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The Brilliance of the Brewers’ Unconventional Rebuild

Instead of following the Astros’ and Cubs’ blueprint, Milwaukee’s trying to get back to the top without ever bottoming out. Here’s how.

(AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer illustration)

Like the Freeze blowing by a Braves fan, baseball’s slow-starting preseason favorites are starting to overtake the early-season surprise teams. In the historically strong AL East, the Red Sox briefly caught up to the Yankees (who’ve lost six straight) before falling half a game back. In the Central, the Indians have finally gotten ahead of the Twins. In the NL West, the Dodgers have pulled even with the Rockies (and the Diamondbacks) in the loss column. At the top of almost every division, baseball’s natural order is asserting itself.

The NL Central is the only exception. There, the Brewers are still narrowly fending off the defending-champion Cubs, who were expected to have one of the easiest paths to the playoffs but have thus far peaked at four games over .500 en route to a 35–34 current record. The Brewers, who are lucky to have outplayed their more middling underlying stats for this long, almost certainly can’t maintain their 86-win pace or keep the Cubs at bay for three and a half more months, but neither is necessary for their season to be deemed a success. Whereas other recent rebuilds have taught us that the most direct route to contention runs through years of terrible teams, the Brewers are sailing right through a needle that the Astros and Cubs never attempted to thread. They’re trying to get back to the top without ever bottoming out, and thus far they’ve done it not just by building from within, but by casting an extra-wide net for nontraditional talent plucked from rival organizations and distant leagues.

The Brewers hired David Stearns to be their GM in September 2015, which makes this his second full season on the job. The team he took over wasn’t in appreciably better shape than the pre-rebuild Astros or Cubs when Jeff Luhnow and Theo Epstein, respectively, were hired in late 2011 to shepherd those clubs back to contention. The table below compares each team’s actual and third-order records, payroll ranks, farm-system ranks (according to Baseball Prospectus) and batter and pitcher age ranks (where higher is younger) in the season before the new GMs put their stamps on their rosters.

Like the 2011 Cubs and Astros, the 2015 Brewers were a lousy club, still saddled with a bottom-tier farm system when the season started. Of the three teams, they had the lowest payroll rank and the smallest local market. They weren’t as old as the Cubs or as young as the Astros, although like Houston, who dealt Jeff Keppinger, Hunter Pence, and Michael Bourn at the 2011 deadline, the Brewers had already begun to offload veteran players before unseating their GM: Stearns’s predecessor, Doug Melvin, had traded Yovani Gallardo, Aramis Ramírez, Mike Fiers, Carlos Gómez, Gerardo Parra, and relievers Jonathan Broxton and Neal Cotts in the months leading up to his ouster, which yielded current starter Zach Davies and closer Corey Knebel, among others. That gave Stearns a head start, but not enough of one that we would have expected the Brewers to be anything but awful for the foreseeable future.

Fast-forward two years, though, and the Brewers have leaped ahead of the pace set by the tear-it-down rebuilders. By 2013 both the Astros and Cubs had replenished their farm systems, raising their rankings to ninth and 12th, respectively. So have the Brewers, who climbed to third this spring. But the Astros and Cubs were still suffering at the big league level, as the former finished 51–111 and the latter limped to 66–96. Even the most pessimistic projection, meanwhile, has the Brewers ending this season with 79 wins. (Baseball Prospectus forecasts 82.) And they’ve done it with the big leagues’ lowest payroll, spending slightly more than a third of the Cubs’ total.

Although the Brewers closed 2016 strong, going 17–13 over their last 30 games to finish 73–89, their success through the first 44 percent of this season has exceeded even Stearns’s realistic expectations for 2017, if not the rosiest outcomes he could conjure. The Brewers have the youngest batters in baseball, noncompetitive Padres aside. With that youth comes uncertainty, and with uncertainty, hope. “I think the thing we all understand about projections is that there are wide error bars on either end of the projections, and when you have a young team with a lot of young players, which we do, and players without major league experience, those error bars become even wider,” Stearns says via phone. “So coming into this season, we knew we had a team that was probably a high-variance team.”

Most of that variance has broken the Brewers’ way. Eric Thames, whom the Brewers brought back to the States this spring after three years as a god in Korea, has been one of the 10 best hitters in baseball. Former Red Sox player Travis Shaw has been one of the game’s best-hitting third basemen (unlike the third baseman who’s still with the Sox). The previously unaccomplished quartet of Hernán Pérez, Manny Piña, Jesús Aguilar, and Eric Sogard — none of whom had ever had an average offensive campaign prior to this year — had amassed 5.5 WAR in roughly one season’s worth of combined playing time through Sunday’s games. The Brewers don’t have any fully fledged offensive stars, but those players, plus 24-year-old Domingo Santana, give them seven position players who’ve played at an above-average level, some of whom can handle multiple positions. That’s excluding the injured Ryan Braun, who hit well before hitting the DL with a calf strain, or the streaky Keon Broxton, who’s posted an OPS near .850 over the past two months after an abysmal first three weeks of April.

