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Hired David Stearns as general manager; Doug Melvin moves to an advisory role within the organization. [9/21]
Rumors swirled for months around the Brewers' GM search, with most suggesting the club would target someone young, analytical, and ambitious. With Doug Melvin sticking around as an advisor and potential mentor, the organization had an opportunity to hire someone without direct experience as a general manager, or, in other words, to prioritize skill set and intellect without needing someone familiar with day-to-day operations in the position.
At only 30 years old and just eight years removed from undergraduate work at Harvard, David Stearns represents precisely those things. Owner Mark Attanasio hired one of the brightest up-and-coming minds in the baseball community. He spent time with Major League Baseball as the manager of labor relations—which included working on the most recent Collective Bargaining Agreement—and is most known for his successful stints with the Indians and Astros. Those who have worked with him rave about his demeanor and potential.
For the last three years, Stearns served as the Houston Astros' assistant general manager, learning under Jeff Luhnow during the club's recent renaissance. It's difficult to ascertain which portions of the Astros' overall philosophy mirror Stearns' own, and we don't know how heavily he factored into any specific trade or free-agent acquisition, but one can be relatively confident in assuming Stearns and Luhnow aren't too far apart. It seems unlikely that the Astros' general manager would have hired anyone who disagreed with the fundamentals put in place in Houston.
Recent interviews and overall practices in Houston hint at what the New York native could bring to Milwaukee. He has spoken strongly in the past about prioritizing scouting in Asia and the Pacific Rim, something that has not traditionally happened in Milwaukee. Using all data (technological and human) available to shape development and decision-making processes has also come up multiple times in interviews. Perhaps a good way of understanding what this means can be found in an article from spring training in 2014 about how the Astros are trying to transition data to on-the-field activities. One assumes that these sort of practices will be brought to the Brewers organization.
Stearns has a remarkable opportunity to remold the Brewers in his desired image. The organization began a rebuilding process over the 2015 season—trading Carlos Gomez, Mike Fiers, Gerardo Parra, Aramis Ramirez, Jonathan Broxton, and Neal Cotts—and is presumably poised to move more pieces this winter. The specifics are unclear, as the front-office staff must be cobbled together first, but common sense suggests Stearns was not brought in to halt the organizational retooling.
The Brewers' new general manager benefits from three key things:
The big-league club possesses multiple assets with positive trade value and team-friendly contracts. Shortstop Jean Segura, outfielder Khris Davis, and catcher Jonathan Lucroy all have varying levels of value. Francisco Rodriguez posted a 2.44 ERA and could augment the back end of many bullpens. Adam Lind owns a brilliant .302 TAv and could immediately improve a contender's undesirable situation at first base or designated hitter. The likelihood of these players being traded is unknown; however, the overall point stands that Stearns inherits a major-league club that's not stripped of tradeable assets.
The minor-league system has improved from a cellar-dweller in the bottom third to one that should threaten for the top 10 in 2016. This has been accomplished through all phases of acquisition: the draft, the international market, and the trade market. Importantly, though, many of the team's key prospects are clustered near the upper levels. Orlando Arcia, Brett Phillips, and Jorge Lopez headline the young players at or above Double-A Biloxi, but the various trades this summer also brought in Domingo Santana, Zach Davies, Josh Hader, and Adrian Houser. The lower levels of the minors have experienced a massive influx of talent via the draft over the last three years, while investment in the Latin American market has netted exciting shortstop Gilbert Lara, who is only 17 and held his own in Rookie ball.
Finally, the Brewers have consistently posted attendance figures in the top half of the majors, and Attanasio has shown a willingness to open his wallet and spend above the club's modest means when necessary. In 2014, the club had the 12th-ranked payroll in MLB. That may not seem impressive at first glance, but in baseball's smallest media market, the ability to bankroll a roster that ranks in the upper half of the big leagues is massive. The club will never compete monetarily with the large-market clubs; however, any assumption that Milwaukee is stuck at the children's table and cannot throw significant money around on occasion is sorely mistaken. Stearns joins an organization that has a loyal fan base that shows up to the ballpark and that has an aggressive owner who won't choke the payroll to maximize profitability.
All of this is to say that despite the club's 68–83 record, the pieces scattered about the organization aren't decrepit. The Brewers are poised for a new face to step into the general manager position with fresh ideas and a plan to build a consistent winner, or, at least, as consistent as a non-large-market team can be. Attanasio and his colleagues clearly believe that Stearns is the forward-thinking architect the club needs.
Small-market organizations must be innovative to consistently compete with the goliaths of baseball. One could reasonably wonder if Stearns can usher in something truly novel and groundbreaking, or whether this is simply the Brewers playing catch-up with big-market clubs like Los Angeles, Houston, Boston, and Chicago. It's important to recognize what we don't know. As with all first-time general managers, we're left without much on which we can judge his likely performance. We don't really know what to expect, if we're truly being honest. We're trusting the interview process and the numerous recommendations across the league. What we can comfortably assert, though, is that Milwaukee is an organization that appears to be in the middle of a successful rebuild, rather than a club needing a gutting. Stearns appears to be poised for success, even if it may not realistically come for another few years. That's all any young general manager can ask.
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