Offseason Primer: Can Minnesota Mimic Milwaukee's Success?
Image courtesy of Benny Sieu-USA TODAY SportsThis story helps set the stage for a truly pivotal offseason ahead. It's just a taste of what you'll find in the 2019 Offseason Handbook, which is currently available for preorder. If you wanna learn more about it, and the benefits of preordering, check out our FAQ. Also, we just shared our list of guest contributors you might find familiar.
In December of 2011, the Cleveland Indians named Falvey and Stearns – both still in their mid-20s – co-directors of baseball operations. One year later, Stearns would be fished away by the Houston Astros, who made him their assistant GM under Jeff Luhnow. And after three years in that role, Milwaukee hired Stearns to run its front office.
Falvey, still holding a pivotal role in Cleveland's baseball ops, was promoted to assistant GM in 2016. One year later the Twins poached Falvey from their division rivals and named him Chief Baseball Officer. They even went through the same search firm (Korn Ferry) that aided the Brewers in finding Stearns.
Milwaukee's results in Years 1 and 2 under Stearns were nearly identical to Minnesota's under Falvey – one non-competitive season and one fairly competitive season that showed promise. Here in Year 3, it all came together for Stearns' Brewers: they won 96 games and now they're playing for a World Series bid.
Next year will be Falvey's third in Minnesota. Can the Twins take a similar step forward under his guidance?
In addressing this question, let's reflect on some components of Milwaukee's 2018 rise and how the Twins are implementing them in their own ways.
In his first offseason at the helm, Stearns overturned half of Milwaukee's 40-man roster, a thorough house-cleaning in the wake of a 94-loss campaign.
Falvey's initial tweaking was not quite as aggressive, in part because his early focus was more on changes behind the scenes, but two years after taking the job he and GM Thad Levine have reshaped the roster plenty.
These newly hired execs weren't equipped for a complete overhaul out of the gates, due to inherited commitments. But with Joe Mauer, Brian Dozier and Ervin Santana presumably moving on, the team will be forging an entirely new identity.
It seems likely next year's Opening Day 40-man roster will feature, at most, seven holdovers from the version Falvine took on two years ago: Max Kepler, Eddie Rosario, Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano, Jorge Polanco, Kyle Gibson and Trevor May.
Innovative and Malleable Manager
Like Stearns, Falvey kept his incumbent manager rather than replacing him, in what was more or less a mandate from ownership. Milwaukee's Craig Counsell, who'd been tabbed during the season to replace Ron Roenicke, was an internal hire with no formal managerial experience, much like Paul Molitor. But at 45, Counsell was considerably younger, and only a few years removed from his playing days.
It's nigh impossible to quantify or definitively analyze a manager's impact, but Counsell sure seems to be a positive difference-maker. He embraces a discerning new-school mentality (we've seen plenty of creative tactics deployed here in October, especially with pitching usage), and perhaps most importantly, strikes a note of relatability and resonance with his players, having been in their shoes not so long ago.
That's a trend we see around the game. Look at the other playoff teams and you see several skippers with profiles similar to Counsell: recently retired players with zero formal experience in the role. Dave Roberts (Los Angeles), Alex Cora (Boston), Aaron Boone (New York) are all under 50, and all stopped playing within the past decade. The same is true of guys like Gabe Kapler (Philadelphia) and Kevin Cash (Tampa), whose underdog squads exceeded expectations and flirted with contention.
Now that Falvey and Co. finally have the chance to handpick their own man for the job, I suspect we'll see them follow this emerging paradigm.
One thing that's enabled Milwaukee's stunning success – especially here in October – is a deep and cleverly utilized relief corps. It helps offset an unspectacular rotation, and places the Brewers on even footing with today's high-powered bullpen units. They have perhaps the game's most dominant reliever in Josh Hader, and complement him with plenty of other high-caliber arms like Jeremy Jeffress, Corey Knebel, Dan Jennings, Brandon Woodruff, Corbin Burnes and Joakim Soria.