On the pitching side, Jimmy Nelson has made mechanical changes and taken steps toward top-of-the-rotation status. As a group, Milwaukee’s starters — including Chase Anderson, Matt Garza, Junior Guerra, and Davies — have recorded the majors’ sixth-best park-adjusted ERA. Knebel has a top-five reliever strikeout rate, although the bullpen behind him has struggled.

I just listed a lot of names. That’s because the Brewers, though light on stars, are deep in productive players.

“Depth isn’t often talked about,” Stearns says. “But I think we’re seeing throughout the industry how important depth can be within an organization, and certainly it’s something that we’ve talked about internally. And as we look at our roster this year, one of the really rewarding things for us and for our organization as a whole is how many different guys have contributed.”

We can quantify depth. Adam Guttridge and David Ogren, cofounders of the Neifi player-evaluation system — and, coincidentally, a former full-time employee of and consultant to the Brewers, albeit before Stearns’s hiring — have developed a measure of depth that adds up each player’s projected full-season wins below the halfway point between replacement level and average, and then combines those individual totals into a cumulative team figure. Anyone above that threshold (which is meant to approximate the talent level of a serviceable bench player) doesn’t detract from the team’s depth rating. The lower the number, the less dead weight the team is carrying on its roster. By this metric, the Brewers have the fewest holes (if not the highest highs) of any NL team.

It’s not especially surprising to see that the two teams ahead of Milwaukee are early-adopting disciples of sabermetrics. Stearns, himself a product of a stat-savvy team, stocked the Brewers’ brain trust with Rays front-office alumni, including AGM Matt Arnold, R&D director Dan Turkenkopf, and R&D special assistant Shawn Hoffman. Although the GM is quick to credit the Brewers’ scouting staff for many of the teams’ finds, blending both disciplines helps ensure that no potential player slips through the cracks, no matter how far from the typical profile.

Guttridge notes via email that teams have a hard time anticipating mid-career reinventions by players such as Daniel Murphy or Yonder Alonso. Similarly, they can’t count on reliably drafting superstars, or even signing them, unless they’re willing to pay a premium for free agents and accept that they’ll soon age out of their primes. “Where front offices can reliably outpace each other,” he says, “is in distinguishing between different classes of ‘marginal’ players with the greatest degree of precision. Properly assessing values in these regions is where teams make or break themselves longer-term.”

Stearns seems to be of the same mind, citing “an overall recognition within our baseball group and our organization that we can’t be blind to any opportunity. Players come from everywhere, we talk about that a lot. Players don’t all have to look a certain way, they don’t all have to act a certain way. And so we just need to look at each player and determine whether there’s a way for that player to positively impact our team, understanding that we’re not going to find a lot of perfect players out there.”

Another commonality that might be apparent from Milwaukee’s long list of useful players is how few began their pro careers with the Brewers. Of the 25 players on Milwaukee’s active roster, only four (Nelson, shortstop Orlando Arcia, and relievers Jacob Barnes and Wily Peralta) are homegrown — that is, either drafted or signed as amateur free agents by the Brewers. Only the Braves have fewer active homegrown players. Even the Brewers’ top three prospects this spring, and four of the top five (according to Baseball America), were imports from other organizations.

Many of the Brewers’ recent acquisitions were harvested from trades, some during Stearns’s tenure and some from the tail end of Melvin’s. Aside from last year’s well-timed trade with Texas involving since-depreciated players Jonathan Lucroy and Jeremy Jeffress, though, the Brewers didn’t have huge names to deal; Stearns got good value for Jean Segura, but he couldn’t auction off top-tier talent like Chris Sale and Adam Eaton, the way the White Sox have. Instead he made a series of small moves oriented toward incremental upgrades almost as soon as he took the controls. In February 2016 FanGraphs writer Dave Cameron gave the Brewers an “A” for Stearns’s first offseason, saving the only other “A” grade for the free-spending Cubs. Neifi, meanwhile, appraised Stearns’s offseason haul at a net surplus value of more than $160 million, tops in the majors that winter.

Although Stearns says he hasn’t operated under any “overarching philosophy” about the types of players who tend to be overvalued, players who’ve languished or been blocked in other organizations have helped the Brewers. “We’ve been able to find some guys that maybe weren’t getting opportunities in their current organizations,” he says. “We were able to give them opportunities.” Keon Broxton, for instance, was heading for his 26th birthday when Stearns poached him from the Pirates for Jason Rogers, who’d put up fluky numbers in a part-time 2015 role. Shaw, sent to Milwaukee with three prospects for now-injured reliever Tyler Thornburg, was the odd man out in Boston. Guerra had pitched well for the White Sox in the minors, but had barely gotten a big league look; the Brewers picked him up, undeterred by the fact that he’d already turned 30, which made him an atypical target for a team that was just embarking on a youth movement. Piña, another player who seemed to have passed his sell-by date, was a player to be named later in the Francisco Rodríguez trade.

