Castro, Milwaukee's new manager was the open-minded sort. Macha, a former catcher, spent five years as bullpen coach in Montreal and was receptive to the idea of promoting from within.

Castro traveled to Macha's home in Pittsburgh during the winter for his interview, and the two men exchanged ideas and shared philosophies. Among other things, Macha came to realize the strong rapport Castro had developed with the Milwaukee staff. That helped seal the deal.

"We had a three-hour lunch," Macha said. "I probably didn't give a big enough tip to the girl who was waiting on our table."

Castro might have felt a bit overwhelmed during spring training when Milwaukee had 28 pitchers in camp. Then the bad news hit. The Brewers released Eric Gagne in March, and David Riske, counted on to provide stability as a set-up man, went down with elbow problems in April. He's currently trying to return in extended spring training in Arizona.

In April, Milwaukee's staff led the majors in hit batsmen and ranked sixth in walks. But in May, the Brewers rank in the middle of the pack in HBPs and are 25th in walks. That's vital for a group that has its share of finesse pitchers and second-chance types.

The bullpen has Melvin's fingerprints all over it. The Brewers acquired Villanueva in a minor league trade four years ago. Mitch Stetter signed for a $1,000 bonus out of the draft. Todd Coffey was a waiver claim, and Mark DiFelice pitched two years of independent ball in the Atlantic League.

And of course there's Hoffman, who's yet to allow a run or a walk in 13 innings this season. His performance Monday was typical; he set down the Cardinals 1-2-3 on seven pitches -- none of which surpassed 86 mph.

If the Brewers plan to lean more on the offense as the season progresses, they might be disappointed. They generate 40.2 percent of their runs through the home run ball -- the sixth-highest rate in the majors -- and can be challenged to score when Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder aren't going deep. The loss of Rickie Weeks to season-ending wrist surgery also could be a major hit. Right now, the Brewers plan to go with a combination of Craig Counsell and Casey McGehee at second base, while prospect Alcides Escobar takes a crash course in the position in the minors.

When asked whether the Brewers might make a play for Jake Peavy or whether that's mere speculation, Melvin replied with characteristic candor.

"That's just people throwing stuff out there," he said.

Rest assured that no matter what he says, Melvin will find a way to adapt to changing circumstances. They're pretty good at Plan B's in Milwaukee.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.