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Depressing Retro Brewers Previews: 2002

Last weekend, we took a look at the Sports Illustrated season preview for the 2000 Brewers. It wasn’t entirely meant to bring back bad memories, but rather take a look back at how bad things were for this club 10+ years ago. Hopefully this series will bring a newfound appreciation for just how far this organization has come in such a short time (and yes, 10 years is a short time when it comes to the size of the rebuilding project the Brewers were in the early 2000s).

With 2000 covered, let’s jump ahead to the 2002 season this weekend.

It was the height of the steroid era, and the entire issue is littered with tidbits that might make you cringe and/or laugh now, but were afterthoughts when the issue came out. What was the explanation for Luis Gonzalez’s sudden power surge? Oh, it had to be the obscene amount of pinetar he used. Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe gained 10 and 25 pounds over the winter, respectively, and this didn’t seem odd to anyone.

As for the Brewers, not much changed in the two years since that 2000 preview. Their team profile was still depressing, but at least they were picked for 4th in the division, rather than dead last. That’s improvement Dean Taylor can be proud of, right?

Sure, 2001 was still a bad year for Milwaukee — they finished 68-94 — but 2002 was going to be different. The previous season’s big free agent signing, Jeffrey Hammonds, was finally going to be healthy and show why he deserved that 3-year, $21 million contract which was the richest in club history. Hammonds seemed sure that working out extra hard in the offseason and getting married would help him stay healthy in 2002:

“She was with me when I went to L.A. to have surgery on the shoulder last July,” says Hammonds. “When it was over, I looked into her eyes and said, ‘This is a game, and I should be able to play without always injuring myself.’ Keisha has given me a feeling of strength. It can make the difference.”

Hammonds would end up playing in 128 games for the Brewers in 2002, hitting .257/.332/.397. He was able to play more, but I’m not sure many were happy to see it.

New second baseman Eric Young was going to be a “true catalyst” at the top of the lineup and pledged to break Pat Listach’s club record for steals. The then-35-year old did end up stealing 31 bases, but wasn’t really anything special, hitting .280/.338/.369 on the year. When he was batting first in the order, his line dropped to .223/.290/.320 in 284 plate appearances. Not exactly the numbers of a catalyst. Even worse, his presence in Milwaukee ultimately forced better options in Ronnie Belliard and Mark Loretta out of town.

The SI preview notes that the 2001 Brewers were the first major league team in history whose hitters ended the year with more strikeouts (1399) than hits (1378). For that reason, the preview tries to say that the 2002 lineup would be improved by the fact that Hammonds — a “contact hitter” — would be hitting in the middle in the lineup instead of Jeromy Burnitz, who was traded to New York. The 2002 Brewers did strike out less as a team, but it’s also possible that it was one of the worst offenses in team history. They were dead last in runs scored, 14th in OBP, and 14th in SLG. According to Baseball Reference, the 2002 Brewers totaled 5.7 Wins Above Replacement. In case that didn’t register, THE ENTIRE FREAKING TEAM TOTALED 5.7 WAR. Ryan Braun alone had a Baseball Reference WAR of 4.8 in 2010.

Jose Hernandez was one of the few good offensive players on that 2002 team, but of course, most will probably remember the 2002 season as the one where Jerry Royster sat Hernandez towards the end of the season to keep him from breaking the single season strikeout record. Hernandez was upset, and he should have been — the manager was willingly hurting his team’s chances of winning by benching one of its most effective hitters. Strikeouts are tolerated more in today’s game, but could you imagine the uproar if Rickie Weeks was benched for his tendency to strike out? Royster’s gutless decision was just another part of what was one of the most embarrassing seasons in club history.

Nine years later, the Brewers are expected to be contenders. Back then, this would have been unimaginable. The farm system was one of the worst in the game, although that summer they did draft a hefty high schooler by the name of Prince Fielder. For that reason, the 2002 season could be seen as a turning point in the franchise’s history — Fielder was drafted, while Dean Taylor and Davey Lopes/Royster were fired and Doug Melvin and Ned Yost were hired. Of course, that doesn’t make 2002 any easier to swallow. Just remember that no matter how ugly things could get, they’ll never get much worse than they did that year.