MILWAUKEE — The date — Jan. 25, 2018 — will live forever in Milwaukee Brewers lore.
That was the day Brewers general manager David Stearns acquired two of baseball’s best outfielders — Lorenzo Cain of Kansas City via free agency and Christian Yelich in a blockbuster trade with Miami — within hours of one another.
Before that could happen, though, Stearns had a conversation with his boss, team owner Mark Attanasio.
“We were on a path to sign Lorenzo Cain, which had a typical free agent process, and there were fits and starts in the attempts to trade for Christian Yelich,” Attanasio said recently. “Maybe 48 hours before it happened, it looked like they were actually going to converge and I said to David, ‘If you get one, do you really need to get both?’ His answer, which was immediate, was, ‘Well, if I can get one, it just makes me want to get the other one even more.’ “
It is precisely that attitude that has put the Brewers four victories away from their first World Series since 1982.
After the Brewers’ surprise turnaround in 2017 fell one game short of a wild card playoff berth, the conventional wisdom was Stearns would add two or three players at positions of need. Maybe bring in a high-end starting pitcher, another bullpen arm and a second baseman with pop and the Brewers would be good to go.
That’s not how Stearns viewed it, however. Once the Brewers’ shorter-than-expected rebuild turned the corner, he found another gear.
Starting with the under-the-radar free agent signing of starting pitcher Jhoulys Chacin in December, the third-year general manager became ultra-aggressive, continuously adding talent right up until the second trade deadline on Aug. 31. It didn’t matter if his moves created a glut at certain positions, he kept importing veterans who he thought could strengthen the roster and help the team win.
Of course, the Brewers made moves to improve themselves long before Stearns arrived. Former general manager Doug Melvin traded for pitcher C.C. Sabathia in June of 2008 and for pitcher Zack Greinke before the 2011 season — and both times the Brewers ended up in the playoffs. But those were big, bold, one-time moves.
What Stearns has brought to the franchise is a desire to constantly improve the talent level, even it if creates headaches for manager Craig Counsell because there might be too many outfielders or infielders and he has to find playing time for all of them. But piece by piece, Stearns built a roster talented enough to earn the best record in the National League, sweep Colorado in the NL Division Series and earn Milwaukee its rightful place in baseball’s final four with Boston, Houston and the Los Angeles Dodgers, Milwaukee’s opponent in the NL Championship Series.
The key to putting together a deep, talented roster was that Stearns didn’t sit tight even after hitting home runs with Chacin, Cain and Yelich. Just the opposite. He became even more motivated to improve the team, even getting into the bidding for Yu Darvish, the No. 1 starting pitcher in free agency, during the offseason and shortstop Manny Machado, the best player moved during the season, at the All-Star break. Stearns was unwilling to pay the going rate for either player in terms of money or prospects, but that didn’t deter him.
He brought in starting pitcher Wade Miley, who had hit the skids in Baltimore, on a minor-league contract at the start of spring training. Miley pitched brilliantly in the series-clinching victory over Colorado.
When Stephen Vogt blew out his shoulder in May, Stearns traded with the New York Yankees for 38-year-old journeyman catcher Erik Kratz. Kratz was one of the stars at the plate during the NLDS.
At the July 31 trade deadline, Stearns dealt for Kansas City third baseman Mike Moustakas, Baltimore infielder Jonathan Schoop and Chicago White Sox reliever Joakim Soria. Moustakas has provided clutch hits, strong defense and veteran leadership; Soria has pitched high-leverage innings and Schoop, though he’s been a disappointment at the plate, hit an unforgettable winning grand slam against San Francisco.
Finally, Stearns acquired Washington starter Gio Gonzalez, Toronto outfielder Curtis Granderson and White Sox reliever Xavier Cedeno in trades before the Aug. 31 deadline. Gonzalez, who had struggled for two months with the Nationals, made five September starts for the Brewers and they went 5-0 in those games; Granderson has added intelligent at bats and veteran leadership; and Cedeno has been a solid situational left-hander out of the pen.
The amazing part is almost every move Stearns made hit the mark, improving the team’s talent level to the point where some of last year’s stalwarts could barely find a spot on the playoff roster. Returning starters Zach Davies and Chase Anderson weren’t on the NLDS roster. Neither was first baseman Eric Thames. Outfielders Domingo Santana and Keon Broxton were on the bench, as was Schoop, an All-Star last year.
As important as the Cain-Yelich double dip was for the Brewers, it was only a sign of how aggressively Stearns was going to attack this season.
“What I liked about it immediately was that it was really out-of-the-box thinking,” Attanasio said. “And ... he really got criticized. It was, ‘The Brewers have 10 outfielders.’ Then when we traded for Mike Moustakas, it was, ‘Oh, the Brewers have three third basemen.’ There was a lot of commentary, but we’re in the position we’re in because of some of his creative thinking.”
And his aggressive, non-stop approach as well.