The New York Mets are having an accidental year of long-term thinking, but Tuesday brought word of a move that always seemed to be part of the plan. According to multiple reports, the Mets are reportedly hiring Milwaukee Brewers executive David Stearns as president of baseball operations about two years after whispers about their interest in him began circulating.
Stearns will take the helm of the organization, with current GM Billy Eppler expected to remain in place as his No. 2, creating a front office leadership combo that is common across the league.
If team owner Steve Cohen’s ambition is to emulate the Los Angeles Dodgers’ perpetual winning machine, then Stearns is his Andrew Friedman. A 38-year-old New York native and childhood Mets fan, Stearns checks all the boxes for a contemporary MLB executive. He worked for the Houston Astros during their trend-setting rebuild, then took over as Brewers GM in 2015, eventually assuming the president of baseball operations title until he stepped down into an advisory role in October 2022 (amid speculation about the Mets job). Although I’m not aware of the statute that requires it, it seems that you can’t write about Stearns without also mentioning that he went to Harvard.
His baseball resumé rests on the success Milwaukee enjoyed during his tenure. On the low end of baseball’s revenue spectrum, the Brewers had made the playoffs only twice in the wild-card era (and since 1982) when they hired Stearns. His clubs made four straight postseason appearances between 2018 and 2021, then missed by one game last season. The 2018 team pushed the Dodgers to Game 7 in the National League Championship Series.
The how of it all is what should interest Mets fans — and what clearly does interest Cohen — as Stearns prepares to assume control of a team that could use some steady direction.
Not devoid of talent, the Mets won 101 games in 2022, entered 2023 with the highest payroll in MLB history, severely underperformed, then leveraged Cohen’s budget to spin off short-term parts such as Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander and infuse a middling farm system with talent. Francisco Lindor, Brandon Nimmo, Jeff McNeil and injured closer Edwin Díaz are proven veterans locked in for at least the medium term, and catcher Francisco Alvarez headlines a group of promising but largely unproven young hitters already in the majors. Yet significant questions loom over Citi Field — namely, whether beloved slugger Pete Alonso will remain in New York as his team control years dwindle, who exactly will pitch for the next contending Mets team and when the front office plans to field that team.
What, then, can Stearns’ time with the Brewers tell us about how he might approach those challenges?
How Stearns built a winner in Milwaukee
The Brewers rose to perennial NL Central relevance on the back of two major pillars: pitching development and the occasional bold trade. Stearns’ flashiest moves with the Brewers came ahead of the 2018 season, when he traded for outfielder Christian Yelich and signed center fielder Lorenzo Cain.
Coming off a surprisingly strong 2017 campaign in which Milwaukee finished above .500, Stearns decided to add more established stars. The deal for Yelich, which sent prospects Lewis Brinson, Isan Diaz, Monte Harrison and Jordan Yamamoto to the Miami Marlins, turned out to be a ridiculous steal. Yelich unlocked a power stroke and won NL MVP in 2018, then finished second in 2019 before injuries contributed to his recent return to earth. None of the prospects given up in that trade has found consistent major-league footing.
Cain, who inked a five-year deal in Milwaukee, turned in one more peak offensive season (logging 6.1 WAR and finishing seventh in MVP voting in 2018) and then continued to provide stellar defense through 2021.
Dive deeper, and you’ll find several other transactions that paint a rosy picture of Stearns’ decision-making and one big one that doesn’t. A very early deal sent Adam Lind to the Seattle Mariners for a prospect haul that included eventual All-Star starter Freddy Peralta. Perhaps most memorably, Stearns flipped reliever Tyler Thornburg — coming off an impressive season of 67 innings with a 2.15 ERA — to the Boston Red Sox for a package that included third baseman Travis Shaw, who became a key regular on Milwaukee’s 2017 and 2018 squads. The ding on Stearns’ record, of course, is sending away closer Josh Hader last season, which we’ll come back to.
Stearns’ more significant selling point is the pitching pipeline that has kept Milwaukee thriving. His reign in Milwaukee was, more than anything else, the era in which the Brewers consistently produced terrifying arms, some of whom were in the organization before Stearns took over but all of whom made their names under his watch.
