Org Of Year: Ahead Of Schedule
When the Brewers began stripping their major league roster to embark on a large-scale rebuild in 2015, most baseball people figured it would take four to five years before Milwaukee was competitive again.
As recent examples, the Cubs and Astros endured years of misery before returning to playoff mode. Before breaking through in a big way in 2015 with 97 victories, the Cubs went through a four-year stretch of averaging 94 losses per season. Simultaneously in Houston, the Astros lost more than 100 games for three consecutive years, followed by a 92-loss season, before breaking through to the playoffs in 2015.
Mindful of those painful years, as well as long rebuilding processes in other cities, David Stearns did not set a timetable for returning to competitiveness when he took over as general manager following the 2015 season, during which the Brewers went 68-94.
“I never even thought about it,” Stearns said. “When I got here, we just became so focused on acquiring, developing and retaining as much talent as we possibly could. That was our focus on every decision.
“And we judged every decision as to whether that forwarded our goal. So the timing of this never entered into our discussions.”
Thanks to many astute moves along the way, there would be no protracted, agonizing stretch of losing for the Brewers. They stunned the baseball world in 2018 by wresting the National League Central crown away from the Cubs, sweeping the Rockies in the NL Division Series and battling the Dodgers for seven games before bowing out of the postseason picture in the NL Championship Series.
In becoming so successful in such a short period of time, relatively speaking, the Brewers are the Baseball America Organization of the Year in 2018.
How did this happen? How did the Brewers eschew the “tanking” model that many rebuilding teams find necessary to return to winning?
The Brewers are a lesson in setting no limitations, in finding the right players at the right time and showing a willingness to think out of the box. It is also a lesson in an unwavering devotion to a process the decision-makers were convinced would pay off at some point, though it came sooner than even they expected.
Fortunately for Stearns, his GM predecessor, Doug Melvin, already had gotten the rebuilding ball rolling. In various trades prior to stepping aside, he acquired important pieces such as relievers Corey Knebel and Josh Hader, righthander Zach Davies and outfielders Domingo Santana and Brett Phillips. It was also under Melvin’s watch that reliever Jeremy Jeffress returned to the organization that originally drafted him.
Melvin did Stearns another huge favor before stepping aside. One month into the 2015 season, after the team stumbled to a 5-17 start, Melvin replaced manager Ron Roenicke with Craig Counsell, the Milwaukee native who had been working in the front office as an adviser.
Most new GMs bring in their own manager but Stearns and Counsell quickly formed an innovative duo that helped move the team forward sooner than expected. Counsell had the steady, calm hand needed on the field to guide players through a rebuild without giving away games, while Stearns deftly handled player procurement with a willingness to look under every rock for talent.
Counsell still remembers the first sit-down with his new—and much younger—boss. Stearns was 30 at the time; Counsell was 45.
“I said, ‘We’ve just got to stack good decisions on top of each other,’ ” Counsell said.
“ ‘Keep stacking good decisions on top of each other, and it’ll happen faster than we think.’ That’s what we tried to do.”
Before all was said and done, every established player other than left fielder Ryan Braun was traded away, and Braun came close to joining the exodus before talks with the Dodgers broke off in 2016. Often, prospects were acquired in return, helping restock the farm system to a point where the Brewers became a top five organization in terms of prospect talent.
Stearns used every means possible to acquire talent. He made waiver claims, such as Jesus Aguilar and Junior Guerra; he signed free agents, such as Lorenzo Cain, Eric Thames and Jhoulys Chacin; and he made trades—plenty of trades—which included deals for Christian Yelich, Travis Shaw, Freddy Peralta, Chase Anderson and Jonathan Villar.
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Because Stearns sought to stay as competitive as possible in the big leagues while acquiring prospects around which to build for the future, “tanking” never was considered. The Brewers battled to a 73-89 record in 2016, a bit better than expected under the circumstances. And the personnel moves kept coming.
The Brewers didn’t have the high first-round draft picks the Cubs and Astros enjoyed for several years, but they still added quality amateur talent, such as righthander Corbin Burnes, outfielder Corey Ray and second baseman Keston Hiura, to keep their minor league pipeline flowing.
Stearns and his staff were convinced the Brewers were headed in the right direction, but the 2017 team took a quantum leap on the field, forging an 86-76 record. The Brewers were not eliminated from wild card contention until the penultimate day of the season, prompting Stearns and principal owner Mark Attanasio to put their heads together and rethink their process a bit.
Taking their cue from that encouraging season, Stearns and Attanasio decided to accelerate the rebuild with the acquisitions of Cain and Yelich, within hours of each other on Jan. 25. Those players made a dramatic impact on the team’s fortunes, with Yelich going crazy at the plate down the stretch to put his name at the forefront of MVP talk.
To pry Yelich away from Miami, Stearns showed a willingness to part with top prospects in the right deal, sending the Marlins outfielders Lewis Brinson and Monte Harrison, second baseman Isan Diaz and righthander Jordan Yamamoto.
“I said at my opening press conference that every situation is unique,” said Stearns, who was Houston’s assistant GM before joining the Brewers. “I went through (years of losing) in Houston. It’s a challenge.
“When I got here in (September) 2015, there were a different set of advantages and constraints than some other markets have faced. We tried to focus on the advantages and minimize the constraints.”
When the Brewers showed they were ready to go after the Cubs in 2018, Stearns added experienced players such as Mike Moustakas, Jonathan Schoop, Gio Gonzalez and Curtis Granderson. He parted with more prospects to do so, including Phillips and pitchers Luis Ortiz and Kodi Medeiros.
It hurt to fall one game short of the World Series, but the Brewers had good reason to be satisfied with progress made on the field, which far exceeded the expectations of three years earlier. With a deep, talented core of players, they now appear positioned to succeed for years to come.
“Each year we’ve taken a step as an organization,” Stearns said. “Last year’s step certainly informed how we went about the offseason. It informed where we thought our major league team could be and it informed us about the depth we had at the upper levels of our organization, the players who could potentially contribute at the major league level this year.
“When opportunities presented themselves in the offseason, that helped with our decisions to take advantage of them.”
Yes, you can completely rebuild in three years. As Exhibit A, please see the 2018 Milwaukee Brewers.