PHOENIX—When the Brewers gathered for the start of their 2016 spring training camp at Maryvale Baseball Park, players were not required to wear identification tags saying, “Hello, my name is . . .”
But it might have helped.
“We do have a lot of new faces,” conceded David Stearns, who turned over 20 spots on the 40-man roster after taking over as general manager in October.
“I imagine not all of our offseasons will be quite this active.”
Stearns continued the massive rebuilding program that began last July when former general manager Doug Melvin began trading away veterans for prospects. The Brewers were en route to a 68-94 season in which Craig Counsell replaced Ron Roenicke as manager, making it quite evident it was time to reboot the roster and take on a long-range outlook.
Stearns also caught the trading bug, making nine deals that netted 16 players, most of them young minor leaguers. The personnel tote board also included five waiver claims, two Rule 5 draft picks and one major league free agent signing, first baseman Chris Carter—who had been non-tendered.
“I don’t know that I had a specified number of moves that I thought we were going to make heading into the offseason,” said Stearns, who was just 30 years old when he left his job as assistant GM in Houston to take over the Brewers’ baseball operation.
“A lot of them were minor moves that didn’t make headlines, but the end result was that half of our 40-man roster will look different from the last day of the season. It’s a byproduct of the cycle we’re going through.
“We’re trying to aggregate as much young talent as we possibly can. The 40-man roster is a way we can do that, so we have tried to use that tool to add some talent. I don’t know if that exceeds my expectations but we’ve certainly been busy.”
And don’t expect the personnel shuffle to end any time soon. The Brewers don’t know how many years it will take to be a playoff contender again, but the back end of the rebuild will feature players who won’t begin 2016 in the majors, such as shortstop Orlando Arcia and center fielder Brett Phillips.
Other top prospects who likely need more seasoning in the minors include righthanders Jorge Lopez and Zach Davies and lefthander Josh Hader. Further down the line, prospects such as outfielders Clint Coulter, Tyrone Taylor and Trent Clark, infielder Gilbert Lara and pitchers Kodi Medeiros, Cody Ponce and Devin Williams will be counted on to assure contention isn’t so sporadic.
Along the way, it will be up to Stearns and his staff, and Counsell and his staff, to determine who the keepers are as the rebuilding continues. Many players merely will be placeholders for the young studs to come, but there also will be those who show they belong in the big picture.
“All of these cycles go through different paces,” Stearns said. “Sometimes it takes a jump-start like this to get younger and more flexible on your roster.”
While some of Stearns’ trades were minor ones, the last two before the start of spring training had wide-ranging implications. He sent Jean Segura, a starter at shortstop for three-plus seasons, to Arizona along with pitching prospect Tyler Wagner in exchange for righthander Chase Anderson, veteran infielder Aaron Hill and exciting 19-year-old shortstop prospect Isan Diaz.
That deal had many layers, not the least of which was paving the way for Arcia to be Milwaukee’s starting shortstop, in all likelihood before the end of the 2016 season. Anderson provided another starting pitcher to allow Lopez, Hader, et al, more time to develop. And Diaz is yet another prospect, the 2015 MVP of the Rookie-level Pioneer League, who just might be in a Brewers starting infield one day.
“This transaction does not change our development plan for Orlando Arcia,” Stearns said after the trade was completed. “It’s in Orlando’s best interest and the organization’s best interests for Orlando to continue his development. He has yet to play above Double-A.
“We’re going to send him to Triple-A, allow him to continue his development, and grow and mature as a player. His production and his continued development will dictate his timeline to the major leagues.”
Not long after that deal, Stearns traded starting left fielder Khris Davis to Oakland in exchange for catching prospect Jacob Nottingham and young righthander Bubba Derby. The move surprised some because Davis slugged 20 homers over the final two months of the 2015 season but, again, the deal served more than one purpose.
The Brewers wanted to find a regular spot for outfielder Domingo Santana, one of four prospects acquired from Houston last July in the Carlos Gomez/Mike Fiers trade. Santana saw action in center late in the year but is more suited for a corner spot, and with Davis gone, the Brewers opted to move veteran Ryan Braun back to left and install the strong-armed Santana in right.
That deal also gave the Brewers something they badly needed, a legitimate catching prospect who might one day replace Jonathan Lucroy.
The subject of many trade rumors over the offseason, Lucroy likely will join the long list of veterans moved in favor of youth, and the powerful Nottingham just might be Milwaukee’s catcher of the future.
“We’re trading from a spot of depth on our major league roster, which is always nice to do,” said Stearns, who had picked up many younger outfielders over the course of the winter, such as Ramon Flores from Seattle and Rymer Liriano from San Diego.
“We feel as though we’ve got sufficient outfield corner depth. The ability two players like Nottingham and Derby have, to continue to stock our system with quality minor league talent, was too much to pass up.”
And so it goes for the Brewers, who aren’t messing around with this rebuilding stuff. Nobody knows exactly what the club will look like on the back end, but suffice it to say that many of this year’s players are placeholders until the likes of Arcia, Phillips, Lopez, Hader and others atop their prospects list are ready for the final step.
In the process, the Brewers went from a bottom-third farm system in terms of quality talent to a top-third, and in relatively short time. It didn’t hurt to have a highly regarded 2015 draft that netted Clark, Ponce and lefthander Nathan Kirby, the Virginia ace who won’t pitch this year while recovering from Tommy John surgery.
“We’re definitely happy with the direction we’re going and it’s good to have it recognized,” new Brewers farm director Tom Flanagan said. “We’re always bullish on our own players. But the players we’ve added through the draft and some trades have made the system even stronger.
“A lot of our prospects made big strides last season and that’s good to see.”
The rebuilding started under Melvin, who began clearing the deck in July. His trade with Houston that netted Phillips, Hader, Santana and righthander Adrian Houser has a chance to go down as one of the best in club history if that quartet lives up to advance billing.
Since the first trade that got the massive overhaul started, the Brewers have dealt their starting third baseman (Aramis Ramirez), shortstop (Segura), first baseman (Adam Lind), left fielder (Davis), center fielder (Gomez), a starting pitcher (Fiers) and the closer (Francisco Rodriguez).
The only sure thing is that the dealing isn’t done.
“We’re always working; we’re always in dialogue,” Stearns said. “Even with the number of moves we’ve been able to make this offseason, it still only accounts for a small percentage of the actual conversations we’ve had.
“You never know when a trade is going to come together. When you get there, you have to be prepared to pull the trigger.”
In terms of moving players, no one will accuse Stearns and Co. of being gun shy.