PHOENIX -- The Brewers spent much of the offseason making some minor tweaks to their roster while watching the free-agent market from afar.
Then, on Jan. 14, Milwaukee signed catcher Yasmani Grandal to a one-year deal worth $18.25 million. Last week, the Brewers struck again, signing infielder Mike Moustakas to a one-year, $7 million deal, with a mutual option worth $11 million (or a $3 million buyout).
Patience paid off for Brewers general manager David Stearns, who hopes the roster he has constructed for the 2019 season will help the Brewers -- who lost to the Dodgers in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series last October -- take the next step toward winning a World Series.
MLB.com sat down with Stearns this week at the Brewers’ spring complex to discuss the late signings, his decision not to add a starting pitcher, the ultra-competitive NL Central and more.
Given the way the free-agent market developed during the offseason, your club was able to take advantage by signing Yasmani Grandal and Mike Moustakas to one-year deals. Was there a plan to be patient and see if any such opportunities would become available?
"We went into the offseason understanding that this was probably going to look a little different for us this year than it had over the past couple years. We were returning the vast majority of our team; we didn’t see the necessity to go out and do any one thing in particular. We thought we could wait back, be a little bit more patient, be opportunistic and see what potential opportunities emerged. And that’s exactly what happened in both of these circumstances.
"Yasmani certainly was on our list at the front end of the offseason. He’s someone we talked about with ownership heading into the offseason, but we didn’t really know where that market was going to be and we didn’t know whether he was going to be open to a shorter-term deal. When we got a little bit later in the offseason and it became apparent that he was open to a shorter-term deal, it was something that we thought made a ton of sense for our team. Our ownership group was on board, and we were able to move very quickly at that point and get a deal done.
"Moustakas, I’d say at the end of last year, we understood the impact that he had on our team, both on the field and in the clubhouse. Again, we didn’t know exactly what Mike was seeking at the front end of the offseason. We went in with the understanding that we were going to let that market in particular, the infield/second base market, play out a little bit. We’re certainly thrilled and fortunate that we were able to bring Mike back. We think he’s a great fit on the team, and we’re happy to have him here."
There was a perception when you re-signed Moustakas that he would play third base and Travis Shaw would go to second. What went into the decision to keep Shaw at third and have Moustakas move to second?
"The plan was always to explore both of them at second base, Frankly, that was the plan when we acquired Mike back in July. We actually had Moustakas taking ground balls at second base for the first week or so when we acquired him, but since Travis had been working at it longer, we figured we’d run with Travis rather than bouncing them back and forth. That was the lineup that made the most sense.
"As we headed into a new Spring Training now with six weeks of preparation, exploring both of those guys over there, having Mike get the lion’s share of work over there, since it is new to him, makes the most sense, then we can go from there. We know Travis is most comfortable at third; he was a tremendous teammate last year moving over midseason, but we know he’s most comfortable at third. We also know Mike is really enthused and energized by moving over to second. If that’s the alignment that ends up working out, that’s a great alignment for the team."
You made the decision not to sign any free-agent starting pitchers this offseason. Did you contemplate any starters? With some still available on the free-agent market, is the door still open for such a signing?
"I’d say we explored various opportunities on the starting pitching market, but in the backdrop of all of that was the depth and comfort level that we have with our young starters. We rode a lot of these guys deep into the playoffs last year, whether it’s Brandon Woodruff, Freddy Peralta or Corbin Burnes. They were in slightly different roles; we’re going to be asking more of them throughout the course of the year this year, but we think they have the potential to do it. We think that given where they are in their careers and their development, for both them and us, it’s important that they have the opportunity to do it at the Major League level."
When you look at players such as Grandal and Moustakas signing one-year deals -- and a number of other veterans agreeing to one- and two-year contracts -- does that play into the advantage of mid-market clubs such as yours?
"It’s probably not a surprise that mid- or smaller-market teams need to be a little bit more cautious with their long-term spending. We generally cannot afford to make multi-year mistakes on contracts -- especially big-dollar contracts. There probably is a little bit more appetite for risk on shorter-term deals because if we’re wrong, those deals move off our books and we can recover. If we’re wrong on a four-, five- or six-year deal, it’s challenging for an organization in our market and other organizations in similarly sized markets, to recover from that. The shorter-term opportunities do allow us to take a little bit more risk from a payroll perspective."
Having added about $25 million in payroll with Grandal and Moustakas, will there still be financial flexibility to add players this summer in trades?
"[Owner] Mark [Attanasio] has been very consistent with us that he’s committed to providing the resources necessary to help us compete and compete consistently. Our entire ownership group proved that once again this offseason and stepped up this offseason to demonstrate that they believe in this team and we believe in this team. They’re willing to support this team and stretch the limits to do that."
The National League Central has gotten stronger this offseason. How do you view the division?
"It’s a strong division. For me, one of the more humorous narratives of this offseason and the beginning of the season is that the Cubs are in some way this team that has to add or is at this precipice. The team won 95 games last year. The division came down to Game 163, which itself was a very well-played, close game. That’s a really good team and deserves to be recognized as a really good team.
"The Cardinals were a really good team last year and then they went and added one of the best first basemen in all of baseball [Paul Goldschmidt] and a very good reliever [Andrew Miller], as well. The Reds clearly have turned the page on where they are in a competitive cycle and have indicated to the rest of baseball that they believe they’re ready to compete, and they’ll be much-improved. The Pirates have some of the best young pitching in the game, are exceptionally well-run and probably will be right there, as well.
"This really has the potential to be a five-team division all the way into the second half. Naturally, a couple teams tend to separate themselves; two or three teams will probably separate themselves in August or September and make it a two- or three-team race, but no team is going to fall out of this thing until we get past the All-Star break. That makes for a really exciting, competitive division."
You could argue it’s that way in the NL East, too, with the Nationals, Mets, Phillies and Braves all making moves this offseason. Do you think the NL Wild Card race will be more competitive than ever?
"The NL East and NL Central are going to be incredibly competitive divisions -- and that’s good for baseball. That’s going to keep a lot of markets engaged and make for a very interesting midseason Trade Deadline season. We intend to be a part of that, we’re excited to be a part of it, and we love competition. We’re going to have plenty of it."
When you make the jump from a rebuilding club to a contender in only a few years, what is the biggest challenge to stay there and ultimately take the next step?
"The challenges are different every year. Regardless of what phase of your organizational competitive cycle you’re in, the challenges are a little bit different each year. We do recognize that nobody is going to take us lightly. I don’t think anyone took us lightly last year after what we did in 2017, but we were a game away from the World Series, and the National League certainly understands that.
"I think people are looking at how we’ve managed our roster and how Craig manages games and recognize that we’re doing things maybe a little bit differently than some other teams, so that’s not going to surprise anyone this year. More than anything else, I think we have a group that is proud of what we accomplished last year but in no way satisfied. They believe there is more to come and are really going to demand it from themselves to stay focused and try taking another step."
Mark Feinsand, an executive reporter, originally joined MLB.com as a reporter in 2001.