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Q&A: Stearns talks path to bigs, Brewers' direction

Majors' youngest GM discusses rise, plans for Milwaukee
April 6, 2017

Age has never been much of an issue for David Stearns, mostly because he's always been the youngest guy in the room no matter what he's doing.Hired to be the Brewers' general manager in September 2015 at the age of 30, Stearns became the youngest GM in the game --

Age has never been much of an issue for David Stearns, mostly because he's always been the youngest guy in the room no matter what he's doing.
Hired to be the Brewers' general manager in September 2015 at the age of 30, Stearns became the youngest GM in the game -- a title he still holds. But even as he competes with more experienced executives -- some more than twice his age -- Stearns believes he's putting Milwaukee on a course to contend in the not-too-distant future. recently sat down with Stearns in his Spring Training office at Maryvale Baseball Park in Phoenix to discuss his fast track to the GM's office, what he learned while working for Mark Shapiro and Jeff Luhnow, and what it was like for him to turn over half of his 40-man roster in one offseason.
:: General manager Q&As :: While you attended Harvard, you interned with the Pirates. At what age did you decide that you wanted to pursue a career in baseball?
Stearns: I've been fortunate that I knew I wanted to work in baseball for a really long time; probably since I was in high school. When you're a kid and you first think about staying attached to the game, you think about playing the game. I realized in late high school or early college that that was not going to be an option for me and that I needed to find a different way to stay in the game. Once that became clear, I began sending out letters to everyone I could possibly find. A couple of them were nice enough to return those letters, and ultimately the Pirates gave me an internship. How did you land your first full-time job?
Stearns: My path was a little bit of a bumpy one at first. I interned for the Pirates for two summers while I was in college. After I graduated college, I got a job at the Arizona Fall League, which is sort of a term; you know there's going to be an expiration date on that job because when the league ends, you're out of a job. The league ended and so did my job, I got another internship with the Mets; a full-year internship. That led to a full-time job at the Commissioner's Office. For a kid growing up in New York City a Mets fan, was it a dream come true to go work at Shea Stadium?
Stearns: It was a great experience. The Mets had some really good teams at that time in 2007, '08. To experience that excitement at Shea Stadium, to be able to go to work to in a building that I used to do everything I could just to get in there when I was a kid, it was pretty cool. I learned a lot, as well. There were some really good people there who took me under their wing, from Omar Minaya to John Ricco to Adam Fisher -- guys who really cared about developing people. They helped me really move along. You mentioned your time in the Commissioner's Office. [Phillies GM] Matt Klentak said his experience there, especially working in labor relations, was as good of a platform for a career in baseball as anything he could possibly imagine. What did you take most from that job?
PODCAST: Listen to the full interview
Stearns: The benefit of working at the Commissioner's Office, regardless of what the capacity is that you're working there, is you get to look at the game from a macro view. When you're at clubs now, we're so focused on our individual team's circumstance, we're so focused on how we maximize wins and losses for our individual team. At the Commissioner's Office, I got a greater appreciation for the challenges and opportunities facing the industry as a whole. I got to work with some really bright people.
Throughout my time there, I got to participate in a collective bargaining negotiation. All of that gave me an appreciation for how robust this industry is, how many different arms and people there are working to ensure a prosperous future for the industry, and it also helped certainly my critical-thinking skills in looking at big problems and trying to come up with appropriate solutions. I would certainly agree with Matt on that one; it's a wonderful place to work. When I was there, I thought I was going to be there -- or hoped I was going to be there -- for a very long time. Some other opportunities came along and allowed me to go work for a club. You went on to work for Mark Shapiro in Cleveland. What did you learn most from him?
Stearns: The entire Cleveland front office there devotes itself to producing an extremely collaborative and cooperative culture. Certainly that started with Mark -- it probably even started before him with John Hart -- and the lineage that worked through there. That's most of what I took away from Cleveland -- the importance of culture, the importance of having everyone within a baseball operations department feel as though they're a part of what's going on on the Major League field and have ownership over the ultimate success of the franchise.
There are a lot of people throughout baseball that work incredibly hard, make real sacrifices to work in the game, and to make sure that all those people feel a part of the action, a part of the decision-making process, I think Cleveland does that about as well if not better than anyone in the industry. Seeing that first-hand was very instructive for me. You moved on to Houston after Cleveland, working with Jeff Luhnow. He tabbed you as a potential GM in an interview in 2015; was that always your goal?