In the playoffs, Counsell has been leveraging this depth to prevent his starters from seeing lineups multiple times, or even bypassing them completely – Milwaukee went with a full-on bullpen game in the first NLDS contest, defeating Colorado on the strength of its six best relievers.
The Twins have a long way to go before boasting such bullpen strength, but they've at least got some key pieces in place. Falvey and Levine demonstrated their seriousness last winter by signing Addison Reed to the largest contract for a free agent reliever in franchise history, and while that one hasn't worked out so well, they'll doubtlessly be active again on this acquisition front.
Subtle Additions Add Up
Whereas deadline waffling was a signature characteristic of the Terry Ryan era, this new front office has proven bold and decisive. Taking honest stock of teams that lacked championship viability, Falvey and Levine have repeatedly seized opportunities to capture intriguing talent from other organizations.
Stearns has benefitted hugely from one such move that took place before his arrival – in July of 2015, his predecessor Doug Melvin dealt Carlos Gomez and Mike Fiers to Houston in exchange for, among others, Hader and slugging outfielder Domingo Santana. (Ironically, Stearns was assistant GM for the Astros at the time.)
Since taking over, though, Stearns has savvily acquired key pieces through many avenues. He claimed Junior Guerra off waivers from the White Sox. He picked up top prospect Lewis Brinson from Texas at the 2016 deadline, in exchange for Jonathan Lucroy and Jeffress, then later flipped Brinson into the headliner of the Christian Yelich trade. Stearns signed Eric Thames out of Korea, landing a cost-effective top-tier slugger. He acquired young standout starter Freddy Peralta from Seattle in the low-key Adam Lind trade of December 2015.
"Opportunistic" is a credo that Falvey recites often, and his regime has largely lived it. That same mindset has served Stearns and the Brewers well, and as we've seen, the payoff can be huge even if not immediately apparent.
Key Offseason Pickups
Stearns also has some marquee acquisitions under his belt, and a couple of slam dunks last offseason have largely fueled his team's elevation here in 2018. Maybe it's just a short memory, but I have a hard time recalling two players immediately moving the needle in their first year with a new team like Yelich and Lorenzo Cain have.
Both are credible candidates for National League MVP. Yelich is actually the odds-on favorite, having led the NL in WAR (7.6). Cain was close behind in fourth place (5.7). That's more than 13 wins added by two additions, according to FanGraphs; if the Twins were somehow able to inject a similar boost while receiving at least modest turnarounds from their internal core, a leap from 78 wins to 90+ is very feasible.
Milwaukee's high-profile acquisitions were of a sort that Minnesota could realistically pull off this winter.
Cain was a free agent, signed by the Brewers to a five-year, $80 million contract that now looks beyond reasonable in hindsight. The Twins have plenty of spending flexibility for such a move.
Yelich came in a trade, which required Stearns to part with some of his most prized minor-league talent – Brinson was Milwaukee's top prospect, and among the highest-ranked in the game, while Monte Harrison and Isan Diaz also were among the organization's Top 10 – but in return the Brewers got a 26-year-old superstar under reasonable control through 2022.
The Twins possess one of the best farm systems in the game, with premier talent at the top and plenty of depth throughout. They are well positioned to deal from this cache for assets that can make both immediate and long-term impacts. During his late-August interview with Baseball Prospectus at Target Field, Levine suggested that this route was appealing to him:
"As we sit here today, it’s not to say we’re not going to get aggressive in this free agent market, but we may actually shift our attention to the trade market. This might not be the perfect time for us to invest in a guy who’s 30 years old and would need to perform today in order for us to realize his true potential."
In Yelich, Milwaukee got the best of both worlds.
As far as free agents and trade targets go, there are plenty of big names out there this offseason, making for a wealth of intrigue given Minnesota's circumstances. You'll be able to explore all of the possibilities in our 2019 Offseason Handbook, which is available for preorder. Claim your copy now, get it before its official release. Today we revealed the front cover and our star-studded lineup of guest authors.
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