In professional sports, you’re either on top or trying to get there. The Milwaukee Brewers are a sub-.500 team working to become regular playoff contenders, and their fans hear the word “rebuilding” often these days. This makes you wonder: How do you rebuild a Major League Baseball franchise?
The truth is that it takes many people, decisions, hard work, and time to even rebuild a small market MLB team. For the Milwaukee Brewers, one of those people is second-year manager Craig Counsell.
Growing up in the Milwaukee area, Counsell spent much of his time either playing baseball or watching the Brewers. “When I was a kid, I would drag other kids to the playground to play with me, and I was always at the playground trying to find kids to play baseball,” says Counsell. “I always wanted to be Brewers’ players.”
Some of the many other people who are important factors in the rebuilding process are the general manager, coaches, scouts, research and development staff, players, and, of course, the owner. These are the people who decide which players will ultimately put on a Brewers uniform.
Players are selected and developed in many ways, such as through the draft, trades, free agency, and a deep farm system. A perfect formula for on-field success comes with finding the right combination of veteran leaders and young players headed for promising careers.
In baseball, math can often affect strategy, as game day and roster decisions are often made using analytics. Analytics indicate which players can help a team win more games by measuring their runs and runs saved with statistics such as OPS, strikeout percentage, and groundball percentage.
As manager, Counsell talks to the team of advanced scouting and research and development every day to help make game decisions. Explains Counsell, whose favorite subject in school was math, “Your gut is really the sum of all the decisions you have made in the past and the analysis you have taken in. You are making well-informed decisions when you use your gut. You check your decisions with the information, and they usually go together.”
A Brewer through and through
After a playing career that spanned 16 years, five teams, and two World Series championships, Counsell retired as a Brewer and shifted into managing within three years. He considered other teams, but with his family in Milwaukee and because of his lifelong love of the Brewers organization, Counsell’s top choice was clear. “I come at it from the perspective that I care about the Brewers a lot, so it didn’t matter where the team was at,” says Counsell.
Counsell actually played on the Brewers most recent playoff teams, in 2008 and ’11, and watched as a local Little League player when the team went to the World Series in 1982. Yet as a young player, the self-described “late bloomer” was not the best player on his high school or college teams and did not make All-Star teams. Having these experiences as a player helped Counsell understand the value of earning success through hard work and persistence.
“Everybody who works in baseball, we all hate losing, but you learn a lot about yourself and others. You learn how people respond to the adversity of losing, and that also goes into the equation we use to figure out which players and people we want to build with,” says Counsell.
With less than a month remaining in the season, the Brewers are in fourth place in the NL Central and out of playoff contention. However fans can look at the Kansas City Royals club as an example of a similar — and successful — rebuilding effort. The Royals lost 90 or more games 11 times between 1999 and 2012. Their payroll is still in the lower half of all clubs in spending; it was 19th in ’14 when they went to the Series and 16th when they won it in ’15.
The Brewers are a similar small market club whose payroll is also almost always in the lower half of the league. Milwaukee’s most recent playoff appearances came under the ownership of Mark Attanasio, and, like the Royals, the Brewers have since added a new general manager in David Stearns and manager in Counsell, and the organization has made other front office moves.
Additionally, there have been roster changes, including trades of All-Stars Jonathan Lucroy and Carlos Gomez, exciting draft picks, a commitment to the farm system, and the addition of championship caliber players such as Orlando Arcia, Jonathan Villar, and Hernan Perez.
Loyal Brewers fans can believe in the big-picture plan with player-turned-manager Counsell leading the team on the field each day. As Counsell sums it up, “For now, we are in the rebuilding process, but the big objective is still the same, and we are always working towards that goal. When we get to that point, it will be that much more fun.”
Photographs by (from top) Courtesy of the Milwaukee Brewers; Bob Levey/Getty Images