Agents have nice things to say about working with David Stearns, the Milwaukee Brewers' general manager, with many mentioning his affability. "Good guy," one agent said recently, relating some of the pleasant conversations he's shared with Stearns.
"He's never been condescending to me," reported another. "I like talking with him. I look forward to that phone call."
But as some agents do their lobbying -- making the case for their clients -- they believe there's little to no chance that they will dent Stearns' imagination. Some agents think he cements a price in his mind about what he's willing to pay for any player, either in a contract or in trade, and Stearns won't deviate from his own mental math.
The approach works well for Stearns, and for the Brewers. Milwaukee won the most games in the National League last season, outlasting the Cubs in the last days of the regular season to win the Central. Under Stearns, the Brewers have steadily rebuilt a farm system that had been strip-mined in the team's admirable but occasionally reckless effort to reach the postseason. And Stearns does not spend what he is not comfortable spending, a discipline that enabled him to land All-Star catcher Yasmani Grandal -- not for a deal like the four years and $60 millionish he was offered by the New York Mets, but on a one-year, $18.25 million contract. Their team figures to be formidable, again, with a strong lineup now bolstered by a switch-hitter who rated second in WAR among all catchers in 2018.
As Stearns restructures the Brewers for 2019, he is also maintaining a stranglehold on long-term spending. Milwaukee has less than $50 million in payroll commitments for 2020 and $35 million for 2021. Ryan Braun's contract, negotiated long before Stearns joined the Brewers, runs out after next season, assuming that Milwaukee does not pick up the outfielder's 2021 option.
Last winter, the Brewers stayed in contact with Yu Darvish, Jake Arrieta and other big-name free-agent starting pitchers, but in the end, Milwaukee passed on the massive investments and instead opted for the lower-cost fixes. Stearns signed right-hander Jhoulys Chacin to a modest two-year, $15.5 million deal and waited out Wade Miley before signing him to a one-year, $2.5 million contract. During the season, the Brewers were linked through rumor to just about every one of the major trade targets, from Manny Machado on down, and Stearns passed on the most expensive players and added a bunch of veterans at little to no cost beyond absorbed salary -- third baseman Mike Moustakas, lefty Gio Gonzalez, second baseman Jonathan Schoop and reliever Xavier Cedeno.
Stearns' reputation for finding good deals is so well established that when Milwaukee concluded its history-changing deal for Christian Yelich last winter, one of Stearns' peers suggested the trade was a steal for the Brewers even before the entirety of the swap was revealed. Stearns, the rival executive said, wouldn't make a big move unless the deal was stacked in his favor. He's that disciplined.
It's not good for the agents nor the union that most of the industry is tilting this way. Short-term deals, limited risk, limited exposure for the clubs. Spring training is just a month away, and there are well over 150 unsigned free agents, because sitting and waiting for the right deal has become standard operating procedure for a lot of clubs, from the richest teams to the clubs with the least amount of wealth.
The Los Angeles Dodgers passed on Giancarlo Stanton last winter and seemed poised to do the same on Bryce Harper. The New York Yankees signed Troy Tulowitzki for minimum wage (the Blue Jays are paying his salary in 2019) as they sit and wait on Machado, declining to make an offer unless his representation seriously engages in the price range that Brian Cashman finds comfortable -- closer to $200 million, probably, than $300 million. Near the bottom of the spenders, the Minnesota Twins have financial obligations of just $300,000 after 2019. This is worth repeating: The Twins' total long-term contract commitments beyond 2019 are less than what the Yankees will pay Tulowitzki this season.
David Stearns did not invent this way of running a baseball team, but he has quickly become a master of discipline, at a time when executives have come to believe it might be more important to say no than yes.