David Stearns deserves a lot of credit for getting the Brewers back to contending status in such a short period of time. After taking the GM reins in September of 2015, Stearns had a large rebuilding project on his hands given the steps back that many Brewers’ MLB-level assets had taken (e.g. Jean Segura, Scooter Gennett) and the lack of significant talent in the minor-league system. He returned the team to playoff contention in under two years, and has them charging towards the postseason again in 2018. With the Brewers currently sitting 2.5 games ahead of the Dodgers for the second wild-card spot, their playoff hopes are optimistic.
The 2018 offseason saw Stearns make some big moves that improved the overall trajectory of the club. He acquired Christian Yelich via trade, while nabbing Lorenzo Cain and Jhoulys Chacin as free agents. However, there was one area that he failed to successfully address that has hurt the Brewers as of late – the bullpen.
The Brewers lost two significant bullpen pieces when Anthony Swarzak left in free agency and the club decided to not tender Jared Hughes a contract. Both were productive relievers, and Swarzak especially had the skill and moxie to compete in high leverage situation. This created a situation where additional pitchers were needed to bolster the backend of a group that was led by Corey Knebel, Josh Hader, and Jeremy Jeffress.
Stearns’ solution was to pursue overlooked and therefore cheaper options than many of the more prevalent names on the market. While seemingly “elite” options Greg Holland, Bryan Shaw, and Wade Davis were out of the question, the next tier of relievers offered many viable impact options for David Stearns to target. Among those available (with their eventual club) were: Steve Cishek (Cubs), Tommy Hunter (Phillies), Mike Minor (Rangers, signed with intention of switching back to being a starting pitcher), Pat Neshek (Phillies), Yusmeiro Petit (Athletics), Joe Smith (Astros), and the aforementioned Anthony Swarzak (Mets). In the cases of all these players, either their prices were deemed to be either too high or the club was not interested in their services.
All of those players commanded contracts of at least $5 million annually, with most being multi-year guaranteed deals. Stearns’ aversion to multi-year deals for relievers is understandable – relief pitchers’ performances tend to be relatively volatile from year-to-year. The issue comes with the outcome of his solution, which was the signings of Boone Logan and Matt Albers.
It’s perfectly safe to say both signings have turned out poorly for the Brewers. After starting the season on the DL, Logan only lasted 10 innings over 16 appearances before being shown the door, pitching to a 5.91 ERA and contributing directly to multiple losses. Albers was a different case, as he started the season on fire with a 1.08 through 25 innings pitched in April and May. However, the wheels fell off when the calendar turned to June, as he allowed runs in consecutive appearances against the White Sox before having a truly disastrous outing against the Chicago Cubs that saw him give up 5 runs in just 2/3 of an inning. He landed on the DL after that game, and upon returning in late July his performance brought much of the same. In his first four outings back, he gave up 3, 2, 3 and 2 eared runs respectively, managing to cover only 1 and 2/3 innings. In fact, since his return from the DL, he has had only one scoreless appearance, and that was one in which he only faced a single batter.
In games where the Brewers necessitate the usage of Josh Hader and Jeremy Jeffress, it generally leaves the bullpen without a reliable option for the following day given Craig Counsell’s bullpen management strategy. It becomes even more prevalent given the many games in which the Brewers have had to lean on their bullpen for 4+ innings due to short starts. These are games where the Brewers could benefit greatly from having signed one of the previously-mentioned options this past offseason.
Some factors for the bullpen’s recent failures are out of Stearns’ control. Corey Knebel realistically could not have been expected to require a demotion to the minor leagues, and the performances of Albers and Logan have been on the bottom end of the probability spectrum for their predicted performances. However, when things do go wrong (as they have this season), the same question will always pop up: Was enough done to prevent it?
Based on the Brewers’ recent moves, the answer seems to be “no”. They traded for reliever Joakim Soria at the deadline, and then more recently picked up Jordan Lyles and Xavier Cedeno via trade waivers after the July 31st deadline. Add in the midseason call-up of Corbin Burnes, and half of the current core bullpen group was not present on the MLB roster at the start of the season. Now, these moves show that Stearns recognized the deficiencies present with the current group and has attempted to remedy them, but they come with a price – trading away prospects – while signing a free agent in the offseason would have allowed the Brewers to retain depth in their farm system.
David Stearns decision-making is understandable – he reacted to a situation that did not go as planned, and the Brewers are now in a position to succeed moving forward. However, it is worth exploring if the games lost by relievers like Logan and Albers could have been prevented with different off-season signings.