The Milwaukee Brewers have had nine winning seasons during David Stearns’ lifetime. Over that span, they’ve won 90 or more games just four times. Their last World Series appearance was in 1982, three years before the 30-year-old Harvard graduate was born. He has his work cut out for him.
Stearns stepped into one of baseball’s most challenging jobs when he took over as Milwaukee’s general manager at season’s end. The Brewers play in MLB’s smallest market, and they compete in its toughest division. On the heels of a competitive 2014 campaign, they went into this past season with high hopes, only to limp to the finish line with a record of 68-94.
A native of New York, Stearns spent the past the three seasons in Houston, where he was the Astros’ assistant general manager.
Stearns on his influences: “I think I bring a perspective from all of the different teams I’ve worked for. I’ve had the benefit of working for a number of different leaders, a number of different general managers. That started with Dave Littlefield when I was an intern in Pittsburgh and then Omar Minaya with the Mets. I spent time in the commissioner’s office working for Dan Halem and a number of very smart people. From there I went to Cleveland and worked for Mark Shapiro, Chris Antonetti and Mike Chernoff. And lastly, in Houston I worked for Jeff Luhnow.
“Those leaders all have different skill sets and diverse styles. They stretch from very skilled evaluators, in Dave Littlefield and Omar Minaya, to those with backgrounds more similar to my own, in Chris, Mike, and Jeff. They have all been very influential in shaping how I view the game and how I view this job.
“I’m incredibly passionate about baseball. Ultimately, that’s why I wanted to work in the industry. A lot has been made about my age and an analytical background, but what sparked all of this was my desire and love of the game.”
On autonomy and interviewing for the job: “Throughout the interview process, I spent a great deal of time with Mark Attanasio, our principle owner. I also spent time with Eric Siegel, an advisory board member, and Rick Schlesinger, our COO. Jed Hughes was the representative from Korn-Ferry, the headhunting firm the Brewers used throughout the process. Those four people comprised the search committee.
“Regarding autonomy, Mark made it clear throughout the interview process that he was going to trust whoever he hired to make the baseball decisions. As a general manager, that’s all you can ask for. During the interview process, I presented my vision of where I thought the Brewers should head, and,fortunately, he seemed to agree with it.”
On building out the staff: “We’ve hired an assistant general manager, Matt Arnold. Matt spent a long time with the Rays and he has a history with a couple of organizations. He brings a wealth of experience that has already helped me, and will continue to help me going forward.
“Beyond that, we’re looking supplement our existing group with the best people we possibly can. I think we have some really talented people currently in our front office. We’re going to look to add to that mix, both on the analytics side and on the scouting side. You can never have enough talented people.
“The entire organization has been extremely supportive. They understand how important human capital and human resources are. If Matt and I see an opportunity to add the right people, I’m very confident that Mark and the rest of the organization will support us with that.”
On the information beast: “I really don’t see a dichotomy between the analytics and scouting departments. I see them both as information sources where we need the absolute best of both. We’re going to build out both until we feel we have the best information we can possibly acquire. We’re always going to want more. That’s the nature of the beast. In this industry, the game is, ‘What is the next frontier in baseball and where can we get the next competitive advantage?’”
On working with manager Craig Counsell: “I didn’t talk to Craig before I was hired, but we began building our relationship right after I was. We’ve talked pretty much every day since. I think we’re off to a pretty strong start to building a solid partnership between the two of us.
“I think what Craig and I share is a desire to be as good as we can possibly be, with an open-mindedness to information, and an ability to express our thoughts openly and honestly. As long as we can maintain those core tenets of a relationship, we’re going to do very well together.
“As a front office, it’s our job to provide Craig with all the information we can, in an accessible format, so that he can make the most-informed decisions during the course of a game. But at the end of the day, they’re Craig’s decisions to make. Craig is a smart guy. He’s very open to information, so I’m confident that he’ll use the information available to him when it makes sense for him to do so.”
On building a roster: “We’re in a situation where we’re looking to get as much young talent as we possibly can. It’s no secret that in a market like ours, in order to build this for a sustainable run, we have to acquire and retain the best young talent we can. To the extent that means making changes to our current roster, we have to be open to that. That said, there’s no set mandate to trade any particular player, or a set desire to trade a particular player.
“My approach is to try to acquire the best talent you can, as efficiently as you can. You’d love to acquire guys who can hit for power and average, never strike out, get on base a lot, and be plus defenders. But there are only a handful of guys like that in all of baseball, and they’re not readily available on the open market. Every player you’re looking at has some semblance of a flaw.
“We don’t necessarily think about roster construction by saying ‘We want to be a defensive-oriented club or we want to be a power-oriented club.’ Frankly, whatever skill sets we can compile to create a team that will win consistently, I’ll be happy with that. If there’s one thing this season taught us, with the diverse styles of play of this year’s playoff teams, it’s that there is no one way to build a roster.
“Miller Park has generally favored hitters. The ball flies very well here, particularly to the gaps. Do we think about that? Sure, it’s part of the discussion, but it’s not a driving variable in our decision-making process.”
On time frames and the National League Central: “We’re in a really good division with some really well run teams. That’s become obvious over the last few years. This is a division that is going to be very strong for a long time. Our goal is to make it even stronger. The teams are at the top probably aren’t going anywhere. We can’t sit around and wait for them to come back to us. We need to go and join them.
“We’re not putting any time frame on how long that will take us because, frankly, anything we throw out there would just be an educated guess. We know we have a strategy of acquiring young talent that can help sustain competitiveness for a long time. We know we need a critical mass of that talent at the big league level to be competitive in our division. Our aim is to get there as soon as we can. We’re not going to put any limits on any team going into a season.”
On trading Francisco Rodriguez for Javier Betancourt: “We see Betancourt as an athletic middle infielder with solid contact skills and an advanced feel for hitting. He has performed throughout his early minor league career while being relatively young for his level of play. We heard great things about how he goes about his business and how he plays the game. We’re excited to bring him into the organization. K-Rod had a great run with the Brewers in multiple phases, but we look at our bullpen as an area of strength and it’s always nice to deal from an area where you think you may have a surplus.”
On acquiring Jonathan Villar: “One of the things that drew us to Jonathan was his positional versatility. He can play all over the field and that gives us a lot of flexibility as we go through the remainder of the offseason. He’s a 24-year-old versatile middle infielder who has already demonstrated a pretty good understanding of the strike zone. Because he got to the major leagues so early, it’s easy to forget how young he is. We think there’s a chance there is still some growth to come.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.