The Reds (69-57) and Brewers (76-49) begin their final 2021 head-to-head regular season series tomorrow, with three games at American Family Field (formerly Miller Park) in Milwaukee.
The Brewers have firm command of the NL Central, with a 7.5 game lead over the second-place Reds. This is despite significant Milwaukee losses to injury: LF Christian Yelich (twice), CF Lorenzo Cain (twice), C Omar Narvaez, IF Travis Shaw (all year), RP Devin Williams, SP Brett Anderson (twice), 2B Kolten Wong (twice) and IF/OF Jace Peterson. They also were hit with a COVID outbreak and lost Yelich, RP Josh Hader, RP Jake Cousins, SP Adrian Houser, SP Eric Lauer and SP Corbin Burnes for various durations.
It wasn’t always so. Forty-six games into the 2021 season, the Brewers record stood at 21-23, third in the division. That’s also a day marked by their trading for shortstop Willy Adames. It was an aggressive move by the Milwaukee front office that transformed the course of their season and turned upside down the race for the division. Since that date, the Brewers have gone 55-26.
How did the Brewers do it?
Their story offers an interesting comparison with the Reds due to similarities beyond their midwestern locale. Both organizations went through ownership transitions at about the same time. Each decided to modernize its front office (in varying degrees) at similar stages.
Here’s a look at how the Brewers got where they are today, cruising to an NL Central championship.
The Milwaukee Brewers franchise isn’t as old as the Cincinnati Reds. After hosting a minor league club named the Brewers for decades, the city of Milwaukee took a crucial step to attract an MLB team in 1953 by constructing Milwaukee County Stadium. The strategy was “build it and they will come” minus the corn field. And it worked! But instead of a homegrown team with a familiar local name, the Boston Braves moved in from the east coast. They played in County Stadium as the Milwaukee Braves until the franchise relocated to Atlanta in 1966.
Despite their strong, ongoing desire for a major league club, Milwaukee missed out on the 1968 round of MLB expansion when franchises were awarded to San Diego, Montreal, Kansas City and Seattle. But one year after falling short, good fortune finally struck the Cream City. The Seattle Pilots declared bankruptcy six days before Opening Day in 1970. That cleared the way for Milwaukee auto dealer Bud Selig to buy the Pilots and move the organization to his hometown. Selig re-named the team after a minor league club that had played in the city for decades.
The Early Milwaukee Brewers
The new Brewers adopted the Pilots colors of blue and gold and assumed Seattle’s spot in the American League West. Dave Bristol, who had managed the Reds from 1966-1969, was skipper of the Brewers for the first three seasons. Two years later, when the Washington Senators moved to Texas and became the Rangers, the Brewers were switched to the AL East.
The Brewers struggled for a good while. The arrival of future Hall of Fame SS Robin Yount in 1974 began a slow turnaround. The 1978 debut of another future Hall of Famer IF/DH Paul Molitor gave their prospects another push forward. Milwaukee won the AL East in 1981 and 1982. In ’82, they reached the World Series but lost to the Cardinals in seven games.
When another league realignment took place in 1997 with expansion to Tampa Bay and Arizona, the Brewers opted to join the National League (the Royals were offered first and turned down the chance) and have played in the NL Central since 1998.
Under Selig’s ownership, the Brewers undertook the construction of Miller Park and built it with a retractable roof. The foresight to go with an all-weather facility paid off in boosted attendance. The roof neutralized the unpredictable Milwaukee weather. It allowed fans from around Wisconsin to travel to every game with a virtual guarantee it would be played. Miller Park opened in 2001 and was paid for with $310 million of public funds. It has about the same seating as Great American Ball Park, which opened two years later. GABP was also funded with tax revenues at a cost of $290 million.
New Ownership Groups
In 2005, then baseball commissioner (and still team owner) Bud Selig sold the Brewers, a move popular with most of the team’s fans. Los Angeles lawyer-turned-investment banker Mark Attanasio paid $223 million for the club. That tracks closely with Bob Castellini and his investor group that bought the Reds — for $270 million — in 2006. Fifteen years later, both clubs are estimated to be worth more than a billion dollars.
