Brewers' quick rebuild built on strong foundation

GM Stearns retained organizational core, made savvy signings and trades to build winner

October 2nd, 2018

MILWAUKEE -- By Friday, when Brewers general manager David Stearns celebrates the three-year anniversary of his first official day on the job, his team will already have its first 2018 postseason game in the books.

That's a remarkable thing, relative to other recent rebuilds in Major League Baseball.

The Royals, Cubs and Astros all endured long stretches of losing baseball before winning the last three World Series. The Brewers are trying to reach the same zenith much quicker.

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"I'm proud of where the organization is," said Stearns, whose club hosts Game 1 of the National League Division Series on Thursday at Miller Park. "And I can say now, three years later, that I really didn't have a timeline for when we would get to the point of consistent competitiveness."

How did the Brewers get from rebuilding to the best record in the NL in such a short time? Perhaps by not focusing so much on a timetable.

Both Stearns and owner Mark Attanasio doggedly refused to use the word "rebuilding" throughout a process that began early in 2015. That's the year the club replaced manager Ron Roenicke with Craig Counsell -- who'd been with the organization as a player, special assistant to the GM and part-time color analyst -- and when Attanasio hired Stearns to be baseball's youngest GM at age 30. Stearns took over for Doug Melvin, who decided to step down after serving as GM since the end of the '02 season.

Melvin had begun the rebuild, trading away established players for prospects -- including one fortuitous blockbuster with the Houston Astros, whose assistant GM at the time was the up-and-coming Stearns. After the Mets had blocked one deal, Melvin made another with the Astros, acquiring pitchers and and outfielders and . Rare is the deal in which every prospect pans out, but this was one of them. In other trades that summer, Melvin picked up Minor Leaguers and .

Stearns inherited that foundation when he was hired in September. And rather than clean house and install his own baseball operations team, he retained almost everyone, including Counsell as manager and Melvin and assistant GM Gord Ash in special assistant roles. Vice president of player personnel Karl Mueller, special assignment scout Scott Campbell, director of baseball operations Matt Kleine and manager of advance scouting Brian Powalish may not be known to some of the fans who fill Miller Park each night, but all play pivotal roles in the product on the field, and all preceded Stearns in the organization. Stearns promoted Tom Flanagan and Eduardo Brizuela in player development and Tod Johnson to amateur scouting director, and retained Ray Montgomery, Zack Minasian and Marv Thompson in high-level scouting posts.

The point is that Stearns kept a lot of people. Not in an effort to speed along the process -- remember "acquire, develop, retain"? -- but because they were good people.

And Stearns augmented the group with others, starting with hiring Matt Arnold of the analytically savvy Rays to be assistant GM.

"I was so consumed with just trying to make as many fundamentally right decisions at the front end -- from how we were going to structure the front office, how we wanted to structure the coaching staff, what kind of culture we wanted to instill throughout the organization and what kind of people we wanted to attract -- that a timeframe was the furthest thing from my mind," Stearns said. "And it never once came up in an interview with Mark or anyone in the ownership group. No one ever asked me what I thought an appropriate timeframe was."

The Brewers were just finishing a 68-94 season then. They went 73-89 in 2016, then improved to 86-76 in '17 and missed the postseason by one game. This year, they used Game 163 to equal the franchise record with 96 regular-season wins, finishing with the fourth-best record in MLB.

Last week, when the Brewers clinched a spot in the postseason by completing a sweep of the Cardinals, Attanasio revisited memories of those early meetings.

"Forget about first having hired him, even interviewing him -- this was the kind of thing we talked about. 'How do we get from where we were, which at that point was pretty low, to today?'" Attanasio said. "We never talked about timeline; we talked about process and methodology."

Stearns put that methodology to work in acquiring the rest of the pieces that helped lead the franchise to its third division title in 50 seasons of play. It was a mix of waiver claims (), free-agent signings (, ) and trades (Mike Moustakas, , , , and since the end of July alone).

Of course, Stearns' most notable acquisitions were Cain and . The Yelich deal is particularly emblematic of strong franchise-building, since it took a combination of moves to pull off. Stearns picked up and in other deals and flipped them to Miami with homegrown Draft picks and .

"It was quite an accomplishment to achieve this, in whatever timeline," Attanasio said. "We had two losing seasons and that was it. That's pretty incredible."

It took a lot of work. Stearns reckons he's had one true day off, with no calls, texts or emails: His wedding day in January 2017, complete with a very famous cake.

Now Stearns and wife Whitney are expecting their first child in the coming weeks.

"It's flown by, it really has," Stearns said. "Maybe after the season is over, I'll take some time and think back to what we've been through the past three years and some of the things we've done. At this point, you're so in the day-to-day grind, consumed with the daily responsibilities of the job, that you don't get a chance to think about it. But it has flown by."