Sometimes, too, Stearns swooped in to pick up a formerly touted player who’d lost his luster after initial big league growing pains. Such was the case with Jonathan Villar, a former Astros top-100 prospect who gave the Brewers a four-WAR year in 2016 after a November 2015 swap for Cy Sneed, a right-handed pitcher who’s still stalled in Double-A. “There’s prospect fatigue within the industry sometimes,” Stearns adds. “Sometimes, players reach the major leagues at a very young age and don’t have immediate success, and so we see them not have success in the major leagues at a young age and we change our evaluation of them, and maybe sometimes that’s not entirely fair.”

The Brewers’ active roster includes four players, including Pérez and Guerra, who came to them via waiver claims; no other club has more. One such waiver find is Aguilar, claimed from Cleveland this past February. Stearns says the transactions that most excite him are the ones where multiple parties within the organization can lay claim to the player’s success, which makes Aguilar (.293/.365/.549 through 148 plate appearances) one of his most savored finds. “It was a combination of maybe noticing a little bit of a mechanical change on the way he was doing things towards the end of the year last year from our scouting staff, following that up through some international scouting and coaching in winter ball,” Stearns says. “Then he’s on waivers, we elect to make the claim, and then our major league coaching staff doing a tremendous job with him throughout spring training and making sure he got playing time.” Although the Brewers have excelled at finding free talent that was waiting for a team to take note, they’ve also done a good job of developing players once they’re inside Milwaukee’s system.

Thames, of course, had terrorized the KBO after failing to stick in the States. The Brewers were willing to accept the risk that the skills he’d demonstrated overseas wouldn’t survive the promotion. “Everyone knew he was having this level of success — the numbers were ridiculous,” Stearns says. “But we made the bet that this was not fundamentally the same player who went over to Korea, that he had made a meaningful adjustment in his discipline and his approach, and that that could translate to the United States.” Milwaukee has also been aggressive in signing players from the independent leagues.

Jimmy Nelson (Getty Images)
Jimmy Nelson (Getty Images)

“Whether it’s indy ball or minor league free agency or the international market, more than anything I think it’s keeping an open mind about what these players can possibly do,” Stearns says. “A lot of times when players aren’t playing at the major league level it’s very easy to poke holes in them, and it’s very easy to say what they can’t do. I think our group has done a very nice job of looking at players and discussing what they can do and whether that’s a fit for our organization.” Last year, the Brewers signed a pitcher named Santos Saldivar, who’d starred for a low-level indy-league team that I’d written about. Saldivar, listed at 5-foot-10, stood 5-foot-8 at the most, and he hadn’t been drafted despite standout stats in college. I didn’t expect an MLB team to give him an audition, but the Brewers’ statheads and scouts signed off on Saldivar, intrigued by his video and pitch-tracking stats. After spending last season in the Brewers’ system, Saldivar was released this spring. He’s not the next Guerra, but it cost the team only a $3,000 fee to find out. Next time, the low-level risk might pay off.

By winning now, the Brewers are making it harder for themselves to keep plundering other organizations. No longer can they take their pick of the players on the waiver wire. “When you’re near the front of the waiver priority line, it makes it a little bit easier to hit on some guys,” Stearns says. “We’re a little bit farther back now, and so we’ve found that some of the guys that perhaps we would’ve targeted in the past are not getting to us.”

The Brewers are also costing themselves a high pick in next year’s amateur draft, something the Astros and Cubs seemed to covet during their races to MLB’s basement. Stearns says that the veteran talent he inherited (and traded) gave him the freedom not to rely on the draft. More important, perhaps, is the draft’s unpredictability; for every Kris Bryant, there’s a Mark Appel, and the expected returns from drafted players fall off rapidly after the first couple of picks. “While having a top draft pick clearly gives you an advantage in restocking your system for high-impact players, it’s not the only way to do it,” Stearns says. “So we’ve chosen to balance that with some other ways that we think we’re able to get some quality young minor league players into the organization.”

From the start of his time in Milwaukee, Stearns has refused to get specific about his team’s competitive timeline, claiming that baseball is too black a box for him to answer the question accurately. Maybe he was worried that the team would miss whatever target he set; instead, it’s arrived early. But if the Brewers’ better-than-expected start has affected Stearns’s plans for this summer — not that it should — he’s not letting on. “Acquiring, developing, and retaining the best young talent,” Stearns says, will “remain our strategy going forward regardless of the competitiveness of the major league team.”

Judging by the Astros’ example, this season should have been the Brewers’ nadir. It’s possible, though, that we’ve already seen Milwaukee at its worst — and by modern rebuilding standards, the Brewers’ worst wasn’t bad at all. Milwaukee can’t count on an ending as dreamlike as the Cubs’, or even as happy as Houston’s start to this season. But whatever success lies at the other end of their rebuild, the Brewers have already won, in a way, by making the trip as painless as possible.

Thanks to Jason Martinez of Roster Resource and Adam Guttridge of Neifi for research assistance.