On Sunday, it was reported that the Milwaukee Brewers had decided to hire 30-year old David Stearns as their new GM. On the surface, Stearns appears to be exactly the kind of person the Brewers were looking for, namely, a younger candidate with knowledge of analytics. According to MLB.com's Adam McCalvy, Stearns has already put together an impressive resume despite his age.
"Since graduating from Harvard in 2007, Stearns has worked in the baseball operations departments of the Mets, Pirates, Indians and for the Arizona Fall League and Major League Baseball. His tenure with MLB spanned 2008-11, ending with a stint as manager of labor relations. In that role, Stearns assisted in the arbitration process and worked on the league's Collective Bargaining Agreement.
From 2011-12, he was director of baseball operations for the Indians, then joined the Astros and GM Jeff Luhnow. Stearns was Houston's assistant GM for the past three seasons."
Stearns takes control of a team that appears to be in a challenging situation going forward. The Brewers are currently last in the NL Central with a record of 63-87, and it is quite possible that they will stay in the NL Central cellar for the next couple of years due to their weak farm system. Prior to this season, their system was consistently ranked in the bottom half in baseball, with rankings ranging from 19th (Baseball America) to 26th (Baseball Prospectus) and 28th (Keith Law). The industry consensus is that the Brewers have the weakest system in their own division, as the Pirates and Cubs came into the season ranked in the top five, while the Cardinals (who are loaded with young major league talent after having the top-ranked minor league system two years ago) and Reds were in the middle of the pack.
The good news for the Brewers is that they do not have a lot of long-term commitments on the books. Ryan Braun is under contract until 2020 and Matt Garza is signed through 2017 with a vesting option for 2018. After that, the Brewers have a lot of flexibility, which means that Stearns could potentially take the Brewers in a number of different directions.
One way to rebuild the Brewers would be to follow the model of the Astros and Cubs and blow things up completely. This would involve a long and thorough process of losing badly, accumulating top draft picks, and building a formidable farm system that can supply the major league team with cheap talent for years to come. It would also mean cutting back on major league payroll for a few years and saving this money for future years when the Brewers will be more competitive. After all, teams gain little benefit from paying for wins that only make them slightly less terrible.
An all-out rebuilding strategy like this would likely involve trading away players that are under short-term contracts, something former GM Doug Melvin appeared somewhat reluctant to do. Despite the Brewers' obvious need to rebuild, Melvin decided to hang onto valuable assets like Adam Lind and Jonathan Lucroy at this year's trade deadline, even though these players had little chance of being on a contending Brewers team before they hit free agency. Getting a good return for Lucroy and Lind should be a top priority for the Brewers this offseason. After that, they could even listen on trade offers for players entering arbitration this offseason, including Jean Segura, Wily Peralta, and Will Smith.
Given the Brewers' situation, this kind of strategy may be the only way the team can hope to field a sustainable competitive team in future years, especially in the NL Central. The Cardinals always seem to be good, having made the playoffs twelve of the last sixteen years, and the Cubs and Pirates appear to be built for long-term success as well. The Reds, on the other hand, are stuck in neutral, taking things one year at a time, despite having appealing short-term assets that they could trade away to accelerate a rebuilding process.
If the Brewers are realistic, they should probably aim to be competitive within 3-5 years. They operate in the smallest market in all of baseball, which means that unlike other teams, they cannot afford to quickly spend their way into contention. If the Brewers are smart, perhaps they could be competitive one year ahead of schedule, like the Cubs and Astros are this year.
Of course, in this day and age, "being smart" in baseball often involves a heavier use of analytics, and by all indications, this is an area where the Brewers could improve. In ESPN's Great Analytics Rankings, the Brewers were placed in the "one foot in" category, behind at least sixteen other teams who were rated as "all-in" or "believers." The analytics writeup on the Brewers was particularly interesting as it actually praised the team for its use of defensive shifts and its emphasis on catcher framing. Still, it concluded,
"All of this does not mean the Brewers live on the cutting edge. Melvin and manager Ron Roenicke could hardly be described as true believers. While the Brewers have a relatively large analytics staff, including two analysts and three programmers, the overall approach in Milwaukee appears to be less sophisticated than that of the top sabermetric teams."
Since that summary was written, the Brewers have replaced Doug Melvin and Ron Roenicke, possibly indicating their intention to be more analytically-inclined. Still, they have a long way to go if they hope to compete with the analytics operations of their division rivals. The Cardinals, Pirates, and Cubs were all placed in the "all-in" category, and each of these teams can point to concrete ways in which their use of analytics has helped them gain an edge over competitors. If the Brewers are able to catch up to the other teams in their division under the leadership of David Stearns, the NL Central could continue to be terrifying for years to come.
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