As the National League Central Division stands now, the Milwaukee Brewers are not on the competitive radar. Even as the Pittsburgh Pirates have unexpectedly scuffled in the waning weeks of this season, the gap between them and the bottom teams in the division remains rather spacious. The Brewers last finished above .500 in 2014 – a season in which they marched to the front of the standings only to slip away suddenly and quietly – and last appeared in the playoffs in 2011.
It would be easy at this juncture to write them off for the foreseeable future; after all, the Cubs, Cardinals, and possibly even the Pirates are poised to keep the top spots in the stranglehold for years to come. But writing off the Brewers would be a mistake.
Why? It starts with an owner who made a commitment to strengthening the team for the long term and the hiring of a new general manager with a fresh vision about a year ago.
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It’s a small first step, but a move in the right direction for a franchise that is refreshingly unwilling to stick to the status quo that seemed to have perpetually kept lasting or tangible success just out of reach. When the Brewers hired David Stearns last September, much of the baseball world was hung up on his age (he was just 30 at the time), but in an article for the New York Times last year, he articulated his immediate goals for the franchise: “Player development and scouting — and acquiring controllable major league players — is really the priority of the organization.”
He went on to emphasize the need for stashing talented players in the Brewers farm system, not just for their own future, but for acquiring useful assets as the team eventually, hopefully, becomes competitive. The kinds of things that other young GMs and team presidents are doing across the league, and quite successfully.
In fact, this might sound strikingly similar to what has gone on just south of Milwaukee down the shore of Lake Michigan. The Chicago Cubs spent years rebuilding a franchise that had sunk to tremendous depths, and they started doing so with some fresh faces in their front office as well.
In the same way that Theo Epstein emphasized the need for patience back when he was hired in 2011, Stearns’ clear message has been about the patience that this rebuild will require. From the same New York Times article, he said, “That doesn’t mean an exceptionally long time, but it does mean that we need a level of patience and understanding of where our attention needs to be.”
This might paint a bit of a frustrating picture for Brewers fans in the short term, especially when they are left to say goodbye to Jonathan Lucroy, who has been a sterling catalyst for their offense for several years now. But the Lucroy trade is one of the first looks at the budding future in Milwaukee.
For the all star caliber catcher, the Brewers got Lewis Brinson and Luis Ortiz initially, and then recently completed the deal by adding Ryan Cordell. Baseball Prospectus ranked both Brinson and Ortiz in the top ten in the Rangers organization in March, and Cordell has been ranked both well within the Rangers top ten and just outside of it, depending on where you look.
The Lucroy trade is the first notable move that Stearns has made toward rebuilding the franchise, and it represents a step in the right direction. Before Stearns took the helm, the Brewers drafted highly sought-after prospects like Trent Clark in the 2015 draft to go with 2014 draftees Isan Diaz and Monte Harrison, so he has stepped into a process that was already begun and he is advancing it further. In some sense, he’s a piece to a puzzle that team owner Mark Attanasio started when he purchased the team in 2005.
Attanasio, who penned an open letter to Milwaukee fans in December of last year that made plain his intentions for the team and his hopes for the fanbase, has demonstrated thus far that he’s serious about restoring a winning tradition with this franchise. Like the Lucroy trade, the Brewers nearly pulled off another blockbuster deal just a few weeks ago with a Yasiel Puig for Ryan Braun swap.
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It didn’t happen, of course, but there’s still a very real possibility that this deal eventually does come to fruition. Like the changes to the roster, Attanasio has taken seriously the job of putting the right people in charge of his team as well.
That’s meant hiring people like Craig Counsell to manage the major league team during this time of transition – and maybe beyond – and people like Stearns to do the work of instilling an organizational mindset of growth and forward progress.
A glance at the team’s record this season might not paint the picture of a team with a bright future, but the stockpile of organizational talent that sits admittedly deep in the system sheds some sparkle of hope for seasons like 2018 or 2019, right when the competitive window for other organizations in the division might be starting to close.
In summary, like their counterparts in Chicago, the Brewers have committed to a thorough rebuild, however long it might take. Even though that will require a few years of patience, they are already demonstrating a willingness to trade players like Lucroy and build farm system depth for the sake of future success, and if they pull it off, they can join the Kansas City Royals in setting the model for small market teams to build winners.