New Front Offices
After finishing the 2015 season with 94 losses and 32 games out of first place, Brewers ownership replaced old-school GM Doug Melvin with Houston Astros assistant GM David Stearns. Stearns was a 30-year-old Harvard graduate who already had baseball operation stints with the Mets, Pirates, Cleveland, MLB and the Houston Astros. In doing so, the Brewers went outside their organization in an effort to transform its front office and create a younger, more modern culture. Bringing on Stearns, who has proven smart and aggressive, certainly did that.
At roughly the same time, the Reds began a similar transition toward younger leadership by promoting Dick Wiliams from within to head the organization’s baseball operations. Williams was 14 years older than Stearns, but he represented a sharp contrast in style and method with Walt Jocketty, the man he replaced. But unlike in Milwaukee, Reds ownership wasn’t looking for a clean break with the past. Williams was from a family that had been part owners of the club for more than 50 years, including during the Big Red Machine era. Williams’ father Joe is the club’s incumbent board chairman. His uncle Thomas is vice chairman and treasurer.
The Brewers Under Stearns
David Stearns kept interim manager Craig Counsell. But by the end of the 2016 season, Stearns had traded away over half the Brewers’ 40-man roster. Milwaukee put up a winning record in 2017. It was the first time they had finished 10 games over .500 since their 2011 first-place team.
But Stearns, ever aggressive, wasn’t satisfied. Prior to the 2018 season, he signed free agent CF Lorenzo Cain to a 5-year, $80 million contract. It was the largest free agent contract in the history of the franchise. Stearns also made a blockbuster deal with the Miami Marlins for outfielder Christian Yelich. Both players paid immediate and hefty dividends. Cain put up a 6+ WAR season in 2018 and Yelich became the 2018 NL MVP. He put up back-to-back 7.5-WAR seasons, finishing second to Dodger Cody Bellinger in MVP voting in 2019.
Stearns wasn’t satisfied or relaxed at the 2018 trade deadline. He orchestrated the acquisition of IF Mike Moustakas, OF Curtis Granderson, SP Gio Gonzalez and IF Jonathan Schoop.
The 2018 Brewers beat the Chicago Cubs in a 1-game playoff and finished 96-67. They then swept the Colorado Rockies in the NLDS before losing in the NLCS. But Stearns kept looking to add significant talent. For the 2019 season, he signed Yasmani Grandal and a new one-year contract with Moustakas. The Brewers qualified for the postseason again, losing 4-3 in the play-in game to the eventual World Series champion Washington Nationals. The Brewers led that game 3-1 in the 8th inning.
In the COVID-shortened 2020 season, the Brewers snuck into the postseason as the #8 seed. They lost to the top-seeded Dodgers in two games.
This might be as good a time as any to talk money. The level of payroll spending by the Reds has become a lightning rod for criticism by many of the team’s fans. So it’s interesting to see how the local club compares to Milwaukee in that category.
This graph lays out payroll spending for the Reds and Brewers starting in 2007, a year or so after new ownership had settled in for both clubs. There are a bunch of ways to calculate payroll. These are Opening Day figures from Cot’s Baseball Contracts which uses a consistent method between teams and over time. You can find different numbers from other sources, but the financial comparison between the two clubs would be similar.
As you can see, the Reds and Brewers spent about the same through 2012, with Milwaukee just a bit higher. Then the Reds jumped payroll from 2012-2014 thanks to MLB signing new national broadcast contracts that paid each team $25 million more per year. Both teams entered a rebuilding period in 2016, coinciding with changes in their front office leadership. The Brewers slashed payroll about $30 million more, down to $64 million in 2016 and kept it at that level in 2017.
In recent seasons, both clubs began to boost payrolls, again coinciding with enhanced broadcast and other MLB revenue. The Brewers and Reds spent about the same in 2018 and 2019. But then the Reds paid to “get the hitting” all at once in 2020, signing Nick Castellanos, Mike Moustakas and Shogo Akiyama (and adding SP Wade Miley), while the Brewers retrenched. Both teams cut payroll in 2021 in the face of ongoing COVID uncertainty. Reds payroll was around $122 million on Opening Day 2021 and the Brewers were at $99 million.
The 2021 Brewers
All that set the stage for the 2021 season. In the offseason, Stearns signed free agent 2B Kolten Wong who had been non-tendered by the Cardinals, and CF Jackie Bradley Jr. to two-year deals. He inked RP Brad Boxberger to a minor league contract. Each of those signings has helped Milwaukee in 2021. But what has vaulted the Brewers to the top of the NL Central are the in-season moves.
