David Stearns’ seven-year run as head executive of the Milwaukee Brewers ended on Thursday when he announced that he was stepping down as president of baseball operations.
The Milwaukee Brewers today announced that David Stearns is stepping down as president of baseball operations.— Milwaukee Brewers (@Brewers) October 27, 2022
Matt Arnold, who has served as senior VP and GM of the Brewers since 2020, will move into the lead role overseeing baseball operations. pic.twitter.com/qgvLDys1Q2
Stearns and his front office cabinet ushered in the most successful era in franchise history.
After his hiring in September 2015, he oversaw the final season of the organization’s rebuild in 2016 and returned them to competitiveness in 2017.
The Brewers made postseason appearances in four consecutive seasons from 2018 through 2021, including division titles to bookend that streak. In 2018, they came one win short of their first World Series appearance since 1982.
Since 2017, the Brewers hold the third-best record in the National League, having gone 481-390 for a .552 winning percentage.
The Brewers extended Stearns ahead of the 2019 season and promoted him from general manager to president of baseball operations.
However, it became increasingly clear in that his time in Milwaukee would not stretch beyond that extension.
Stearns’ success has made him a coveted asset. Most notably, the New York Mets have had interest in hiring him to lead their baseball operations since Steve Cohen purchased the team in 2020.
Once it was reported that Stearns’ contract expired after the 2023 season, it became apparent that he was nearing the back end of his time with the organization. The question was not if he would leave, but when.
The timing of the decision may lead some to believe it was in response to poor job performance.
The Brewers missed the postseason for the first time since 2017 this year. Along the way, Stearns made a series of controversial trade deadline moves. Most notably, he traded Josh Hader, arguably the best reliever in franchise history, to the Padres for Taylor Rogers, Dinelson Lamet, Robert Gasser, and Esteury Ruiz. He then swung deals for relievers Matt Bush and Trevor Rosenthal.
The goal was to balance short-term success with maintaining long-term competitiveness. Unfortunately, while Stearns’ thought process made sense, his moves failed to help the big-league club in 2022. Gasser and Ruiz look like solid long-term pieces, but Lamet was cut, Rogers and Bush struggled, and Rosenthal never appeared in a game due to injury.
Despite those shortcomings, it’s doubtful that dissatisfaction with the season motivated the change atop the baseball operations hierarchy.
For starters, Stearns told the press that the decision to step down was entirely his and was prompted by a desire to take a step back and pursue other ventures in life.
"I want to be able to pursue some other things that I just haven't had the opportunity to pursue yet in my career."— Bally Sports Wisconsin (@BallySportWI) October 27, 2022
David Stearns on taking a step back to exhale and spend more time with his family. #ThisIsMyCrew pic.twitter.com/dFaFFv2imK
More importantly, there is little to no evidence that the change represents a shift in the organization’s approach to winning a World Series.
Matt Arnold is taking over as the new head of baseball operations. Stearns hired him as his assistant general manager in 2015, meaning Arnold has been his right-hand man for the entirety of his stint in Milwaukee.
A year after Stearns received his extension and promotion, the Brewers elevated Arnold to general manager.
When the team announced the news, the extent of Arnold’s influence in the front office also came to light. Stearns revealed that he was involved in “every significant decision we’ve made over the last five years,” citing as an example his role in orchestrating the 2016 deal that sent Jonathan Lucroy and Jeremy Jeffress to the Texas Rangers.
While Stearns received much of the public credit for Milwaukee’s success, Arnold was staging it along with him the entire time.
That means Arnold is presumably on board with the unpopular “bites of the apple” approach that motivated the Hader trade.
In the aftermath of the trade, Stearns explained the front office’s belief that Milwaukee’s clearest path to a championship is to make the postseason almost every season with the expectation that they’ll eventually get hot at the right time and catch the necessary breaks. To maintain an open-ended competitive window, counter-building moves like the Hader deal must be on the table.
If Arnold is indeed involved in every significant decision, then it’s unlikely the Hader trade would have happened had he expressed reservations about the move.
Mark Attanasio revealed to the press that Stearns and Arnold approached him as a pair when requesting his approval to complete the deal, indicating that the two executives made the decision together.
