In baseball, we typically see two kinds of roster teardowns: Rebuilds, and reloads.
Rebuilds can certainly be effective, but they involve waiting years for talents to develop, and almost assuredly lead to lean years of competitiveness. Reloads, on the other hands, see teams going after stopgaps to fill their holes. It leads to less awfulness, but it also generally means less long-term stability.
So, a club that isn't good enough to compete as is has two options: Rebuild and hope you nail the player development, or reload and hope you guessed right in trades and free agency. It's usually one or the other.
The Milwaukee Brewers have shown you can do both. Despite a rough start to the second-half of the season, the Brewers are still very much in the NL Central race, sitting just a half-game back of the Chicago Cubs as of Wednesday. This despite Milwaukee being picked to finish fourth in their division by most prognosticators; most projection systems had them winning between 74-76 games.
So, how have they done it? How have the Brewers gone from a team that wasn't supposed to be in contention this season to a legit playoff contenders so quickly?
It helps when you start with one of the best front offices in the sport.
When the Brewers hired David Stearns, it was was seen as a risky move by many in the industry. Stearns was an Ivy League guy—the type who the analytics-inclined adore and the "old-school" thinkers fear, and he was hired at an age where players are often just leaving their prime. That risk appears to have paid off, as he's quickly become one of the most respected general managers in all of baseball.
"It's weird to say, but he and the organization is one you kind of fear," an AL Executive said. "They're just so good right now at so many different aspects. They draft well, they develop well, they read the market well. That's a tough combination to beat, and a lot of the credit goes to Stearns and his staff."
That staff doesn't get the attention of some of the other regimes, but it's a group that's envied by much of the league. Matt Arnold was brought over from Tampa Bay to be Stearns right-hand man, and he's likely to be a candidate for any General Manager position that opens up this winter. Director of Baseball Research And Development Dan Turkenkopf was one of the developers of the Deserved Run Average stat—a statistic that has quickly made waves through the analytic community—and is just one of several gurus that give Milwaukee a strong sabermetric base.
But perhaps the biggest addition to the Brewers staff has been Ray Montgomery, the Brewers Vice President of Scouting. Before Montgomery joining Milwaukee, the Brewers had a reputation as a bad drafting club.
"[The Brewers] missed a lot," an AL Scouting Director missed. "There's several selections you can point to in the earlier part of the decade, but there was a reason that they were easily the worst farm system in baseball. Then Ray got there, and now they have one of the best. That's no coincidence."
While the Brewers farm system was atrocious before the additions of Montgomery and company, it's fair to say that the big-league talent that was inherited from former GM Doug Melvin wasn't. This is perhaps an underrated story of why the Brewers have exceeded expectations.
Stearns was given Ryan Braun, a potential Hall of Famer who has been of the best right-handed hitters in baseball over the past decade. He inherited Jonathan Lucroy and Carlos Gomez; two players that he was able to move for multiple top 100 prospects. There was also Orlando Arcia and Jimmy Nelson who were signed/drafted under the Melvin era and have since improved.
This may seem like an attempt to deny Stearns credit, but it's not. Quite the opposite, actually. It would have been easy for Milwaukee to tear the entire team down—especially when you looked at what the Cubs and Pirates were building. Instead, the Brewers have rebuilt by trading players like Lucroy, Gomez and more, but they've also held onto Braun, and they've been willing to add veterans like Eric Thames, Travis Shaw, Eric Sogard who have been a tremendous part of their success in 2017.
"It would have been so tempting to move all of those guys, the AL Executive said. "And to be fair, they did move quite a bit of talent. But think of how tempting it'd be to try and move Braun before his 10-5 rights kicked in. There's no way they're in contention without his bat, not a chance. "
Perhaps the best example of the rebuild/reload strategy was the move of Tyler Thornburg to the Red Sox. Thornburg was one of the most coveted relievers of the winter, and Milwaukee could have had their pick of quality prospects from contending clubs, or a club-controlled piece that could help them in 2017 and beyond. The Brewers got both. Shaw leads the team in WAR and has been among the best third baseman in the National League, and Mauricio Dubon looks like a future major-league regular who can impact the game with his bat, glove and wheels. The fact that Thornburg ended up getting hurt makes the deal look even sweeter, but even if he had been healthy, this would have been a win for the Brew Crew.
Of course, it has to be mentioned that one of the reasons that Milwaukee has had so much success this year is luck Even with the Cubs recent two-week stretch, it's easy to call Chicago a disappointment, considering the expectations. St. Louis and Pittsburgh were both considered potential wild-card contenders, and they've both hovered around .500 for most of the year. Add in the clearly rebuilding and not reloading Reds in their own division, and the fact that 80 percent of the NL East and 40 percent of the NL West are bad baseball teams, and, well, you have a lot of winnable games on your schedule.
But luck is far from the only reason the Brewers have a chance to play in October. Milwaukee has a run-differential of +41, so it's not as if they're just winning a bunch of one-run games that will likely turn on them. In fact, the Brewers pythag record is one game better than their actual win-loss record (55-47 to 54-48, respectively), so if anything, the Brewers have been unlucky.
And the talent is legit. In addition to Braun, Milwaukee also has Domingo Santana in the outfield, and he's quietly put up an OPS of .874 as a 24-year-old. Arcia has bounced back from the "struggles" of his rookie year, and has shown a flair for the dramatic and spectacular. Nelson has turned into a legitimate top of the rotation starter who can miss bats and limit self-inflicted damage. Thames has struggled for the past month or so, but the production he's given Milwaukee (.912 OPS, 24 homers) has been an obvious coup for the club. Add that to a farm system that has six players in the MLB.com top 100, and you can see why this is a team that's built to win now and later.
It's going to be tough for Milwaukee to hold off the Cubs. As talented as the Brewers are, Chicago is on a different level, and the addition of Jose Quintana won't make things any easier. They may not have to hold off Chicago though. The Rockies and Diamondbacks are both obviously talented, but flawed. The Brewers also have a deep enough farm system that they can easily make an addition to the lineup, rotation or bullpen without destroying the depth.
It's no fun to watch a team tank. Whether you think it's an ethical way to build a roster or not, there's no denying that it hurts the fans to see a team suck year after year. That said, it's also no fun to see a team stuck in purgatory; unwilling to commit to a youth movement and stuck in the 75 to 85 win range. That's a more enjoyable on-field product, but it makes it hard to achieve the ultimate prize. The Brewers have found a way to both, and it's commendable not only from a baseball standpoint, but in a weird way, from a decency point of view as well.