Rebuilding has produced results.
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.”