I might be in the minority on this, but I entered 2015 with some optimism for the Milwaukee Brewers. I was convinced that the tragic ending to the 2014 season has been an anomaly, and despite a very quiet offseason and some questionable depth, the Brewers had a shot to win something like 86 games and compete for a Wild Card spot.
I was wrong.
I still don't know what I was waiting for back in January, but 2015 would turn out to be a significant tipping point in the history of the Milwaukee Brewers' franchise. I mean really though, who would've guessed that Carlos Gomez, Jonathan Lucroy, and Scooter Gennett would all land on the disabled list within the first three weeks of the season? Who could have known that the entire offense wouldn't show up for the first two months of the season? Sure, it wouldn't have been out of line to predict a bit regression from the older starters Kyle Lohse and Matt Garza, but did anyone think their production would completely fall off a cliff?
In the end, it was probably for the best that things fell into the tank as quickly as they did. It caused the rebuilding process that some felt was necessary dating all the back to 2012 to finally begin. 2015 wasn't a championship season for the Brewers, but it ushered in plenty of ch-ch-changes that were meant to help bring a new, sustained period of contention that we Milwaukeeans will have to be patient for.
Craig Counsell takes over as manager
After the Brewers got off to a franchise-worst 7-18 start, manager Ron Roenicke found himself on the chopping block on May 3rd. He almost certainly didn't deserve as much blame as he got for the club's poor play but everyone needs a scapegoat, even if the owner had basically said his job was safe a mere ten days before. Roenicke, who led the Brewers to the NLCS in 2011, called the timing "terrible" and many of the players were shocked by the move. But it was hard to ignore the fact that the club had gone just 38-62 during Roenicke's last 100 games at the helm dating back to the 2014 season.
In his place, the Brewers announced a three-year contract for new manager and Whitefish Bay native, Craig Counsell. He spent six of his 16 big league seasons playing for his hometown Brewers and was a popular player with fans, and had been working in the club's front office since his retirement in 2011 as a special assistant to GM Doug Melvin. At just 44 years old, Counsell was recently teammates with eight of the players he was now charged to lead and came with no previous managerial or coaching experience, though he had been linked to a few open positions around the league in prior seasons.
Counsell brought with him a very different approach than Runnin' Ron, employing a myriad of platoons and often experimenting with his batting order and shifting players all over the lineup, including batting his pitcher eighth on several occasions. He has been tasked with guiding the young roster and the up-and-coming prospects through the wilderness for the next few seasons. He finished 61-76 in his first partial season as manager and he certainly has the confidence of owner Mark Attanasio.
Ray Montgomery runs his first draft with the Brewers
Longtime amateur scouting director Bruce Seid tragically passed away late in 2014, leading Melvin to hire Ray Montgomery away from the Diamondbacks to take Seid's place. Montgomery began his career as a scout in the Brewers organization and spent four years building a strong reputation as Arizona's scouting director before being lured back to Milwaukee.
Montgomery's first draft in Milwaukee was almost universally considered a smashing success. Four of the Brewers current top 30 prospect according to MLB Pipeline - Trent Clark (2), Nathan Kirby (13), Demi Orimoloye (19), and Cody Ponce (29) - were chosen this past June. Montgomery is known for having a keen eye for talent and employing a strict "best player available" policy during his draft process, two traits that are sure to benefit the Brewers for as long as he sticks around as scouting director. Considering that he was being considered for the vacant Red Sox GM position earlier this winter, that may not be too long.
Brewers trade - then don't trade - then trade Carlos Gomez
By the time July rolled around it was no secret that the cellar-dwelling Brewers were going to be sellers at the trade deadline. What we didn't know was if the Brewers would simply start shedding some veteran players or if they would actually begin a full-scale rebuild. We thought we had an answer on July 29th, as rumors broke that the Brewers were sending All-Star center fielder Carlos Gomez to the New York Mets in exchange for Wilmer Flores and Zack Wheeler.
The Brewers appeared to be getting two MLB-ready pieces in Flores, who would have become the heir-apparent at third base, and Wheeler, a right handed pitcher with front-line potential who was recovering from Tommy John surgery but should be ready sometime in 2016. The Brewers would begin a retooling process and attempt to compete in the NL Central again in short order. But then things hit a snag.
