This is not a call for David Stearns or anyone in the front office to lose their jobs. It’s not a complaint about the moves the Brewers did and did not make at the trade deadline, including the deal that sent Josh Hader to the San Diego Padres.
It is, however, an acknowledgment that a good front office can make mistakes. It appears they made such a misstep in their communication with the clubhouse after shipping away arguably the best reliever in franchise history.
On Sunday, Eric Lauer provided the bluntest comments yet concerning the aftermath of the Hader trade. Many player interviews, particularly those featuring tough questions, often yield a series of non-answers and cliche responses that public relations specialists have drilled into athletes’ heads to the point that they can repeat them in their sleep. Lauer’s noticeably unpolished answers have always stood out, and he pulled no punches when Adam McCalvy asked him about his feelings on the trade and its impact in the clubhouse.
“There was a shock factor to it. Everybody was taken aback by it a little bit. As far as who we have in the clubhouse and what we have here, I don’t think we’re in any worse position to win as many games as we should. The only thing I can think of was, from the top down it seemed like there was a weird behind-the-scenes message that was sent that a lot of people didn’t jive with.”
These comments are not all that surprising. Neither is Lauer’s subsequent thoughts about the poorly-received “bites of the apple” line that Stearns used to rationalize the trade.
“I personally wasn’t a huge fan of the way they described it to the public. I’m not trying to just get a bunch of bites of the apple. Especially if things are going the way they are, the way the Brewers have historically traded [before] paying guys. I don’t know how many bites of the apple we can take in the next few years. We’re not going to be able to afford a lot of guys in this room.”
It’s not Lauer’s job to think like an executive, and he doesn’t have to agree with every move the front office makes. He wants to win a World Series during his Brewers tenure, and the organization’s blueprint does not promise that. His job is to play baseball and perform regardless of the circumstances. He acknowledged as much.
“But it’s not my decision to make. My job is to play baseball and do the best I can every day.”
What is more revealing is how Lauer characterized management’s attitude toward the ripple effect that the trade had in the clubhouse. He accused them of failing to communicate with players and brushing the issue aside.
“Afterward, there was no communication to the clubhouse [about] what changed in the clubhouse. It’s kind of like it was shrugged off.”
The process behind the Hader trade is sound. Stearns and principal owner Mark Attanasio do not want to be restricted by a competitive window and the rebuild that will follow when that window closes. Postseason baseball is a game of randomness in small sample sizes, and it’s not always the best team that wins. Very few picked the Washington Nationals to win a ring in 2019 or the Atlanta Braves last season.
The Brewers recognize this October randomness and are trying to use it to their advantage. By making the postseason almost every year, they create more chances for themselves to get hot at the right time and benefit from the right breaks.
Counter-building moves are necessary to maintain an open-ended stretch of competitiveness. Designating Dinelson Lamet for assignment calls into question whether the Brewers received enough in return for Hader, but they still received a combination of big-league and minor-league talent.
Milwaukee’s additional moves confirmed that they wanted to improve their current roster. Despite losing Hader, the Brewers were a better team when the deadline passed than they were before. The acquisitions of Taylor Rogers, Matt Bush and the rehabbing Trevor Rosenthal give them depth and veteran experience in the bullpen that they were missing for much of the season. The front office received substantial backlash for failing to acquire offensive help, but the new expanded playoff format created a seller’s market that did not favor a middle-market team searching for hitters.
While the Brewers’ deadline made sense on paper, dealing away a bullpen anchor in the middle of a contending season was always going to draw ire and confusion in the clubhouse. Stearns, Matt Arnold and other executives presumably knew this. It was obvious from the moment the deal was announced that healthy communication between management and players would be crucial.
If Lauer’s characterization of the situation is accurate, it represents a significant failure by higher-ups to connect with their players. It’s a terrible look for Stearns, who has cited clubhouse chemistry as a factor in the acquisitions of Willy Adames, Kolten Wong and Andrew McCutchen. It also raises questions about Craig Counsell’s handling of the fallout in the locker room.
Numerous players have lauded Counsell for his excellent communication skills, particularly when it comes to helping them process bad news. It wouldn’t be surprising if Brewers executives entrusted him with explaining the move to players and helping them overcome their initial shock. If Lauer’s comments are an accurate retelling of the response from team leaders, it appears Counsell’s communication efforts fell short.
Could Counsell have done a better job, or did his higher-ups assign him an unrealistic task that required more front-office intervention? It’s possible that Counsell did pull out the necessary stops with his players, and that still was not satisfactory in Lauer’s eyes. His criticism appeared to be primarily directed at the front office rather than his manager.
In any case, the communication that did take place with players was insufficient. Failure to give the issue the consideration it merits represents a substantial failure by the organization’s leaders. It makes those executives appear cold and unrelatable in the eyes of players.
David Stearns pushed back on Lauer’s account, claiming that he, Arnold and Counsell discussed the trade with various players. Christian Yelich offered a PR-friendly response to the situation that corroborated Stearns’ statement.
Perhaps Lauer is in the minority, and most of the clubhouse has moved on. Still, one would be naive to overlook the impact of a player’s organizational status on these respective statements. Yelich is the franchise player and under a guaranteed contract through the 2028 season. Lauer is in the midst of three arbitration seasons and does not enjoy that same financial stability and job security. Far more players are in the latter situation and likely share the same perspective as a result.
Furthermore, Lauer’s use of plural pronouns and present tense verbs heavily indicates that he was speaking on behalf of the majority.
“The message that it sends to us kind of inadvertently brought us down. It’s not like we’re trying to be brought down. It’s not like we don’t think we can do it, it’s just that there’s this weird hovering thing over us right now that nobody really knows what the answer is.”
If a negative aura indeed continues to hover over the club three weeks after the move, it points toward ineffective handling of the situation by leadership.
To the credit of Lauer and the other Brewers who have gone on record, no one is blaming the trade for the team’s recent struggles. Anyone who cites it as a primary factor is overreacting. Hader has performed like a shell of his former self in San Diego and already lost his grip on closing duties after five appearances. Declaring him to be permanently broken is still a stretch, but it appears increasingly likely that Stearns and Arnold correctly identified that it was time to flip him while they could still get a return.
More importantly, the wheels have been spinning in Milwaukee since well before the trade deadline. Since the start of June, the Brewers are 33-37. While an aggressive injury bug has worked against them, the reality is that the team has underperformed its talent level for months. The players know that the onus falls on them to play winning baseball.
The silver lining for the Brewers is that they are more than capable of righting the ship. An encouraging 4-0 win against the Dodgers on Monday night was a start. While this team is far from a juggernaut, Stearns and Arnold have supplied the roster with enough talent to make the playoffs, which means they have enough talent to win the World Series.
It may be up to the players to get the job done on the field, but that does not absolve management of blame for an apparent communication failure with the clubhouse. Even well-run front offices make mistakes, and the higher-ups in Milwaukee made a major misstep with their lackluster response to human emotions in the aftermath of the Hader trade. It’s far from a fireable offense, especially given the overwhelming success of the Stearns regime in Milwaukee, but it is worth holding them accountable for.