As the Brewers close in on another playoff birth, their franchise turn-around in the past half decade is evident
It doesn’t seem that long ago that post season baseball in Milwaukee seemed unobtainable. Prior to the 2018 season, the Brewers had only played in the playoffs four times in franchise history. They’d gone through a 26 year playoff drought, historic late season collapses, and countless seasons that were over by August. Brewer fans just weren’t used to seeing their team play past the regular season. However, in the past couple of seasons, that stigma has changed. As the Brewers sit 12.5 games atop the NL Central on September 18, their magic number for a divisional title is down to 4, and only 2 for a playoff birth. When they punch a ticket to the postseason in the upcoming week, it will be their fourth in a row, signifying an obvious change in the overall direction of the franchise.
Now what has changed in the past several years that made this organization go from a disappointing product to a consistent contender? It begins with the people running the show. In 2015, David Stearns was hired as general manager, the same year Craig Counsell was brought in to replace Ron Roenicke as manager. As soon as these two exciting hires were made, the outlook on the franchise changed. Once the fans learned of a new style, modern GM, with an emphasis in analytics, they bought in immediately. Stearns was trusted with the job of being in charge of heading the rebuild. Fans were sick of losing season after losing season. Fed up with being a steady 4th or 5th place team in the division, they bought in on the plans of a rebuild that Stearns had talked about. He did not disappoint.
Brewer fans saw first hand what a total rebuild could do to a team, as the Chicago Cubs had broke their 108-year title drought with a similar process. The Cubs had torn their team down, and built it back from the ground up, and it payed dividends. As Brewers fans closely watched with jealousy, they knew that rebuild, like Chicago’s, would be necessary to win. Soon enough, the minor league system was rich with talent. In every level of the minors, exciting players loomed.
Sure enough, those same players were making key differences in the years to come. Stearns seemed to win on every single move he was making. With an influx of talent in the minor leagues, it appeared that the talented minor leaguers he’d trade away from established star talent would never pan out, and the ones he decided to build the core around turned out to be key players on postseason teams. A key example includes Lewis Brinson of the Marlins, who Stearns traded for now superstar Christian Yelich. Brinson never flourished in Miami, while Yelich became an absolute stud in Milwaukee. Or how Stearns decided to keep top prospect Josh Hader, who has become a three-time All Star and is arguably the best reliever in all of baseball. Stearns’ eye for talent is what has truly changed the Brewers from a usual loser to a consistent threat.
Pair that with Counsell’s unique and ever successful in-game decision making, and you have a winner, which is what the Brewers have been for the past several years. Stearns’ and Counsell’s modern approach to the game have built highly successful teams. In 2017, the Brewers surprisingly won 86 games with a rag-tag bunch, largely in part of Counsell’s genius-like use of the bullpen, and Stearns’ ability to find talent. In the following years, 2018 and 2019, every button the duo pushed worked. They traded for Christian Yelich, who turned in to an MVP, signed Lorenzo Cain, an All-Star and defensive whiz, and picked up Mike Moustakas at the trade deadline, who was a key piece in playoff appearances in both years. Now in 2021, the Brewers came in to the season with questionable expectations. Nobody knew what to think of a group who’s core from 2018 was mostly gone, with a new plethora of unproven yet exciting talent. Of course, the vast majority of the offseason moves Stearns’ made panned out. Kolten Wong, Omar Narvaez, Avisail Garcia, and most notably Willy Adames have all made key contributions this season.
However, even with three straight postseason appearances, the Brewers haven’t been able to do much in October. In those three appearances, they have only advanced once, in 2018, when they came a game away from moving on to the World Series. In 2019 they blew a late lead in the NL Wild Card game to the eventual World Series champion Washington Nationals, and in 2020, they lost the Wild Card round to the Los Angeles Dodgers in a funky COVID postseason format. While the lack of playoff success is definitely a story, the growth of a once laughingstock franchise to one that is now thoroughly-feared is the story to talk about.
But for Milwaukee, they hope this is the year that they can make some noise in the playoffs. With 15 games remaining in the season, the Brewers are only six wins away from reaching a franchise high in wins. They have a three-headed monster in the starting rotation, one that is enough to send shivers down the spine of any opposing team’s line-up. All five starting pitchers are performing well, they all have ERA’s under 3.45, with three below 2.60, something that is obviously a great sign heading into October. In prior postseasons, starting pitching has been the factor that has held them back. But this season, the dominance of the starting unit has been the talk of the town all season long. And hey, that bullpen isn’t too shabby either. As October approaches, hope reigns supreme in Milwaukee.