Sandy Alderson insists "there is no trade. Unfortunately, social media got ahead of the facts." Says Gomez deal "will not transpire." #Mets— Anthony DiComo (@AnthonyDiComo) July 30, 2015
Shortly after the story broke - and Wilmer Flores broke down while manning shortstop at Citi Field - Mets' GM Sandy Alderson put the kibosh on the whole thing. New York wound up backing out of the deal over amidst some controversy over Gomez's physical, and Carlos was a Brewers once again.
One day later, the Houston Astros found Go-Go healthy enough to send four of their top 30 prospects to Milwaukee in exchange for him and Mike Fiers and the rebuild had officially begun. The jettisoning of two prime-age players who were both under team control for multiple years at that time - Gomez through 2016 and Fiers through 2020 - for prospects signaled that the Brewers were turning away from their attempts to be fringe playoff competitors every season in order to start building toward sustainable success. In Brett Phillips, Domingo Santana, Josh Hader, and Adrian Houser, the Brewers augmented an already improved minor league system with some high-ceiling talent and balanced out a bottom-heavy farm at the upper levels.
Doug Melvin wound up dealing five major league players before the trade deadline and a sixth in a waiver trade in August, effectively giving Milwaukee's farm system a total makeover. It would be a fitting end to his 13 year tenure as Milwaukee's top baseball executive the same way it began - in the beginning stages of a rebuilding process.
Doug Melvin steps down as GM, David Stearns hired as successor
Longtime General Manager Doug Melvin entered 2015 in the final year of his contract and while his on-field manager Ron Roenicke received an (ill-fated) extension prior to the season to avoid lame duck status, Melvin's status remained up in the air. After the whirlwind trading deadline that saw Melvin start reshaping the long-term future of the club, the Brewers announced on August 11th that Melvin, who had just turned 63, would be stepping down as GM following the season and move into an advisory role with the club.
Mark Attanasio began his search for "young, analytically minded" general manager candidates shortly thereafter, employing the head-hunting firm Korn Ferry to aid in the process. Given his previous front office experience, many fans and sports radio talkers seemed convinced that Craig Counsell was next in line for the job, and that he was simply using his time as manager to determine who he wanted to keep and who he wanted to ship out as the club rebuilt. That was crazy talk, of course, as the owner insisted that keeping Counsell on as manager would be necessary for any interested GM candidate. Ray Montgomery was also a popular in-house candidate among fans (inclduing myself), especially after his tremendous draft in June.
In the end the Brewers ended up going outside the organization with their hire and brought in one of the hottest up-and-coming young executives in the game. David Stearns, 30, had been serving as assistant GM in Houston under Jeff Luhnow for the past three seasons before the Brewers gave him the job on September 21st. The Harvard graduate became the youngest general manager in the major leagues upon being hired.
Stearns' vision for the Brewers long-term future was what won over Mark Attanasio during the interview process. The Brewers owner, who has been known to meddle in personnel decisions (Lohse, Garza, K-Rod), has been said to have given "complete autonomy" to Stearns to rebuild the club according to his vision. This extended to a made-over front office and coaching staff, as well.
Using his mantra of acquiring "young, controllable talent, regardless of position," David quickly earned the nickname of Slingin' Stearns from all of us here at BCB thanks to his wheeling and dealing ways. In three months on the job, Stearns has made four waiver claims, six trades, two big league Rule 5 draft selections and two minor league selections, and signed 12 players to minor league free agent contracts. With valuable trade chips like Lucroy and Jean Segura still remaining on the roster and another four months until Opening Day, it's almost certain that Stearns ain't done slingin', yet.
It seemed like before 2015, the Brewers were in a mode of "win now, forever." But that lead to a million dead-end streets, and everytime we thought we'd got it made, it seemed the taste was not so sweet. After a 94 loss season and sweeping ch-ch-changes across the organization, Mark himself finally admitted in an end-of-year letter to the fans the need for the franchise to turn and face the strange: taking a step back and start rebuilding for a successful future.
With a new GM and vision for the future in place and a farm system that has quickly been remade into the one of the best in the game, bright things appear to be on the horizon for our beloved local nine. It took the brutal 2015 season to set these changes in motion, but in the end it may actually have been the best possible outcome for the future success of baseball in Milwaukee. As the year draws to a close today, it will certainly be interesting to see (and rampantly speculate about) what changes may come in 2016.