Re­build­ing has pro­duced re­sults.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel - - SPORTS - TOM HAUDRICOURT

It has been two years, four months and change since the Brewers made the ir­re­versible de­ci­sion to tear it all down and start over.

Did any­one ex­pect them to be con­tend­ing for a play­off spot this soon? If so, please for­ward your ad­dress so I can send you the Op­ti­mist of the Year Award.

The Brewers wisely put no timetable on their re­build, be­cause do­ing so is a recipe for dis­as­ter. If you say it will take four years, five months, 12 days and four hours to con­tend again, the folks with torches will be storm­ing the cas­tle 30 min­utes af­ter that pe­riod ex­pires if you fail to do so.

Mil­wau­kee fans still re­mem­ber the sour taste in their mouths from three Septem­bers ago, when The Great Col­lapse of 2014 stunned every­one associated with the team. Af­ter lead­ing the NL Cen­tral for a whop­ping 150 days, the Brewers stag­gered to a 9-22 fin­ish that doomed them to record barely above .500 (82-80), good for third place, nine games be­hind the di­vi­sion cham­pion St. Louis Car­di­nals.

And that was a vet­eran team, not the group of mostly in­ex­pe­ri­enced play­ers the Brewers fielded this sea­son. De­spite the col­lapse, the de­ci­sion­mak­ers de­cided to keep that bunch to­gether for 2015, which proved to be a colos­sal mis­take.

When the Brewers stag­gered to a 5-17 record the next April, the de­ci­sion was made to fire man­ager Ron Roenicke and start sell­ing off veter­ans. Later that sea­son, it was an­nounced that gen­eral man­ager Doug Melvin would step aside, and the search for his suc­ces­sor be­gan.

Craig Coun­sell, a Mil­wau­keean born to be the Brewers man­ager, stepped out of the front of­fice to re­place Roenicke. David Stearns, only 30 at the time, was plucked out of the Hous­ton front of­fice and named to suc­ceed Melvin.

It was only a mat­ter of min­utes into Stearns’ in­tro­duc­tory news con­fer­ence at Miller Park on Sept. 21, 2015, when he was asked the in­evitable ques­tion: When will the Brewers be com­pet­i­tive for the post­sea­son again?

Stearns im­me­di­ately broke into a big grin, be­cause he knew there was no get­ting out of the room that day with­out be­ing asked.

“I’m a big be­liever in not set­ting lim­its for any team, for any year,” he said that day. “This is a game with a tremen­dous amount of vari­abil­ity, and we’re go­ing to take each de­ci­sion as it comes, and make each de­ci­sion in the best in­ter­ests of the over­all health of the or­ga­ni­za­tion. The prod­uct on the field is a large com­po­nent of that.”

In other words, Stearns had no way to know how long it might take for the Brewers to win again. He was well aware that Hous­ton’s re­build in­cluded six years of mis­ery, in­clud­ing three con­sec­u­tive 100-loss sea­sons.

Over in Chicago, the Cubs had a sim­i­lar ex­pe­ri­ence in tear­ing down their ros­ter and start­ing over from scratch. From 2011-’14, they lost 89, 96, 101 and 91 games, in or­der. Let’s just say good seats were avail­able at Wrigley Field dur­ing those sea­sons.

In 2015, the Brewers went 68-94, about what you’d ex­pect as one vet­eran af­ter an­other was sent pack­ing. That win­ter, Stearns ac­cel­er­ated the re­build, turn­ing over a re­mark­able 20 spots on his 40-man ros­ter. Only Ryan Braun, Matt Garza, Jimmy Nel­son, Jeremy Jef­fress (who was traded and reac­quired) and Wei-Chung Wang (hid­den as a Rule 5 pick) re­main from Septem­ber 2014.

With so few proven play­ers re­main­ing in 2016, the fore­casts were dire in terms of the Brewers’ won-lost record. Some said 100 losses were in­evitable, and it was easy to see why. But, fol­low­ing Coun­sell’s lead, the play­ers bat­tled hard on a daily ba­sis, fin­ish­ing with a 73-89 record that any rea­son­able per­son con­sid­ered a rep­re­sen­ta­tive show­ing.

Which brings us to this sea­son. Prog­nos­ti­ca­tors sug­gested a mod­est in­crease in wins, some­where in the mid 70s, would sig­nal a suc­cess­ful cam­paign, given the scant ex­pe­ri­ence level on the ros­ter (17 play­ers were mak­ing min­i­mum salaries, give or take a few dol­lars).

Coun­sell never bit when those lines were cast in the wa­ter, how­ever. Asked what he would con­sider a suc­cess­ful sea­son, with­out fail, he had the same an­swer.

“We’re not go­ing to set any lim­its on this team,” he would say.

As it turns out, Coun­sell must have known some­thing be­cause the Brewers have been com­pet­i­tive since Day 1 of the sea­son. Con­sider the con­sis­tency of their month-to-month play — April: 13-13; May: 15-12; June: 15-14; July: 12-13; Au­gust: 15-12; Septem­ber: 7-5, en­ter­ing Saturday.

Who saw a sea­son com­ing in which there wouldn’t be at least one bad month? More than likely, you fig­ured two poor months at a min­i­mum. So, how did the Brewers achieve that con­sis­tency so early into their re­build?

“I will say that our con­sis­tency to this point of the sea­son has been note­wor­thy,” Stearns said. “Re­ally, last year, while we maybe had a month or two that was dis­ap­point­ing, we never went on those pro­longed los­ing streaks. We had chal­leng­ing pe­ri­ods but stayed away from those, for the most part.

“That speaks to what has been a theme of this year — the re­silience of this team. We talk about that a lot. A lot of the credit for that goes to the char­ac­ter of our play­ers, and the cul­ture and en­ergy that Craig and his staff have in­stilled, go­ing back to spring train­ing of last year.”

De­spite the Brewers’ un­ex­pected con­tend­ing mode this sea­son, there’s no guar­an­tee they are com­pletely over the hump with their re­build. Af­ter break­ing through to claim a wild-card berth in 2015, the Astros slipped to third place the next sea­son be­fore re­group­ing in a big way this year.

But, at the very least, it ap­pears the Brewers have avoided the stigma of a long string of 90- and 100-loss sea­sons. Asked how that was ac­com­plished, Stearns went back to the “set­ting no lim­its” ap­proach in spring train­ing.

“It’s the right ap­proach,” he said. “It’s the ap­proach we’ve tried to in­still through­out the or­ga­ni­za­tion from Day 1. There is no need to set lim­its on any of us. The minute we set lim­its on our­selves or on the or­ga­ni­za­tion or par­tic­u­lar play­ers, we’re sell­ing our­selves short, and po­ten­tially lim­it­ing a player’s po­ten­tial.

“We’re very cog­nizant of that, whether it’s the ma­jor-league team or a player’s de­vel­op­ment in the mi­nor­league sys­tem. In terms of this par­tic­u­lar team, com­ing into the year, we knew we had a group­ing of play­ers, the ma­jor­ity of whom had the abil­ity to play to­gether for a long time.”

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