Can David Stearns be a game changer for the Mets? Here’s what his tenure with the Brewers can tell us about his approach

By | September 13, 2023

The New York Mets are having a fortuitous year of long-term thinking, but news broke on Tuesday of a move that always seemed to be part of the plan. According to multiple reports, the Mets have hired Milwaukee Brewers executive David Stearns as president of baseball operations about two years after rumors began circulating about their interest in him.

Stearns will take the helm of the organization, with current GM Billy Eppler expected to remain in place as his No. 2, creating a front office leadership combination common across the league.

If team owner Steve Cohen’s ambition is to emulate the Los Angeles Dodgers’ perennial winning machine, then Stearns is his Andrew Friedman. Stearns, 38, a New York native and childhood Mets fan, has all the makings of a contemporary MLB executive. He worked for the Houston Astros during their trendsetting rebuild, then took over as the Brewers’ GM in 2015, eventually taking on the title of president of baseball operations until stepping down from an advisory role in October 2022 (amid speculation about the Mets job). While I’m not aware of the statute that requires it, it seems like you can’t write about Stearns without also mentioning that he went to Harvard.

His baseball resume builds on the success Milwaukee enjoyed during his tenure. On the low end of baseball’s revenue spectrum, the Brewers had made the playoffs only twice in the wild card era (and since 1982) when they hired Stearns. His clubs made four consecutive postseason appearances between 2018 and 2021, then missed a game last season. The 2018 team pushed the Dodgers to Game 7 in the National League Championship Series.

The how of all this is what Mets fans should care about — and what Cohen clearly cares about — as Stearns prepares to take control of a team that may need stable direction.

Not devoid of talent, the Mets won 101 games in 2022, entered 2023 with the highest payroll in MLB history, severely underperformed, then leveraged Cohen’s budget to part ways with short-termers like Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander and infuse a mediocre farm system with talent. Francisco Lindor, Brandon Nimmo, Jeff McNeil and the injured Edwin Díaz are proven veterans at least in the medium term, and catcher Francisco Alvarez leads a group of promising but largely unproven young hitters already in the majors. Yet significant questions loom over Citi Field: namely, whether beloved slugger Pete Alonso will remain in New York as his team’s years of control wane, who exactly will pitch for the Mets’ next contending team, and when does the front office expect to field that team.

What, then, can Stearns’ time with the Brewers tell us about how he might address these challenges?

How Stearns built a winner in Milwaukee

The Brewers have become a perennial powerhouse in the Netherlands based on two main pillars: pitching development and the occasional gutsy trade. Stearns’ flashiest moves with the Brewers came before the 2018 season, when he traded for outfielder Christian Yelich and signed center fielder Lorenzo Cain.

After a surprisingly strong 2017 season in which Milwaukee finished above .500, Stearns decided to add more established stars. The deal for Yelich, which sent prospects Lewis Brinson, Isan Diaz, Monte Harrison and Jordan Yamamoto to the Miami Marlins, turned out to be a ridiculous deal. Yelich unlocked a power stroke and won NL MVP in 2018, then finished second in 2019 before injuries contributed to his recent return to clay. None of the prospects abandoned in this trade have found consistent major league footing.

Cain, who signed a five-year contract in Milwaukee, had another top offensive season (recording 6.1 WAR and finishing seventh in MVP voting in 2018) and then continued to provide stellar defense into 2021.

Dive deeper and you’ll find plenty of other transactions that paint a rosy picture of Stearns’ decision-making and one large one that doesn’t. A very early deal sent Adam Lind to the Seattle Mariners for a potential haul that included eventual All-Star starter Freddy Peralta. Perhaps most memorably, Stearns traded reliever Tyler Thornburg — coming off an impressive 67-inning season with a 2.15 ERA — to the Boston Red Sox for a package that included third baseman Travis Shaw, who is became a key player on Milwaukee’s 2017 and 2018 teams. The dent in Stearns’ record, of course, is pushing closer Josh Hader away last season, which we’ll return to.

