Since pretty much the day he got the job, Milwaukee Brewers GM David Stearns has stockpiled outfielders in the farm system with interesting results.
It was practically a running joke at the beginning of his tenure as GM, that David Stearns loved outfielders and he was picking them up as if there was no tomorrow. There has been no shortage of outfield prospects in the Milwaukee Brewers system since Stearns took over.
After taking over in 2015, Stearns traded away Khris Davis and then acquired Keon Broxton in a separate deal. In 2016, the Brewers selected outfielder Corey Ray with the 5th overall pick in the Draft, then acquired two more outfielders, Lewis Brinson and Ryan Cordell, in the Jonathan Lucroy trade. Nine of the Crew’s Top 30 prospects were outfielders. Four of them were in the top seven.
The next year, Stearns drafted Tristen Lutz with the 34th overall pick, adding yet another top outfield prospect to the mix. In 2017, Stearns gave all his young outfielders a chance to stand out and prove they were ready for the big leagues. The 2017 team had success while the outfield was still in flux and no one was really standing out from the crowd.
A Change In Course
The Brewers were going to enter the 2018 season with four outfielders battling for two spots as Ryan Braun had left field still to himself. Brinson, Broxton, Domingo Santana, and Brett Phillips were in the mix for the center field and right field jobs.
Broxton, Santana, and Phillips were all pushed out of a job and all have since been traded. All four of those outfielders that Brewers fans once thought were the future for this organization no longer are. Yes, it ended up being the correct the course of action for Stearns to move on Yelich and Cain given how they have worked out and how those other outfielders have played since.
Brinson has yet to hit above .200 with the Marlins despite once beings a consensus Top 15 prospect in all of baseball. There’s still time, but he looks like a bust. Brett Phillips has had opportunities to cement himself in the Kansas City outfield but has yet to do so as his bat hasn’t developed as hoped either. Broxton couldn’t hit anywhere else and Santana had a decent year for Seattle, but was non-tendered after one season and signed as a free agent with Cleveland.
The Farm System
The Brewers minor league system is full of high ceiling outfield talent. In MLB Pipeline’s 2019 Brewers Top 30 prospects list, they had 13 outfielders on the list. In the 2020 edition, they have 12 outfielders in the Top 30.
Stearns has continued to stockpile outfielders, with Corey Ray as the closest to the big leagues with Tyrone Taylor right behind him. Then Tristen Lutz is probably the next closest. But will any of them actually get a starting job with the Brewers?
From “Young and Cheap” to “Experienced and Expensive”
With the stockpiling of outfield prospects that were relatively close to the big leagues, many assumed that the Brewers were planning to have a young, cheap, and talented outfield for years to come, which would allow the team to spend their money elsewhere as they built a contender for the long-term. Perhaps that was actually Stearns’ original plan, but the opportunity to add Yelich and Cain to a team that showed they were ready to begin contending changed things.
Stearns was ready for the Brewers to begin contending in 2018, but that outfield was not yet ready. To make it ready, he needed to get experienced players, which meant they would be more expensive.
The 2018 outfield depth chart was a glorious mess. The Brewers tried to trade Domingo Santana earlier that offseason, but were unable to. With Braun, Cain, and Yelich holding the starting jobs, Santana and Broxton were relegated to bench duty and their trade values plummeted. It worked out well for the big league roster, but not for those two.
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After the 2018 season, the Brewers traded Santana for another outfielder in Ben Gamel. Gamel was the 4th outfielder for most of 2019, until Trent Grisham essentially took that job from him late in the year.
Grisham was in the Brewers farm system prior to Stearns’ arrival. A former first round pick, Grisham struggled for years to gain traction in the minor leagues, before a grip change put him back on track. He played well and proved himself ready for the big leagues. Then Stearns traded him away. Another homegrown outfielder out the door.
This offseason, Stearns signed outfielder Avisail Garcia to a multi-year contract with a $10MM AAV.
Currently, the Brewers top four highest-paid players are all outfielders. Garcia, Braun, Cain, and Yelich take up nearly 50% of the team’s projected $108.9MM payroll. That means the other 50% of the payroll goes to the remaining 22 players on the roster.
Stearns has had the Brewers stockpile and develop outfielders for the past four years, and not a single one of them that has made it to the big leagues has been able to stay. Brinson, Phillips, Santana, Broxton, and Grisham have all been traded away for either a better outfielder or someone at another spot.
The current group of outfielders were all acquired as big leaguers from a different organization. For a team that prided themselves on their stockpile of outfielders and having incredible depth at the position, none of those players have actually been able to keep a job with the Brewers and have done much since going elsewhere, either.
It’s amazing to me, that with all those outfield prospects Stearns acquired, not a single one of them were able to work out. Not a single one proved themselves enough to be a part of the future in Milwaukee. Kudos to Stearns for seeing that his outfield prospects weren’t going to play as well as he originally hoped and changing course to add proven big leaguers.
With Ryan Braun’s contract ending after 2020 and Avisail Garcia under contract for at least another year, it might be a few more years before another Brewers outfield prospect has the opportunity to get a starting job.
The Brewers will have no shortage of outfield prospects available to fill a hole in the big league roster, but the question is if they will be good enough in the eyes of Stearns to fill that spot right away or will Stearns be forced to add another proven big league outfielder? Only time will tell.