David Stearns spent the first four and a half years cleaning up an organization in disarray. Now, with a franchise cornerstone in Christian Yelich reportedly locked up for the long-term, Stearns can build both a championship-grade club and his own legacy.
Social media went ablaze mid-afternoon Tuesday, not entirely unlike a certain January two years ago. But, before we discuss Tuesday, David Stearns, Christian Yelich and the sort, we should back up about six weeks ago to Brewers On Deck.
At the afternoon media roundtable, Yelich’s contract situation came up. Every insider there treated the situation as a fait accompli: Enjoy Christian Yelich while you can; look at what Rendon and Trout got! was the message, almost verbatim. And that was a completely justifiable—dour, but still entirely justifiable—position to take.
The great players don’t tend to stay. Gary Sheffield made himself as radioactive as possible to get out of Milwaukee. Khris Davis barely pretended to care in the Miller Park outfield. C.C. Sabathia was never going to stay beyond the terms of his lease. Zack Greinke, too. Even local icons like a Ted Simmons or Paul Molitor (though for the latter, we can blame Sal Bando.)
There’s a reason Robin Yount stands alone at the highest echelon of franchise luminaries. And, while Yelich won’t have that wire-to-wire Milwaukee experience, a nine-year extension that will take him through from meat to marrow of his baseball career—the choice to stay in Baseball’s smallest market—will make him a demigod.
And before we discuss Tuesday, we need to rewind to a year ago, sitting in on the Spring 2019 Ken Keltner SABR chapter meeting. The keynote that day, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Brewers writer Tom Haudricourt, was asked about Yelich. Haudricourt raved about him, about how unassuming he is and how quickly he took to life six months out of the year in Milwaukee after more glamorous climes like growing up in Southern California or playing his first few Major League seasons in Miami. A veteran beat writer, having seen all that he has in his 30+ years in the trenches, saw a very different player than your garden variety elite ballplayer: in fact, when discussing the player, he wasn’t discussing a player at all, but a profoundly decent young man and someone who didn’t view Milwaukee as a pitstop toward another destination.
If we but paid attention, the signs pointing toward Tuesday were already there. Yelich would have been completely justified to wait out the remainder of his time as a Brewer and go cash in elsewhere. It would be another tale of a beloved player writing up a probably-insincere Players’ Tribune piece or Insta post talking nice about where he’s been and talking hopeful about where he’s going. Something something blessed, something else excited, thanks fans, something something let’s get to work.
But, Brewers fans, none of that really sounds like Christian Yelich, does it?
So it was surprising to see my phone blow up Tuesday afternoon with rumors that a deal to keep Yelich was imminent. Should it have been? History says yes, but Yelich isn’t history. Not yet, at least.
David Stearns picked up where his predecessor left off in trying to mop up the mess the predecessor made trying to keep the window open too long. To Doug Melvin’s credit, he saved the organization from the Selig blind trust and the Dean Taylor years; to his detriment, he often traded too much and signed a clearly-overachieving Jeff Suppan. Stearns wasn’t left with nothing, Melvin restocked aggressively as his time ran out, but Stearns nonetheless traded and built and traded and built the farm system to the point where he could move Lewis Brinson, Isan Diaz, Jordan Yamamoto and Monte Harrison—all players who were highly-regarded and systemically blocked—for the third man in the Giancarlo Stanton–Marcell Ozuna-Yelich Marlins outfield.
Remember when Yelich was the afterthought player? Brewers fans were more interested in J.T. Realmuto than Yelich. History writes the best punchlines.
After an offseason of Brewers Twitter discontent and message boards filled with raging because David Stearns didn’t do this or that or ‘WHY JUTSTIN SMOKE?’ raving surrounding the low-cost, low-risk, high-ceiling type guys Stearns did acquir in the hot stove, he kept off social media and did his job: In the absence of getting a sure-fire impact player, he made sure to take care of the impact player he has.
And with that, March 3, 2020 is David Stearns’ graduation day. He has now moved from restoring the franchise to being relevant, interesting and occasionally dangerous to having established the cornerstone of a decade-long experiment to bring a World Series championship back to Milwaukee for the first time in somewhere between 63 to 72 years.
It’s a high-stakes experiment, to be sure; Stearns has crossed the Rubicon. Winning baseball can no longer be considered successful. Division titles are not satisfactory. A league pennant isn’t half-bad. The only success now is a championship in this decade. With the deal Yelich will sign (reportedly Friday), the liabilities coming off the books in the next few years and some more shrewd Stearns drafting and dealing, there will be space to build a legitimate contender. (And this 2020 squad is probably going to be a lot better than armchair detractors and mindless talking heads predict.)
As always, the lesson learned is that there’s a reason David Stearns runs a Major League team and you and I don’t. The tassel has been turned, the margin for error is slim and Stearns has shown both remarkable business savvy and a measure of goodwill toward the people of Wisconsin in keeping a generational talent a Brewer. This doesn’t happen that often around here. That’s exactly why it’s so exciting.
History is but penstrokes from being written in a very different kind of way. It’s the way of the future.
Brent Sirvio is a co-founder of Bronx to Bushville.