Stearns’ most significant strength is the throwing pipeline that has made Milwaukee thrive. His reign in Milwaukee was, more than anything, the era in which the Brewers consistently produced terrifying weapons, some of which were in the organization before Stearns took over, but all of which made their names under his watch.

In the rotation are Peralta and 2021 Cy Young winner Corbin Burnes and the always excellent Brandon Woodruff. And there are almost too many serviceable bullpen arms to count, with Hader and Devin Williams as standard bearers.

Overall, the Brewers have succeeded in helping pitchers find their bad stuff, with the vast majority of their starters breaking out with bullpen stints and returning starters under the respected guidance of manager Craig Counsell.

At the same time, you could mark the development as a question. The Brewers’ best players in the Stearns era were often outside acquisitions, from Yelich to short-term standouts like Mike Moustakas, Yasmani Grandal and Avisail Garcia. Stearns excelled at locating those players (and usually swiping them before they got old or expensive), but the Brewers haven’t recently generated the kind of key position players that many winning teams, including the Mets, can count on.

How Stearns’ approach might fit Cohen’s Mets

Like Friedman when he went from the Tampa Bay Rays to the Dodgers, Stearns will almost necessarily behave differently by virtue of a very different budget. During his time with the Brewers, Milwaukee never ranked higher than 17th in MLB based on Opening Day payroll and never finished a season higher than 12th in spending according to competitive balance tax calculations.

Buoyed by Cohen’s nearly limitless coffers and apparent eagerness to tap into them, the Mets will almost inevitably carry a top-five payroll most seasons. Guessing how Stearns plans to use that previously unavailable financial clout would be just that: guessing.

However, it’s worth pointing out that his most significant outside expenditures in Milwaukee have been on the hitting side, as he will enter a Mets organization devoid of both current pitching and likely future contributors. Will he make up for it with free agents? Will he put his faith in player development to unearth hidden gems? Woodruff, for example, was a 10th round pick.

Or, with multiple top-tier blockbuster prospects arriving or appearing on the horizon following New York’s summer sell-off, could Stearns turn to the trade market? There’s no foolproof pattern in his track record to tell which of the Mets’ core players he might evaluate as long-term propositions. His only significant extension in Milwaukee went to Yelich, an MVP-caliber performer. On top of that, he made low-cost deals with team options on young pitchers like Peralta and Aaron Ashby.

The most controversial — and final — chapter of Stearns’ stewardship of the Brewers may say more about what he won’t do. At the 2022 trade deadline, he fireballed Hader, seeing the bullpen as a strength with Williams waiting in the setup role, and the team fell out of the playoff picture. Him later he lamented the move as it did not have the impact he expected.

Likewise, there is no good answer as to how he might approach the question of Alonso’s future. On the one hand, Stearns often retained corner-first players on short-term deals or traded them to Milwaukee, but on the other, he never got anyone with Alonso’s gravitational thump. The post-Hader turmoil appears to be causing him to consider the issue carefully before cutting ties with a clubhouse leader and fan favorite.

We also don’t know how Stearns might view manager Buck Showalter, who largely avoided a question Tuesday about his future. Counsell, the Brewers’ manager throughout Stearns’ tenure in Milwaukee, is in the final year of his contract but has reportedly told friends he plans to take time off through at least 2024 to spend time with his family.

After the Mets’ summer training camp, the most likely path may not include many immediate, dramatic changes at the major league level. If Cohen & Co. target 2025 as the next all-in season, Stearns could spend the next year evaluating the talent at his disposal, making low-risk bets on the margins and injecting new skills into a player-development operation that’s seen like being behind, especially on the pitching front.

More than any decision he will have to make, Stearns will be asked to provide a philosophy, a direction, for a team that has changed leadership with incessant frequency. Stearns’ Brewers weren’t perfect and didn’t win the World Series trophy that Cohen openly covets. But they seemed to have a coherent plan and easily identifiable points of organizational pride.

There are only a certain number of executives who can make that statement in the rapidly evolving world of baseball in the 2020s. And as the Mets’ long search shows, it’s even rarer to find one available.

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