Arguably no team fights their small-market stigma more than the Milwaukee Brewers. So much so that team owner Mark Attanasio addressed it directly in his open letter back in December.
Attanasio thanked the Brewers faithful for supporting the team. Because, despite being few, Brewers fans are loyal. Thanking the fans is kind of apropos though; it's expected. What was especially noteworthy of the open letter was this line:
"To move toward accomplishing this lofty goal, I believe we need to take a step back and build more intensively from within."
It's not like the Brewers are the only team rebuilding. Not at all. But they are the only team -- of the however many rebuilders at the moment -- that how shown the utmost self-awareness in the matter. Attanasio could have just appointed David Stearns as the new general manager, had fans assume a rebuild, leave it at that, and let them continue to purchase Ryan Braun and Jonathan Lucroy jerseys. He didn't.
It's really interesting to parse the entire open letter, which can be read here, but there's no way to guarantee its meaning. Does it just mean that Attanasio would have felt disingenuous not addressing this publicly? That he was selling something that wasn't worth selling? Or perhaps it was just a better way of selling the team in general. After all, he does note that Braun, Lucroy and Matt Garza are the only players on the roster under multi-year deals still. And, honestly, those contracts aren't onerous.
The fact is, if Stearns was in good shape two months ago, he's in even better shape now thanks to his own perceptive moves. Let's take a look.
The Free Agents
The Brewers added one notable player on a major-league deal and that was Chris Carter. The free-swinging first baseman hit 24 home runs last year, and struck out in 32.8 percent of his plate appearances. The Brewers only committed one-year and $2.5 million to the man that will end up being Adam Lind's replacement. Lind had a great season with the Brewers after being acquired last offseason for Marco Estrada.
Other than that, the Brewers added low-risk Will Middlebrooks and Chris Capuano to minor-league deals. At first, it appeared Middlebrooks may compete for some major league playing time at third base. However, thanks to some trades, it appears Middlebrooks' spot on the roster will revolve around injury depth.
On the path of rebuild, there are many kinds of trades. Stearns has seemed to dabble in all of them this offseason. The Brewers acquired Jonathan Villar from the Houston Astros for Cy Sneed. For a rebuilding team to give up a High-A pitching prospect for a replacement level second baseman, this wasn't a particularly good start to the offseason. When Scooter Gennett seems to be your starting second baseman, adding some depth is always a good idea.
With more options at second base, the Brewers then jettisoned Luis Sardinas for Ramon Flores. Flores is a 23-year old outfielder who has dominated AAA with a .375 wOBA over 655 plate appearances.
The Brewers also parted ways with their closer, Francisco Rodriguez. While the return was somewhat underwhelming, Rodriguez's domestic violence record likely suppressed his trade value.
Coming off of a big year in which he showed that he could handle a full season workload, the Brewers also parted ways with Lind for a package of three minor league pitching prospects.
Acquiring Keon Broxton and Trey Supak from the Pittsburgh Pirates were pretty big additions to a rebuilding club. So too could be Garin Cecchini, who is a prospect that could still turn things around.
The biggest move of the offseason came the most recently, when Stearns did what many thought might be impossible and found any value for Jean Segura. The Brewers packaged Segura with Tyler Wagner to acquire Aaron Hill, Chase Anderson, and Isan Diaz. While Hill will be due $12 million in 2016, he will become a free agent next season, and will not be a payroll hindrance for the Brewers for long. Meanwhile, Diaz became the 15th-ranked prospect in the Brewers system and Anderson looks like he could compete for a spot in the rotation next season.
Reasons to worry
Stearns has seemed to part ways with the extraneous players first. While this isn't necessarily a bad strategy -- in fact, personally it makes more sense to me this way -- it only acquires lots of low-level prospects. An abundance of prospects is one thing. Acquiring a few more high-end prospects could help cement this rebuild. Their system doesn't look as good as the Atlanta Braves' for instance.
Reasons for hope
There are a few. With the way Stearns has began this rebuild, perhaps a few of these prospects pan out and then there is less reason to part with the likes of Lucroy or Braun.
Alternatively, if you're a fan of trades, Stearns likely isn't finished and Lucroy could generate a substantial haul. After all, Lucroy has said he wants to win and would welcome a trade.
It's easy to be optimistic about the team that's trying to make changes. The team that makes moves that it knows it probably needs to make. And the team that publicly understands that they need to do better. The Brewers are heading in the right direction under Stearns, but the toughest choices still remain. Let #hugwatch2016 begin.