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Tracy Ringolsby

Small-market challenges no problem for Crew

Melvin, Brewers building a consistent winner with long-term approach

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MILWAUKEE -- The signing of free-agent right-hander Kyle Lohse made the Milwaukee Brewers a better team immediately.

Still, it is a big picture move.

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In a year in which the Brewers retrenched -- their Opening Day payroll dropping from $101 million to $84 million, landing Lohse provided a feeling that they still can be a factor in the NL Central. Lohse fits alongside Yovani Gallardo at the top of the rotation, giving the Brewers two proven veterans who can provide stability for the Brewers' promising young arms.

But that's not all. Lohse, scheduled to make his Brewers debut Friday night, signed a three-year contract. It's not a coincidence. The Brewers have created a three-year window of opportunity.

"The challenge for a team in a smaller market -- like us, a Kansas City, an Oakland or a Pittsburgh -- is sustaining a competitiveness that gives you a chance to go into the postseason," said Brewers general manager Doug Melvin. "You have to have people coming through the turnstiles in September."

And that is a pattern the Brewers have been able to follow.

Are they overwhelming favorites every year? No.

Do they dominate their division? No.

But they compete.

The Brewers have finished with a winning record in four of the past six years. They advanced to the playoffs twice during that stretch, and weren't eliminated from the postseason until Games 158 and 159 in the other two.

They have positioned themselves to remain a factor in the NL Central in the next few years.

Projected starting first baseman Corey Hart, who is on the disabled list while recovering from knee surgery, is a potential free agent after this season, and right fielder Norichika Aoki is signed for this season with an option for 2014.

The Brewers have contract control over every other member of their starting lineup, in addition to all five members of their starting rotation and key arms in the bullpen, including closer John Axford, through at least 2015.

Left-handed reliever Mike Gonzalez and utility infielders Alex Gonzalez and Yuniesky Betancourt are potential free agents after this season, and left-handed reliever Tom Gorzelanny and right-hander Burke Badenhop could both walk after the 2014 season.

"The challenge in our market situation is to have a chance year after year," said Melvin. "As good a job as Walt [Jocketty, fellow general manager] has done in Cincinnati -- and that is the team to beat in our division -- they have had two winning seasons in the past 12 years."

The Reds won the NL Central title both those years -- 2010 and '12.

It's a constant challenge for teams not in a mega market -- balancing fiscal responsibility with building a roster that can contend. Baltimore is coming off its first winning record and postseason appearance in 15 years. Pittsburgh hasn't had a winning season since 1992.

Oakland is coming off its first winning record and postseason appearance in six years. Kansas City hasn't played a meaningful game in October since 1985, and has had only one winning season since '94. Cleveland is looking for its second postseason appearance and third winning record since 2001.

"The important thing is we have the guys up the middle under control," said Melvin. "That's where it all starts."

The Brewers have options on catcher Jonathan Lucroy for 2017, and second baseman Rickie Weeks for '15. They recently signed center fielder Carlos Gomez through '16. Shortstop Juan Segura isn't even arbitration-eligible until 2016.

The Brewers also have a mutual option on third baseman Aramis Ramirez for 2015, and left-fielder Ryan Braun is signed through '20 with a mutual option for '21.

And then there is Lohse, who, along with Gallardo, the Brewers control through 2015.

"[Lohse] is a big part of the rotation," said Melvin. "The tough part of that decision was losing the first-round Draft choice. It's the first year since 1990 that we won't have a first-round pick. Teams like us build around the Draft.

"It's not that everyone you draft becomes a part of the roster, but they can play a role in it. Matt LaPorta was a first-round pick we sent to Cleveland for CC [Sabathia]. [Jake] Odorizzi and [Jeremy] Jeffress were top picks we gave up to get [Zack] Greinke."

Sabathia helped the Brewers claim the NL Wild Card in 2008. Greinke was instrumental in the Brewers winning the NL Central in '11. And with Greinke headed to free agency after last season, the Brewers were able to ship him to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim last July for three prospects, including Segura.

"The big thing is you want to keep flexibility," said Melvin. "You have to keep your focus on the future and work to keep yourself in a competitive position."

It is something the Brewers have mastered despite their small-market environment.

Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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