Stearns: My goal when I got into the game was to get to a level where I was able to contribute to wins and losses on the field. That's what mattered to me; I wanted to be involved in player-personnel decisions. It's pretty tough to look at this and say, "I want to be a GM and that's my end goal." There are only 30 GMs, so that's a challenging bar to set. I knew I was going to be happy if I could get to a place with an organization that I respected and trusted and was able to help influence on-field decisions. I was able to do that, and now obviously have been able to become a general manager, which has been great. But when I started out, I never said to myself, "I need to become a general manager in order to be happy in the game." You were hired by the Brewers at the age of 30, becoming the youngest GM in the game at the time. Was it difficult at all starting that job and having to deal with GMs, some of whom had been doing their jobs as long as you'd been alive?
Stearns: I was fortunate that through my work in the C.O. -- frankly even starting with my job search when I was in high school and college -- I had interacted with a lot of the other GMs or a lot of the other assistant general managers in baseball before. I knew the vast majority of them to some extent; a segment, I knew very well. I never really looked at it as a hindrance.
I think everyone is really coming at the discussions between general managers with very similar agendas; we need to do what's in the best interest of our organization. For the most part, everyone is very respectful of that. Everyone understands that the person on the other end of the phone is working really hard to do what they can for their organization. I never felt that challenge because I was the new guy on the block or I was the youngest guy; everyone treated me with respect and certainly I have a great deal of respect for the other general managers out there. You turned over 20 of your 40 spots on your 40-man roster during your first offseason. How daunting of a task was that offseason for you?
Stearns: Any new position can be daunting at times; any new position can be challenging. I certainly didn't come into the position thinking I was going to turn over half of our 40-man roster in the first offseason; it just happened as transactions appeared. We were able to be aggressive and make transactions that we thought made sense. I give our ownership group a lot of credit for giving me the freedom to be able to do that. They didn't know me particularly well at that point, but they trusted that the decisions we were making were going to work out.
By and large, a lot of them did. Certainly we made some that we wish we could have back. We had a tremendous amount of transaction volume; it's probably going to be the busiest offseason I'll have for a long time as a general manager. But it was based on the transactions that came in front of us and what we thought made sense for our organization. With analytics being used by all 30 teams now, it's also made its way to the fans with Statcast™. Do you think it's making the way fans watch the game a little different?
Stearns: I'm sure it's making it different. I think what is helpful about those types of metrics and those types of statistics is fans can opt in or out of them. I don't know that we necessarily should be shoving those types of metrics down fans' throats if they don't find that an enjoyable aspect of the game, but for fans who do want to get a closer glimpse of what teams are looking at -- the type of granular information that teams have -- I do think it's a helpful advance for the viewing experience. You got married this offseason -- congratulations, by the way -- and your wedding cake received a lot of attention. How did you decide to have a Miller Park-shaped cake? I'm somehow guessing that wasn't the one your wife dreamed about as a little girl.
Stearns: So that was not my decision. As you might imagine with wedding planning, a lot is not on the groom's plate. This was new to me because I grew up in the North East, but in the South, there's the traditional wedding cake and then there's the groom's cake. I had not heard of that previously. My in-laws surprised me with the groom's cake; I had no idea that we were going to have a cake in the shape of Miller Park. I saw it for the first time when I got into the reception hall. As impressive as the cake was visually, it tasted just as good, which certainly made it worth it. You clearly liked Jonathan Villar from your time in Houston; you traded for him when you got here. Was last season's production even a surprise to you?
Stearns: I think it had to be a surprise for everyone in baseball. I don't know that I had any inside knowledge on Johnny's talents; we all knew that he was an athletic, talented young player. We also knew that the Astros had Carlos Correa and Jose Altuve, so he probably wasn't going to get a lot of playing time there. We were happy to be able to acquire him, happy to be able to give him opportunity last year, and he took it from there. He really took advantage of the opportunity that he was given, and he's now cemented himself as part of our future. With a young lineup and several of your top prospects getting closer to the Majors, does this feel like the kind of season where the Brewers can make a push to contend for a playoff spot?
Stearns: We certainly believe we have a number of very talented, young players who are on the cusp of either breaking out within the Major League environment or getting to the Major Leagues. How quickly or slowly that group coalesces together, we don't know. I don't think anyone knows as they go through processes like these. But I am confident that we have the talent level throughout our organization to ultimately get the organization back to consistent competitiveness. They always say, "To be the best, you've got to beat the best." Big challenge obviously having the Cubs in your division; how do you assess the state of the National League Central overall?
Stearns: We think we're in the best division in baseball, and we want to make it a better division. We know that the Cubs aren't going anywhere, the Pirates aren't going anywhere, the Cardinals aren't going anywhere, and the Reds are getting better. This is going to continue to be a very challenging division to play in. That motivates us, that energizes us. We like the challenge of trying to compete in that environment and we're certainly not backing down from it.

Mark Feinsand is an executive reporter for