The Milwaukee Brewers have issued a clear statement of intent over the past two months. With new general manager David Stearns and assistant general manager Matt Arnold, the organization has signaled the beginning of a new era in franchise history — one that will seemingly embrace new analytical and operational trends in professional baseball. Stearns and Arnold come from Houston and Tampa Bay, respectively, which are two of the most “sabermetric” front offices in the league, though you can be sure that both would (rightfully) bristle at my usage of the word.
This isn’t to suggest that Milwaukee will suddenly embrace statistical analysis — they already had — or begin to eschew day-to-day scouting activities. Instead, I simply mean to indicate that Stearns and Arnold represent a level of youth, creativity, and research that has not really existed in the Brewers organization. The appointment of Ray Montgomery was perhaps a harbinger of this transition, but Stearns cements the Brewers’ full commitment to the “new” model within baseball — one that seeks to utilize rigorous statistical analysis, painstaking research methods, extensive scouting, on-the-field coaching, and roster creativity to maximize the success of the team.
The challenge for Stearns and Arnold, though, isn’t going to be whether the club can emulate successful rebuilds like the one in Houston or the one in Chicago. The real difference maker in Milwaukee will be discovering the next competitive advantage that no one has exploited, the next market inefficiency, if you will. Simply using mountains data on framing, spin rates, defensive efficiency, and the like to drive coaching methods and roster decisions won’t be enough. Houston is doing that. Los Angeles, Boston, and Chicago are doing that. The Brewers must catch up in this area, sure, but the organization must employ something new. Because all things being equal, if the Brewers simply catch up and start doing what the successful organizations are doing, the organization’s small-market status will always keep them from reaching the levels they hope to achieve. All things being equal, the four clubs mentioned above (among others) will always be able to outspend Milwaukee. That will always be the competitive advantage that trumps all when everything else is equal.
Of course, the club will be able to field the occasional contender, if they score big on a couple back-to-back drafts (which they may have done in 2014) or if they orchestrate a couple of perfect trades that infuse the farm system with controllable, elite talent. The goal, though, is consistent contention. With a smaller budget than much of the league, the Brewers’ front office has to be better than the existing quality ones that already exist and will come to exist in the future.
I suspect a lot of talk will surface next season of expanded scouting networks in Asia, of increased budgets in the analytics department, of greater amounts of advanced-scouting data being given to the coaching staff. That’s great, and needed, but the true barometer of success will be what comes out of Milwaukee that is truly novel. Does the organization finally pour money into the lower levels of the system, providing things like team chefs to ensure the players eat well and aren’t relying on Burger King at 11pm after a three-game series in Kane County, Illinois? Does the organization pay their minor leaguers enough so they can devote all their offseason to training, instead of working odd jobs to pay rent? Does the organization discover a way to better prevent arm and shoulder injuries in their pitching staffs? Does the organization pioneer a new strategy in the bullpen or the rotation, maximizing the effectiveness of the whole pitching staff without overtaxing arms?
I obviously don’t have any specific examples of undiscovered advantages in Major League Baseball. My relatively-barren bank account is proof enough of that. However, I do believe the organization’s fundamental challenge is that it’s not good enough to do everything well that the other teams are already doing. That will just bring the occasional brief window of contention to Milwaukee, a boom-and-bust cycle that is inherently unsustainable. For the Brewers to bring a consistent winner to the state of Wisconsin — something for which Mark Attanasio desperately pines — the front office must be smarter than everyone else. They must be willing to buck the league’s trends, be willing to stand out and be criticized. They must be willing to do things that the majority of us won’t immediately understand. They must constantly be ahead of the curve.
That’s obviously a tall order for any front-office staff. I wonder if that’s even remotely possible. Perhaps the best for which the Brewers organization can hope is occasional contention — and, really, I think that can be enough for a franchise that largely avoids the spotlight of the national sports media — but I’m increasingly convinced that sustainable, long-term success in Milwaukee can only come if David Stearns and Matt Arnold are able to create something special, something no one has seen before.
And, if we’re truly being honest, that would only be able to last so long before a team like the Dodgers or Yankees open up the checkbook and make an offer Stearns or Arnold cannot refuse. Just ask Andrew Friedman and the Tampa Bay Rays about that.