The thing about down-to-the-studs rebuilds in baseball is you never know how long they’re going to last.
Given the relatively slow process of developing players, even successful rebuilds can last up to five years. The past three World Series winners — Kansas City, the Chicago Cubs and Houston — were down for at least that long after blowing up their rosters and starting over.
The road from teardown to contention has a million variables, but somewhere in every rebuild there is a tipping point, a time when the franchise makes a decision that the young talent it has assembled is ready to challenge and the roster needs to be augmented in other ways for the team to become a serious contender.
Last week’s events showed that it’s go time for the Milwaukee Brewers.
By cornering the market on high-end, two-way outfielders with the acquisitions of veterans Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich, the Brewers clearly reversed their course. The deals indicate general manager David Stearns has determined this is the time to go all-in and is trying to put the finishing touches on a team that can battle Chicago and St. Louis for supremacy in the National League Central Division.
Even if Stearns wouldn’t admit it Friday when asked if the Brewers had switched over from a rebuilding posture to a go-for-it mode.
“Our goal is to continue to make progress as an organization,” he said. “Back in 2015, when I started, I said, I’m going to take each decision as it comes and we’re going to make that decision in the best interests of the organization. That’s still where we are.
“We’re at a point now where bringing in someone like Lorenzo, making that investment, made sense for our organization. We’re going to continue to try to make the organization better to allow us to compete for an extended period of time. When we can make acquisitions and transactions that can further that goal, we’re going to continue to do that.”
As routine as Stearns makes it sound, the Brewers’ sudden aggressiveness was attention-grabbing during a baseball offseason notable for its lack of news. So was the speed of their turnaround. The Brewers went from 73 wins in 2016 to 86 in 2017.
It was 2½ years ago that then-general manager Doug Melvin dealt Aramis Ramirez to Pittsburgh at the July trade deadline, kicking off Milwaukee’s rebuilding process. Stearns replaced Melvin two months later and eventually stripped the roster of everyone over 25 years old not named Ryan Braun.
Fans settled in for a long, hard rebuild, but as a surprise playoff contender last year, the Brewers let everyone know the rebuild was ahead of schedule. And after they dealt four top prospects for Yelich and signed Cain to a five-year, $80-million contract in the past few days, the rebuild is over.
Provided, of course, the Brewers aren’t done yet. They still have a crying need for a high-end starting pitcher and they have a surplus of outfielders to use as trade bait. The onus is now on Stearns to finish what he started.
Although the Brewers imported two of the game’s better all-around outfielders, the moves were not without risk.
Cain will turn 32 in April and has a history of nagging injuries. To get Yelich from Miami, Stearns had to give up a motherlode of potential talent, including the team’s No. 1 prospect, outfielder Lewis Brinson, and two other prospects who were ranked in the top 10 in the farm system. In addition to the $80 million for Cain, the Brewers are on the hook for $43.25 million over four years for Yelich, with a $15 million option for a fifth.
But while this looks like a short-term decision, that’s not the case. In fact, Stearns has talked about having players with controllable years on their contracts since the day he came on board and he didn’t deviate from that stance with these moves.
Indeed, the Brewers have five years of control over both Cain and Yelich, which diminishes the risk considerably. The farmhands they traded away might — key word: might — be very good in time, but Cain and Yelich are very good right now and they’ll be around through 2022.
For the small-budget Brewers, tying up $138.25 million for two outfielders over the next five years might be the biggest risk.
But after hitting the $100 million mark in payroll a few years ago, they have been below $60 million in each of the past two years, so they should have the wherewithal to make that financial commitment.
The downside would be if they didn’t have enough left over to pay a high-end starting pitcher, but they’re not likely to win a bidding war for a big-ticket free agent anyway.
Stearns wouldn’t say if acquiring Cain and Yelich would make it more or less likely that the team will find a proven starter prior to the season but, as we saw last week, there is no time like the present for the Brewers.
“We knew we would have an offseason like this at some point,” he said. “I couldn’t have told you whether it would be this offseason, next offseason or the offseason after, but we knew at some point we would make significant outside acquisitions to supplement our team. A number of factors contributed to this and when these opportunities arose, to add Christian and Lorenzo and bring these types of talents into the organization, we decided that now is the time.
“Both players are here, obviously, for a long time and allow us to, we believe, be a strong team for multiple years.”
Maybe even one that can win the division.