In an era in which teams like the Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros have seen an organizational renaissance after overhauling their minor league systems, the term “rebuild” is thrown around as frequently as pie dough in a pizza kitchen.
David Stearns realizes as much, and in an interview with Bleacher Report, he tried to explain the nuances of how he is approaching it as the general manager of the Milwaukee Brewers.
The Brewers made Stearns Major League Baseball’s youngest GM when they hired him at 30 years old last season. Both Theo Epstein and Jon Daniels were hired by the Boston Red Sox and Texas Rangers, respectively, at 28 to lead those baseball operations departments.
Stearns addressed his philosophy, team draft strategy and the future of left fielder Ryan Braun and catcher Jonathan Lucroy, two highly sought-after veterans, as we approach the trade deadline.
Bleacher Report: Every “rebuild” has its nuances. What’s your philosophy as it pertains to turning this team into a contender?
David Stearns: We’ve been pretty consistent in what our overarching strategy is, and our overarching strategy is to acquire, develop and retain the best young talent we possibly can, and that is throughout the organization. Frankly, that’s not a cycle here that’s ever going to end.
We recognize that for us to remain consistently competitive—whether that’s now or in the future—our overarching organizational philosophy is always going to be to acquire, develop and retain the best talent that we can. At this stage of where we are, we’re doing our best to accelerate that process.
There are obviously a couple of different avenues by which you can acquire young talent: The draft is one of them, and obviously the trade market is another one. And so at this point, we think it’s in our best interest to explore all those avenues.
B/R: Do you feel like you have to decide from one season to another whether you are going to try to be competitive?
DS: I don’t think you ever really make that determination. I think you have a consistent philosophical strategy and you implement that strategy, and if the strategy is sound and it’s executed well, the amount of talent needed to compete will gather at the major league level.
Putting a time frame on that I don’t think is particularly wise because we’re not that smart. We don’t know exactly when that critical mass of talent is going to surface. But I don’t know that you ever want to get into a situation where you’re categorically saying, “Yes, we’re in. No, we’re not in.”
B/R: You’ve got some young talent playing well at the MLB level this season. Do you see things at least percolating?
DS: The more young talent that we have continuing to develop and take steps forward, the faster we’re going to be able to get to where we want to go. And so we’ve been pleased so far this year that we’ve had a number of young players take that step forward this year in their development.
We’ve been able to provide a number of our young players consistent playing time, and often that’s what these guys need to take that step. That’s certainly a part of it, and when you begin to see those pieces come together throughout your minor league system and at the major league level, it certainly leads to a degree of hope and optimism.
B/R: A bullpen seems like the most elusive thing in baseball. You draft a pitcher and their intentions are to come here and start. How do you think about a bullpen in building your organization?
DS: I think if you look at the history of very successful bullpens, they all seem to be constructed in a variety of different ways, and so trying to find concrete, discernible patterns and "this is the proper way to construct a bullpen" is probably not going to be a particularly fruitful endeavor.
So what we are looking to do from just an organizational standpoint is acquire pitchers who get outs, and if we acquire enough pitchers that get outs, we’re going to be able to get outs throughout all nine innings of a game. Clearly the majority of those, we hope, are going to come from the starting pitcher who goes late into games, and then you can complement that with a strong back end of the pen.
But we recognize where the industry is headed, and the industry is headed toward more specialization, where talented bullpens are able to pick up the last 12 to 15 outs in a game—and certainly that’s one way you can construct a roster.
B/R: You laugh. Is that because it’s the topic du jour?
DS: I think it’s so elusive. It’s something that front offices, far long before I ever got into baseball, were trying to figure out, and I think each team has a slightly different philosophy of how to go about it. Clearly there are some organizations over the last couple of years that have put together historically dominant bullpens, and it’s led to a pretty good degree of success.
B/R: How much do you pay attention to what other sellers are doing in the trade market? We haven’t really seen it heat up yet. Does that affect when you act?
DS: I don’t know that this year is necessarily any different pace-wise than other years. It generally doesn’t pick up too consistently until you get into July, and then historically, the majority of action is taken post-All-Star break.
My impression is that there’s plenty of conversation going on. There are a lot of informational calls. At this stage, everyone is trying to understand where team needs are and how we might fit with other clubs. It could really pick up at any time. It’s pretty tough to predict.
B/R: It’s sort of a tradition not to do business with anybody in your division. With the importance and emphasis on acquiring young talent, is there any shift in that philosophy?
DS: I think you have to be open to dealing with all 29 other clubs. We made a deal with Pittsburgh in the offseason. We’ve had conversations with every club in our division. So we have to be open to it. We’d be foolish not to engage those clubs.
B/R: Lucroy and Braun are going to be sought after. The notion of whether or not you’re “shopping” somebody, is that overblown? I assume you’re getting phone calls.
DS: Generally, when you’re in a position that we’re in where we have some players, some veteran-type players, who have performed very well throughout the first half of the year—we’re a team that’s under .500 right now in a really good division—whenever those types of situations occur, you get calls about those players from teams that are higher up in the standings.
Certainly we’re no different, and we’re getting those calls. So along with that comes a whole lot of media speculation and reports of conversation and interest, and that comes with the territory. So we know that’s going to happen. I think both Braun and Luc know that’s going to happen and have handled it very well, and they understand the business aspect of this industry.
They understand from my perspective it’s my responsibility and obligation to see what is out there for any player on our roster, and so when another general manager calls and expresses interest, it would be foolish for me not to explore what we could potentially get back.
B/R: If you decide a guy isn’t part of your future, or you are too far away from contending, how do you weigh whether to deal a guy in July or wait until the winter?
DS: I think you gauge what the return is that you could generate at any particular time, and certainly there is some benefit to doing deals now because there is more urgency on the part of other clubs. There’s also benefit to doing deals in the offseason, because, potentially, there are more suitors for a particular type of player as teams are formulating their entire roster.
So I think you set a return value on a particular player, and if that return value is met, you have to be comfortable making a move.
B/R: Do you think for you guys, or any team in your position, that the second wild card has generated more competition in a buyer’s market?
DS: So I like the second wild card for a variety of different reasons. I think it probably does lead to a little bit more action this time of year. It keeps more teams in the hunt, and it creates excitement down the stretch.
B/R: During the draft, did you go best on board?
DS: Our philosophy is you take the best player available. Toward the end of the draft, you may have to deviate from that slightly as you need to fill out your lower-level rosters from a positional-need standpoint, but our goal for all our picks is always to take the best player available.
B/R: How do you evaluate a college or high school player metrically?
DS: Whenever you’re evaluating players who are not facing a consistent level of competition in consistent environments, it becomes very challenging, and the error bars on whatever metric you’re using are going to be much wider, and we recognize that.
And it’s something that the entire industry deals with as we try to evaluate amateur players across the spectrum on more objective criteria, and so the club that can shrink those error bars as much as possible is probably going to have an advantage. We’re working hard at doing that, and I’m sure a number of other clubs are as well.