MILWAUKEE, Wis. -- As tailgaters piled in early to the parking lots surrounding Miller Park on Monday, inside the stadium the Milwaukee Brewers' brass had to confront questions about expectations for the team. After a winter in which the Brewers turned over half of their 40-man roster and cut more than $40 million from their 2015 Opening Day payroll, team owner Mark Attanasio and general manager David Stearns clearly didn’t feel they have anything to apologize for.
“We’ve never had a season like this, where we’re going to be focused on players and player development,” Attanasio said. “[Manager] Craig Counsell has said it’s very exciting to be at the ground floor of something. We all know we’re at the beginning of something here, and we’ll all be able to look back at this and say, ‘I remember when,’ and that’s actually fun. It may not be fun at some points of the season -- I think David’s looking a little skittish at that -- but it’s fun.”
Stearns added, “We’re looking at the continuing evolution and formation of our young core of talent. And that’s, from my perspective, what this comes down to. Some of that is going to take place at the major league level, some of that is going to take place at the minor league level. ... We still have a lot of work to do.”
Critics might suggest the Brewers have joined the ranks of teams tanking at the big-league level to gain better draft position. But Stearns and Attanasio were quick to suggest their fans are willing to support what they’re doing, having seen successful rebuilding efforts produce some of baseball’s most successful current teams.
“I don’t really feel as if I have to sell anything to our fans,” Stearns said of his initial rebuilding efforts after taking over as GM in September 2015. “Our fans are extremely knowledgeable; the vast majority of them that I’ve interacted with during my time here understand what we’re doing, they understand the game, they understand the cycles some teams go through. They’ve looked around baseball and they’ve seen what the Cubs have done, what the Royals have done, what the Mets have done, what the Astros have done, and they understand that in order to compete consistently, year in and year out, you need a strong base of young talent that’s constantly regenerated and constantly replenishing the major league team.”
“When I came to our fan event in January, I was very pleasantly surprised our fans had embraced what we’re doing,” Attanasio said, before adding his own compliments to the team’s fans. “They’re very sophisticated, this group of fans, so I’m not surprised they understood it. I know they want to win as much as I want to win, and I was pleased they were willing to work with us. We expect very good attendance this year, and we have a record number of corporate sponsorships. Companies are spending their hard-earned dollars with us, tying their brands to our brand. That’s telling in a year like this.”
This year’s payroll cutbacks are a particularly obvious area of concern and serve as another clear indication the Brewers aren’t all-in in 2016. The Brewers’ 2016 Opening Day payroll of $63.9 million for the active 25-man roster is more than $40 million less than the $104.2 million committed a year ago. Asked about the cutback in expenditures, Attanasio’s response reflected the rebuild wasn’t a matter of financial limitations as much as a commitment to start with a new core of talent.
“I’m not ducking the question," Attanasio said. "I haven’t done the math because we, the ownership group for many, many years now, we have not set a budget. We really just expand or contract to what we’re trying to do. But since it is a zero-sum game, by the time we’re trying to compete again, or compete very seriously again -- Craig Counsell hates when I say things like that, says ‘We’re going to compete right now’ -- any dollars we quote ‘save’ now, can be used.”
Stearns also noted that as the Brewers’ current crew matures and succeeds at the major league level, payroll would naturally grow as they accrued service time. All of which may lead to low expectations for the time being, but Stearns threw a little bit of cold water on the suggestion there’s even a timeline for a turnaround.
“Timelines are dangerous, because you can both oversell and undersell your group -- your current group, your future group. We’re not going to put any limits on any team in any year, and that includes this team this year. We’re excited about this group of players we have in this clubhouse right now,” Stearns said. “We’re also excited about the next wave of talent and frankly the talent that’s coming behind that, that will be able in future years to complement this group. Whenever our group of players that are in that clubhouse demonstrate to us that we can compete consistently year in and year out for a playoff push, that’s what the timeline is going to be.”
“It’s a first for me, as I dial back,” Attanasio said about the rebuilding effort, before sharing a bit of perspective from where his experience owning the Brewers has taken him. “You always know when you’re talking a lot about history that there’s not a lot to talk about now, so you want to be careful about that. But in 2005, there was a lot of question about whether our payroll was going to get to $40 million number, and a lot of question about when we would get to .500, because we had not been at .500 for 12 years at that point. So that was very goal-driven, and even though we had a terrific young core of players, the focus was on getting to .500. Now, because our focus is getting back to the playoffs, it’s a whole different focus. It’s actually a loftier focus, because it’s really imperative that we become a playoff team again.”
Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.