To understand why the Brewers are such a fascinating team in 2020, consider this: How many general managers would have the guts to do what Milwaukee’s David Stearns did this past offseason?
For starters, he blew up a winning roster. He took it apart and put it back together by acquiring players from here, there and everywhere.
Yes, some of the decisions were driven by payroll and free-agent departures. And Stearns did keep most of his core group --beginning with 2018 NL MVP Christian Yelich.
But lots of the change was driven by Stearns being unafraid to execute a different vision. Here’s to his confidence and creativity.
Of the 25 players on Milwaukee’s 2019 postseason roster, 13 are playing elsewhere. Stearns changed three of his five starting pitchers and four of his eight starting position players.
When he was done, he built a team that might just deliver a third straight postseason appearance in a four-team NL Central race that might be MLB’s best.
Among all NL teams, only the Dodgers and Braves have more wins than the Brewers over the last two regular seasons. In their 50 years of existence, the Brewers had made the playoffs in consecutive seasons only one other time (1981-82).
First, a word about the departures, especially catcher Yasmani Grandal and third baseman Mike Moustakas, both of whom left via free agency. Stearns attempted to sign Grandal, who signed a four-year, $73 million deal with the White Sox. Instead, Stearns replaced him with veteran Omar Narváez in a trade with the Mariners.
What the Brewers have is depth and flexibility. While it was drawn up for a 162-game season, it’ll be interesting to see how a 60-game slate changes manager Craig Counsell’s thinking.
“Anybody that’s been around us knows our favorite thing about constructing a roster is to have choices, to have depth,” Counsell said. “It protects your downside as much as anything, whether we have injuries or performance [issues].”
Breaking down the interesting parts of the Brewers' roster
Rotation: Some traditional starters, some openers. The Brewers have enough bullpen depth to do either. At the beginning, Brandon Woodruff, Adrian Houser, Lindblom and Anderson will get the first four spots. After that -- and this is where it gets interesting -- the Brewers could use Eric Lauer, Freddy Peralta and Corbin Burnes as traditional starters or perhaps Brent Suter and Jake Faria, who’ve handled both roles.
Bullpen: Everything is connected to every other thing, and that’s especially true with Milwaukee’s aggressive use of opening games with relievers. (The Brewers used at least six pitchers in 13 of their 27 games last September.) All that’s certain in 2020 is that Josh Hader will be the closer and that the return of former closer Corey Knebel from Tommy John surgery gives Milwaukee another dominant late-inning arm. Suter, Peralta and Burnes all could swing back and forth as needed. Bottom line: This potentially is a dominant group, as Counsell plays the matchup game as well as any manager.
1B/DH: Ryan Braun was set to play first after Garcia’s signing, but the arrival of the DH in the NL makes that an option. Smoak (85 homers, .819 OPS last three seasons in Toronto) and Morrison (38 homers, .868 OPS in 2017 for Rays) are in the mix. Gyorko and Holt also have played first.
Yelich: He has recovered from the broken kneecap that ended his 2019 season on Sept. 10. Despite missing the final 18 games, he finished second in NL MVP voting and is the dominant presence around which Stearns has built his roster. Garcia, Smoak and Morrison give Counsell interesting lineup options, and Hiura showed flashes of being special in his rookie season.
In the NL Central, there’s a case to be made for the Cubs, Cardinals and Reds as well. Milwaukee’s advantage is great pitching depth up and down the roster and one of baseball’s five best players anchoring its lineup.
The Brewers are also the most unknown quantity after an offseason of change. But Stearns' track record -- and Counsell’s five seasons in charge -- are reasons to believe in this team.