Stearns steps down; Matt Arnold takes over as Crew baseball ops head

MILWAUKEE — After the Brewers fell short of the postseason for the first time in five years, there are major changes at the top.

David Stearns has stepped down as president of baseball operations and will be replaced by Matt Arnold, who had been at Stearns’ side since Stearns became baseball’s youngest GM in 2015. Stearns has a year left on his contract so he will stay with the Brewers in an advisory role to ownership and baseball operations, the club said, but Arnold, who was promoted from assistant GM to senior vice president and GM in 2020 after Stearns was elevated to president of baseball operations, will be the team’s top baseball executive.

The shake-up came on the eve of a World Series pitting the Astros against the Phillies, who finished one game ahead of the Brewers in the National League Wild Card standings and claimed baseball’s final postseason berth on the penultimate day of the regular season. That ended a run of regular-season success in which, during a four-year span under Stearns and manager Craig Counsell, the Brewers matched their postseason appearances (four) and division titles (two) from the first 49 seasons of franchise history.

But that span included only one postseason series victory, and this season represented a step back just as Stearns and Counsell approached the end of their current contracts. The ’22 Brewers got off to the best 50-game start in franchise history at 32-18, then went four games under .500 the rest of the way, including two games under .500 following the trade of three-time NL Reliever of the Year Josh Hader to the Padres on Aug. 1 — a deal that proved unproductive as well as unpopular in the stands and in a stunned clubhouse.

In the end, the result was another fall without a World Series in Milwaukee. The Brewers’ only appearance in the Fall Classic was in 1982.

“I know my decision to step down comes somewhat as a surprise and provokes some questions,” Stearns said. “This is something I’ve been wrestling with for some time. Mark [Attanasio, Milwaukee’s principal owner] and I have had an open dialogue for years about what I’m seeking for my career, where I am personally and what all of that means for the organization. I think we both knew that at some point this day could come and we wanted to make sure that when it did, the organization was properly positioned with very strong leadership going forward. …

“This is a job that requires complete and total commitment. When I began to hesitate about whether I could make that commitment, I knew it was really time to contemplate a change.”

Said Attanasio: “Of course we were interested in extending his contract. He’s one of the brightest executives I’ve met. … We had an active dialogue for several weeks, which really was more personal than it was transactional, by a lot. I think he spoke very clearly about what his thought process was. So obviously, we’re supportive of that.”

Arnold will be the third person, following Doug Melvin and Stearns, to run the Brewers’ baseball ops department under Attanasio’s ownership group. But unlike Stearns, Arnold is being promoted from within while the Brewers are squarely in “contender” mode, despite the disappointment of this season. Attanasio made clear that he expects the Brewers to make the postseason in 2023.

“You’re handing Matt an opportunity to lead something that’s still ascending and doing well,” Attanasio said. “That, I think, is part of what we all talked about.”

What’s next for Stearns?

Predictably, the news spurned a renewed round of speculation that Stearns was headed to the Mets, the team he cheered as a boy growing up in Manhattan. Or perhaps to the Astros, for whom he served as assistant GM before the Brewers hired him to replace longtime GM Doug Melvin. Or perhaps to some other larger market making a change.

But Stearns pushed back against the perception that this is a step toward a job elsewhere, saying, “I’m not going anywhere. I’m going to be here in Milwaukee. I’m committed to serving Mark and Matt in an advisory capacity as the organization works through this transition.”

He does intend to stay in baseball beyond his Brewers tenure, Stearns said. His conversations with Attanasio included talk of an extension beyond his current contract, which is believed to run through 2023, but Stearns decided he didn’t want to make that commitment. They made an agreement, Stearns indicated, regarding what happens should another team offer him a job. In the past, the Brewers have exercised their right to deny other clubs permission to interview him. Stearns indicated that they had an agreement regarding what happens should another team call the Brewers asking for permission to interview, but Attanasio told reporters he did not want to discuss hypotheticals, adding, “The arrangement does not anticipate that.”

“I understand people want to know what comes next and the truth is, I don’t know,” Stearns said. “I think a segment of my generation — and I will certainly put myself in this group — is inflicted with a condition where we feel like every single thing must be planned out. Decision A must lead to Decision B which must lead to Decision C.

“In this case, I’m making Decision A because I think it’s the right thing to do. I don’t know what Decisions B and C will be, but I know that Decision A is the right thing to do for me. I’m very much looking forward to doing what I can for Matt and I’m going to enjoy that. I’m also going to enjoy having some time away.”

Stearns’ legacy

In the club’s announcement, Attanasio called Stearns’ tenure “transformational” for the franchise, and indeed Stearns made many more good moves than bad moves during his tenure, starting with his first move of plucking right-hander Junior Guerra off waivers from the White Sox on Oct. 7, 2015. Guerra would be the Brewers’ Opening Day starter in 2017.

Stearns traded for a teenage Freddy Peralta and watched him develop into a frontline starter. He got Travis Shaw from the Red Sox ahead of back-to-back 30-homer seasons. And he acquired Christian Yelich in a trade with the Marlins on the same day — Jan. 25. 2018 — that the Brewers signed Lorenzo Cain to a club-record free agent contract. That one-two punch propelled the Brewers to within one game of the World Series that season.

Other trades for Luis Urías, Eric Lauer, Omar Narváez, Willy Adames and Rowdy Tellez all panned out. Jhoulys Chacín, Eric Thames were good value free agent signings. Guerra and Jesús Aguilar were among the wise waiver claims.

But Stearns didn’t bat 1.000. No GM does. Trading power-hitting outfielder Khris Davis to the A’s in 2016 was one of his most regrettable deals until the past two Trade Deadlines, when a number of deals, particularly for relief pitchers, didn’t pan out. The most notable was sending Hader to San Diego for pitchers Taylor Rogers and Dinelson Lamet and prospects Robert Gasser and Esteury Ruiz.

Lamet was designated for assignment two days later and Rogers performed below replacement level for the remainder of the season while Hader, after a terrible start to his Padres tenure, regained his form and helped San Diego reach the NLCS. The Brewers’ other Trade Deadline moves for relievers were equally regrettable. Matt Bush was also below replacement level. Trevor Rosenthal never recovered from a hamstring injury and never threw a Brewers pitch.

Did the fallout from those moves play a role in his decision to step down?

“I don’t think so,” Stearns said. “This is something I have been contemplating for many months and before the trajectory or outcome of our season became apparent. So, I don’t think so. … I think when you go through jobs like these, there comes a point where taking a step back and exhaling is healthy. That’s where I am right now.”

More difficult decisions loom for the Brewers, with co-aces Corbin Burnes and Brandon Woodruff and club MVP Willy Adames two years from free agency and among a long list of 18 players eligible for arbitration this winter. Arnold spoke Thursday of the value of stability. He and manager Craig Counsell got together for several hours on Wednesday night, and Arnold said he did not envision any other major front office changes.

“We connected this morning with a small group of guys on the terrace level, and we’re going to have a call later today with the staff to talk through the transition and talk through what our road map is going to look like,” Arnold said. “I think the main thing is connecting with people. It’s always about the people.”