Mark Attanasio discusses the Josh Hader trade: pic.twitter.com/2evgWskhyJ— Todd Rosiak (@Todd_Rosiak) August 5, 2022
It was already safe to assume that Arnold holds a similar vision for the franchise’s future as Stearns does, and he confirmed that to be the case in his initial comments as head of baseball operations.
His successful partnership with Stearns and maintaining continuity within the organization were the key themes of Arnold’s remarks. He stressed that he does not plan to change the organization’s philosophy or shake up the coaching staff.
Matt Arnold on his philosophy compared to Stearns: "What resonates for me is what we have in common, which is mainly focused around the people here -- and we have a really good team of people." #ThisIsMyCrew pic.twitter.com/w01iFJHW20— Bally Sports Wisconsin (@BallySportWI) October 27, 2022
Arnold says he doesn't envision any changes regarding the status of manager Craig Counsell and the major-league coaching staff.— Todd Rosiak (@Todd_Rosiak) October 27, 2022
When questioned about how he plans to keep the Brewers competitive each year, Arnold described the process as a conversation he needed to have with ownership and cited a need to be “opportunistic” with roster-building decisions.
"We just need to be opportunistic and ultimately I think that will lead us to a World Series."— Bally Sports Wisconsin (@BallySportWI) October 27, 2022
Matt Arnold on his plan for the Brewers to avoid the dips and stay in contention yearly. #ThisIsMyCrew pic.twitter.com/I5CRL6GKDi
While some have interpreted this comment as Arnold expressing a desire to shift to a more aggressive win-now approach, it’s more likely that he was echoing remarks made by Stearns a few weeks ago about balancing short-term and long-term competitiveness.
In his end-of-season press conference, Stearns said there is a time to “wisely invest” in free agency. Arnold’s mention of opportunistic acquisitions appears to be his way of illustrating the balance.
"There's certainly a time to intelligently invest in free agency. ... We are never going to build a team predominantly through free agency."— Bally Sports Wisconsin (@BallySportWI) October 11, 2022
Stearns on balancing short-term success with a long-term championship window. #ThisIsMyCrew pic.twitter.com/MEdlYNstEu
The Brewers may have a new head of baseball operations, but their overall direction is not changing.
If Attanasio were interested in making a significant change to the organizational approach, he would have cleaned house in the front office and started fresh. Instead, he promoted the next man in line to continue on the path they determined will lead them to a championship.
That doesn’t mean everything will remain exactly the same. It would be insulting to Arnold to portray him as nothing more than a carbon copy of Stearns whose only task is to mimic his predecessor.
Arnold is a gifted executive in his own right, and he’s earned the opportunity to run Milwaukee’s baseball operations as he sees fit. Even if his leadership represents a continuation of the same organizational philosophy, he can—and will—modify day-to-day procedures to match his management style and achieve that vision.
As for Stearns, his future is unsettled. He committed to spending the final year of his contract in Milwaukee as an advisor before determining the next stage of his career.
As president of baseball operations, Stearns always held his cards close to his chest and responded to most questions with elaborate non-answers. The unusually concrete and candid nature of his responses on Thursday pointed toward him telling the truth about his motivation for stepping down and his future intentions.
The caveat is that several organizations would love to have his services. Teams will inevitably express interest in hiring Stearns to lead their baseball operations, at which point Attanasio will have to decide whether to grant an interview. The Brewers could also explore trading Stearns’ contract to an interested club, but such trades are extremely rare.
Stearns indicated that he and Attanasio have discussed how they will approach such a scenario.
Watching the press conference now. Stearns was first very direct that he's staying in Milwaukee for 2023. Stearns then said he & Attanasio have discussed what might happen if another team approaches the #Brewers with desire to acquire Stearns as an executive. So, time will tell.— The Brewer Nation (@BrewerNation) October 27, 2022
Attanasio declined to comment on the topic.
Mark Attanasio was asked a couple of times whether he would give permission for another team to interview David Stearns. He answered that he did not want to discuss hypotheticals, adding, "The arrangement does not anticipate that."— Adam McCalvy (@AdamMcCalvy) October 27, 2022
While the questions about Stearns’ future are valid, they are not especially important at this point. All eyes should be on Arnold. He played an instrumental role in helping Stearns build a strong foundation and position the franchise for consistent success.
Now it’s Arnold’s turn to finish what they started and lead the Brewers to a World Series. All indications point to him being ready for the task.