When he was hired by owner Mark Attanasio as the 2015 season was ending, David Stearns became the youngest GM in baseball. Photo courtesy of Milwaukee Brewers/Twitter
NEW YORK -- The Milwaukee Brewers are not exactly a collection of household names.
Everyone should know outfielder Ryan Braun for reasons both good and bad. And chances are that even the casual fan knows starting pitcher Matt Garza. They may even have become familiar with closer Corey Knebel, who will be the team's lone representative at the All-Star Game on Tuesday.
And this is why the Brewers have become such an interesting story this season. After taking the rubber game of their series with the New York Yankees 5-3 in the Bronx on Sunday, Milwaukee is 50-41 and leading the National League Central by 5 1/2 games over the somehow-still-slumping 2016 World Series champion Chicago Cubs and the St. Louis Cardinals.
Not bad for a Milwaukee club that lost a combined 183 games over the previous two seasons and hasn't been to a postseason since 2011.
Las Vegas hated the Brewers back in March when the season was starting. Milwaukee and the Cincinnati Reds were given the longest odds of winning the division at 33-to-1 and the worst odds of winning the NL pennant at 75-to-1, according to the Bovada Sportsbook.
Yet here they are with the most home runs in the NL, and they are tied with the Reds for the league lead in stolen bases.
The architect of this remarkable turnaround in the making is general manager David Stearns, a 32-year-old Harvard grad who grew up in Manhattan, fell in love with baseball watching the Mike Piazza-led Mets and "knew that I wanted a career in baseball if I could get one," he said.
When he was hired by owner Mark Attanasio as the 2015 season was ending, he became the youngest GM in baseball. He was an understandable choice. He had worked in the baseball operations department of the player-development-heavy Cleveland Indians, where he learned all aspects of a front office, and then he became the top assistant to Houston Astros GM Jeff Luhnow, who is the master of identifying top talent through advanced analytics.
But the blueprint for Stearns wasn't going to be the same as it was for the Astros.
"There are differences in the organizations, the way they generate revenue streams and many other factors," he said.
"I'm not saying I haven't relied on all the lessons I learned at the stops I've made, but every situation calls for something different."
This may be his way of saying that the Brewers could not deal with the sustained years of losing the Astros went through to stockpile the young talent that has made them so formidable this season.
"What we set out to do was identify good young talent that could thrive in our system and develop it to sustain the club," Stearns said.
He has now turned over more than half of the roster he inherited.
Two his best moves got him the powerhouse corner infielders who are the Brewers' biggest run producers.
Before this season, Stearns dealt Tyler Thornburg, who spent much of 2016 as the closer, to the Boston Red Sox for third baseman Travis Shaw, who now leads the team in RBIs (65) and on-base-plus-slugging percentage (.938). He released first baseman Chris Carter, who tied for the 2016 league high with 41 home runs, and brought in first baseman Eric Thames, who spent the previous three years playing in South Korea.
Thames was nothing more than a bit player when Houston sent him overseas, but he remade himself into a dynamic power hitter. He has cooled since a torrid first six weeks but still leads the Brewers with 23 home runs.
"I'm not going to say we're ahead of schedule because it's a philosophy and a process that you apply and the idea is that if you keep applying in as many situations as you can, it puts you in a position to succeed," Stearns said.
It brings the Brewers to the next big question: the trade deadline. Is it time for Stearns to augment his process and perhaps sell off pieces in the minor league system that is now ranked No. 7 by Baseball America in order to get players who might get Milwaukee over the top and into the postseason?
"I'm not sure we're at the place where we're going to do anything strictly short term, and we don't know what opportunities will present themselves," he said. "We feel we're moving the organization to a place where winning is sustainable ... with what we have here (on the 25-man roster) and in our depth. The kind of opportunities that might be most attractive to us before the deadline are ones that will pay dividends for more than just this season, and we don't know if they'll be there."
Stearns has shown himself to be shrewd already. With it unlikely that the vastly more talented Cubs will stay dormant all season, he will have to judge whether this season is the opportunity to get back in the postseason. But right now, the Brewers' position is looking pretty good.