That’s Peralta and 2021 Cy Young winner Corbin Burnes and the steadily excellent Brandon Woodruff in the rotation. And it’s almost too many useful bullpen arms to count, with Hader and Devin Williams being the standard-bearers.
Broadly speaking, the Brewers have succeeded in helping pitchers find their nastiest stuff, with the vast majority of their starters breaking in with bullpen stints and making transitions back to starting under the respected guidance of manager Craig Counsell.
At the same time, you could mark hitting development as a question. The Brewers’ best hitters in the Stearns era were often outside acquisitions — from Yelich to short-term standouts such as Mike Moustakas, Yasmani Grandal and Avisail Garcia. Stearns excelled at locating those players (and usually cycling through them before they aged or got expensive), but the Brewers have not recently generated the sort of foundational position players that many winning teams, including the Mets, can bank on.
How Stearns’ approach might fit with Cohen’s Mets
Like Friedman when he leapt from the Tampa Bay Rays to the Dodgers, Stearns will almost necessarily behave differently by virtue of a vastly different budget. In his time with the Brewers, Milwaukee never ranked higher than 17th in MLB by Opening Day payroll and never finished a season higher than 12th in spending by competitive balance tax calculations.
Backed by Cohen’s near-limitless coffers and apparent enthusiasm for tapping into them, the Mets will almost inevitably carry a top-five payroll most seasons. Guessing how Stearns plans to use that previously unavailable financial heft would be just that: guessing.
Yet it’s worth pointing out that his most significant external expenditures in Milwaukee were on the hitting side, whereas he will be walking into a Mets organization lacking in both current pitching and likely future pitching contributors. Will he remedy that with free agents? Will he put his faith in player development to unearth hidden gems? Woodruff, for example, was a 10th-round pick.
Or, with multiple highly ranked hitting prospects breaking in or looming on the horizon after New York’s summer sell-off, could Stearns turn to the trade market? There’s no surefire pattern in his track record to say which of the Mets’ core players he might value as long-term propositions. His only significant extension in Milwaukee went to Yelich, an MVP-level performer. Outside of that, he struck low-cost deals with team options on young pitchers such as Peralta and Aaron Ashby.
The most controversial — and final — chapter of Stearns’ stewardship of the Brewers might say more about what he won’t do. At the 2022 trade deadline, he dealt away fireballing closer Hader, viewing the bullpen as a strength with Williams waiting in the setup role, and the team wilted out of the playoff picture. He later lamented the move as not having the impact he expected.
Relatedly, there’s no good answer as to how he might approach the question of Alonso’s future. On the one hand, Stearns often kept bat-first corner players on short-term deals or traded them in Milwaukee, but on the other, he never had anyone with Alonso’s gravitational thump. The post-Hader tumult figures to make him consider matters carefully before cutting ties with a clubhouse leader and fan favorite.
We also don’t know how Stearns might view manager Buck Showalter, who largely side-stepped a question about his future on Tuesday. Counsell, the Brewers manager throughout Stearns’ time in Milwaukee, is in the final year of his contract but has reportedly told friends that he plans to take at least 2024 off to spend time with his family.
Following the Mets’ summer retrenchment, the most likely path might not include many immediate, dramatic changes at the major-league level. If Cohen & Co. are targeting 2025 as the next all-in season, Stearns could spend the next year assessing the talent at his disposal, making low-risk bets on the margins and injecting new expertise into a player development operation that is viewed as being behind, especially on the pitching front.
More than any one decision he must make, Stearns will be asked to provide a philosophy, a direction, for a team that has changed leadership with relentless frequency. Stearns’ Brewers weren’t perfect, and they didn’t win the World Series trophy Cohen openly covets. But they appeared to have a consistent plan and easily identifiable points of organizational pride.
There are only so many executives who can make that claim in the fast-moving world of 2020s baseball. And as the Mets’ protracted pursuit attests, it’s even rarer to find one who’s available.