The past two years, David Stearns has been able to sit back and let baseball’s inaction work in his favor.
It got him Lorenzo Cain. It got him Mike Moustakas. It got him Yasmani Grandal.
Whether by design or by necessity, the Brewers are trying something different this year. At this point, with pitchers and catchers reporting to camp today, it’s safe to say there won’t be a splashy free agent signing — there are none left to make — and instead a very different-looking Brewers roster will start showing up in Phoenix in the coming days.
It’s a team that still has one of the best outfielders in the game in Christian Yelich. It’s one that has a budding homegrown ace — something that has eluded the Brewers for decades — in Brandon Woodruff at the top of the rotation. It’s one that still has the most dominant reliever in baseball today in Josh Hader.
Beyond that? There’s plenty of questions. Enough to make you wonder if that’s by design.
That’s not to say the uncertainty is part of “The Process” that Mark Attanasio asked everyone to trust at On Deck last month, but considering the slew of moves Stearns made this offseason, you can’t help but think (alright, and hope) there’s a bigger idea at play here. Maybe it’s as simple as trying to accumulate as much depth as possible to help cover injuries and underperformance across the diamond over 162 games. Or maybe their internal metrics found something showing Eric Sogard’s turnaround was legitimate, or that Avisail Garcia is about to explode, or that Justin Smoak would play especially well at Miller Park, or that Omar Narvaez could be coached up defensively.
Whatever the rationale, those of us on the outside know less about what’s likely going to happen in an upcoming season than we have since 2017. That year’s team ended up surprising with 86 wins, which would likely put the Brewers squarely in the division race again this year, but that season’s team also needed unexpected breakouts from the likes of Travis Shaw, Domingo Santana, Chase Anderson and Jimmy Nelson to make that happen.
None of those players are still in Milwaukee, but if the Brewers can hit on a couple of their depth moves — whether it’s Sogard, Garcia, Smoak, Narvaez, Luis Urias (once healthy), Jedd Gyorko, Brett Anderson or Eric Lauer — their chances of outdoing some middling projections will go up. A cynic might say they’re throwing things against the wall to see what sticks, and sure, that may be partially correct — but the odds of having something stick would seem to go up when you throw more things at it.
We may start to figure some of that out in Spring Training. And while David Stearns isn’t about to make rash decisions based on a handful of appearances in practice games, we may at least gain some insight on how the Brewers see the pecking order at positions like third base, shortstop and first base heading into the season. Much of that, though, will be left to the regular season — when Craig Counsell will be asked to maximize the talents of the largely average players Stearns has filled out the roster with this year.
There’s no doubt that the Brewers have less top-end talent than they did this time last year. But this season will serve as a solid litmus test on whether a more balanced team — with more bat-to-ball skills than last year — ends up being a better approach than the stars-and-scrubs lineups the Brewers were forced to use through large stretches of last season.