• Acquired SS Willy Adames (May 21) Stearns struck early and big in acquiring Adames. On May 21, the Reds had been playing Kyle Farmer at short for two weeks after giving up on the disastrous experiment of using Eugenio Suarez out of position. The Brewers had cut previous SS Orlando Arcia earlier in the year and weren’t willing to wait on Luis Urias’ glove to come around. They gambled that Adames would return to his career numbers and he’s exceeded them. What’s more, Adames is playing for league minimum salary in 2021 and under Brewers team control through 2024. Milwaukee gave up two relievers. 28-year-old JP Feyereisen has made 21 appearances for the Rays at a 6.04 xFIP and been on the IL with shoulder issues. 26-year-old Drew Rasmussen began on Tampa Bay’s AAA team but has made 14 appearances for the Rays at 3.16 xFIP. He’s been an opener and now a quasi-starter.
• Acquired 1B Rowdy Tellez (July 6) The Brewers lost 1B Daniel Vogelbach to a hamstring injury on June 23. After giving Keston Hiura a trial, they moved fast to acquire Tellez from the Blue Jays. Tellez was another buy-low candidate who has rebounded in Milwaukee. The Brewers gave up RP Trevor Richards, acquired from the Rays in the Adames trade, and 25-year-old Bowden Frances, the 25th-rated prospect in their system. Richards has made 15 appearances for Toronto with a 3.20 xFIP. Like Adames, the Brewers have Tellez under team control through 2024 and he’s still playing for league minimum salary.
• Acquired IF Eduardo Escobar (7/28) Escobar is a versatile infielder who the Brewers have used at third base vs. right-handed starters and first base vs. lefties. Escobar is a straight deadline deal rental. He becomes a free agent at the end of the 2021 season and the Brewers have to pay the last two months of his $7.7 million contract. In return, Arizona saved a couple million dollars and got two meh-level minor league position players.
Stats for how those three acquisitions have hit for the Brewers:
- Adames: .294/.377/.546; 145 wRC+
- Tellez: .293/.365/.533; 132 wRC+
- Escobar: .291/.341/.468; 116 wRC+
David Stearns acquired three impact everyday players without putting even a modest dent in their farm system or subtracting from the Brewers major league club. At the deadline, he further bolstered the Brewers bullpen by acquiring Daniel Norris (3.91 xFIP) from the Tigers and John Curtiss (3.95 xFIP) from the Marlins.
The Reds at the deadline acquired relievers Luis Cessa (4.23 xFIP) from the Yankees and Mychal Givens (4.23 xFIP) from the Rockies while taking on the contract of Justin Wilson (5.73 xFIP) also from the Yankees.
The Reds may have outmaneuvered Milwaukee in 2019 and 2020, but David Stearns ate Nick Krall’s breakfast, lunch and dinner this year.
The Brewers Are Great, Darn It
Remember earlier in the year when all the teams in the NL Central had significant flaws? For the Brewers it was their offense.
Not anymore. Their President of Baseball Operations fixed it. David Stearns has created a potent, deep lineup with additional impact bats available on the bench. That’s how a great front office operates. Milwaukee did it at little cost in treasure or personnel. Just smart, aggressive dealmaking.
The results: In the last 30 days, the Brewers have the fifth best offense in the major leagues (Reds are third).
That goes along with Milwaukee’s starting rotation which ranks first (Reds 15th) and their bullpen that ranks seventh (Reds, 21st). In defense, the Brewers sit at the top of the FanGraphs leaderboard (Reds 25th), although the Statcast Outs Above Average leaderboard has the Brewers 23rd and the Reds dead last.
Can They Be Caught?
FanGraphs calculates Milwaukee now has a 96.3% chance to win the division. Want a second opinion? Baseball-Reference puts it at 97.0%. For unbridled Reds optimism, head over to Baseball Prospectus where they figure Milwaukee is a scant 96.1% favorite. Those are the clear-eyed numbers.
Yes, the Reds still have a chance. Better than a Lloyd Christmas chance. But still a long shot.
Any real hope starts with a win tomorrow.