PHOENIX—Even in the midst of a snowy Wisconsin winter and the Green Bay Packers making another NFL playoff run, David Stearns’ trips to the grocery store felt like a summer stroll.
Coming off of a 73-win season and consecutive fourth-place finishes in the National League Central, the Brewers have a fired-up fan base.
“The enthusiasm when I walk around Milwaukee, even in the winter when it’s Packers time, is unbelievable,” said Stearns, the club’s 31-year-old general manager. “People stop me in the grocery store and want to talk Brewers baseball. It’s unbelievable.”
Those fans are starting to have more to talk about. The Brewers’ rebuild is still in its nascent stages, but after trades restocked the farm system over the past two years and the 2016 draft netted an impressive talent haul, Milwaukee is showing signs of hope in a division formidable enough to quash all optimism.
Optimism has been an intermittent emotion for Brewers fans through the years. The franchise’s 47-year history is largely bereft of memorable moments.
The Robin Yount-Paul Molitor clubs averaged 86 wins per year over the six seasons from 1978 to 1983. They won an American League pennant in 1982 and also made the playoffs the year before.
Then came the Ryan Braun-Prince Fielder clubs that twice won 90 games and qualified for the postseason in 2008 and 2011, the season they recorded a franchise-record 96 wins.
As far as playoff appearances, division titles or simply breaking through to the national consciousness, that’s it for the Brewers. They aren’t even famous for their futility, like the division-rival Cubs, who went 108 years between World Series titles, or the Pirates, who weathered a record 20 straight losing seasons.
This is the challenge Stearns and his front office face. Can they build a winner in a city where winning has never become a habit? Can they build a winner in the smallest metropolitan market in the major leagues?
“We understand we have a fan base that is starving for championship-caliber baseball,” Stearns said. “We understand how special it will be when we get there and how long-lasting those memories will be.
“We recognize the challenge of competing given the (revenue) constraints we have. That’s OK, we signed up for this. We all understand that baseball isn’t a level playing field from market to market. We accept that. It energizes us. Our goal is to overcome those obstacles.”
The Brewers still have plenty of work to do, despite having a system stocked with prospects. The organization checks in at No. 8 on this year’s talent rankings thanks to a system that is both top-heavy and bottom-heavy.
At some point this year, Triple-A Colorado Springs could be home to outfielder Lewis Brinson, lefthander Josh Hader and righthander Luis Ortiz, the Brewers’ top three prospects. A strong 2016 draft class should provide a boost at the lower levels, where first-rounder Corey Ray and second-rounder Lucas Erceg could be ready for high Class A Carolina.
The system is especially deep in outfielders and power arms, and some prospects who struggled last year have significant rebound potential. In particular, outfielder Brett Phillips, catcher Jacob Nottingham and righthander Jorge Lopez will attempt to erase bad memories from Double-A Biloxi.
The Brewers have six Top 100 Prospects this year. They had five total from 2011 to 2014. As an added benefit, this year’s prospect class has Brinson, Hader, Ortiz and righthander Brandon Woodruff, all of who could reach Milwaukee. That would give the Brewers an infusion of young talent to supplement a roster that benefitted from savvy work around the margins in 2016.
In addition to higher draft position and more bonus-pool money to spend on amateur talent, a rebuilding team has other advantages it can seize. One example is waiver-wire priority, which is based on a team’s current record, so that teams in the basement get first crack at waived players. Losing teams also are free to speculate on talented young players that other teams have given up on.
Milwaukee has succeeded on these fronts. They claimed righthander Junior Guerra, the projected Opening Day starter, on waivers from the White Sox in October 2015, in what was Stearns’ first transaction. The previous regime claimed utilityman Hernan Perez, who stole 34 bases last year.
Given a chance to play regularly in 2016, Villar had a breakthrough season, stealing an NL-best 62 bases, while Broxton showed enough to earn a larger role in 2017. Davies went 11-7, 3.97 and projects as this year’s No. 2 starter.
The Brewers have worked the margins well, but the margins won’t get them to their fifth playoff appearance. That’s where the trades come in.
The Brewers projected Triple-A club is an assemblage of some of the best prospects in the system. There’s center fielder Brinson, acquired from the Rangers last year in the Jonathan Lucroy deal. He’s flanked in right field by Ryan Cordell, who was part of the same trade. In left field is Phillips, acquired from the Astros in the 2015 trade that sent Carlos Gomez to Houston. Hader, the system’s top pitching prospect, also came to Milwaukee in that trade.
Of the system’s six Top 100 Prospects, four were acquired in trades, including Brinson, Hader, Ortiz and second baseman Isan Diaz, whom Stearns acquired from the Diamondbacks when he traded Jean Segura.
“You know you’re going to be a part of the process. It excites you,” Brinson said. “You get more excited for what’s to come. Something’s definitely brewing here. There are a lot of guys up there and down here (in the minors) who want to get the Brewers back on the map. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”
The depth of the Brewers system is commendable, but what Milwaukee lacks is a cornerstone players to fuel playoff runs. They’re still looking for their next Braun or Fielder.
For example, the 2016 Cubs received contributions from blue-chip prospects such as Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber and Javier Baez. The 2015 Royals won the World Series thanks in part to Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas, who ranked Nos. 8 and 9 on the Top 100 Prospects in 2011. Wil Myers ranked No. 10 that year, and Kansas City turned him into Wade Davis.
Milwaukee doesn’t have a top-25 prospect this year, though it’s possible that Ray or second-round steal Erceg will get there one day. The Brewers also pick ninth in the 2017 draft and have a supplemental first-round pick, giving them a chance to stock up again.
“With the amount of young talent we have on our major league roster and the amount of young talent at the high levels of the minor leagues, we’re understanding this could be the year we take a significant step forward,” Stearns said. “It may not be. If it’s not, that’s OK and we’ll reassess where we are as an organization. But as we sit here in spring training, our goal is to begin to take that step now.”