Braun, Davis carry Brewers through tricky 2015

Braun, Davis carry Brewers through tricky 2015

MILWAUKEE -- Ryan Braun stood near the entrance to a raucous visitor's clubhouse in St. Louis during the final road trip of the Brewers' season and took in the scene. His team had just scored its first ninth-inning comeback of the season to stun Trevor Rosenthal and the Cardinals, adding extra volume to Milwaukee's annual rookie dress-up day. Among the scantily-clad ballplayers laughing it up was 255-pound utility man Jason Rogers, whose reward for his pinch-hit, go-ahead grand slam two days later was a Hooters girl get-up for that evening's flight to San Diego.

"This game's a lot of fun when stuff like this happens," Braun said. "Obviously, we haven't had enough of these moments this year." 

Stearns begins making offseason moves

The year began with a 10-0 loss to the Rockies on Opening Day and went downhill from there, leading to the ouster of manager Ron Roenicke, a change of general managers, the removal of high-priced pitchers Kyle Lohse and Matt Garza from the starting rotation and a slew of trades that sent six Major Leaguers packing in exchange for prospects.

While the Brewers endured their first 90-loss season in more than a decade, an organizational remodel was underway.

Record: 68-94, fourth place, National League Central

Defining moment: The Brewers were finally coming off a series victory when they dismissed Roenicke the night of May 3 and replaced him with hometown boy Craig Counsell, but the decision was far bigger than one series, or even the team's 7-18 start.

"I had to look at this over the past 100 games, and the lack of winning that we've had," general manager Doug Melvin told that night.

At the time, the Brewers were 38-66 over their last 104 games dating to last season. They lost their first seven series in 2015 before taking two of three games from the Cubs at Wrigley Field in Roenicke's final series at the helm. It was a bafflingly slow start for a team that club officials had opted to keep largely intact from 2014, when the Brewers led the NL Central for 150 days before an August and September collapse cost them a postseason position. Roenicke was the first to fall.

What went right: Precious little. Melvin and his staff entered the season believing that if Adam Lind could provide some long-needed production at first base, and Jimmy Nelson could effectively replace Yovani Gallardo (who was traded to Texas in January), the Brewers could be OK. Those things happened, especially early in the season for Nelson, but the Brewers' losses nonetheless mounted.

Melvin's trade for Lind proved a win-win for the Brewers, whose medical staff kept Lind as healthy as he'd been in five years, and for the Blue Jays, who saw a breakthrough for pitcher Marco Estrada. Lind topped 20 home runs and led the Brewers in RBIs.

Braun made it back to the All-Star Game for the first time since he was suspended by Major League Baseball, and saw the return of his power, thanks to treatment for the right thumb injury that bothered him the previous two seasons. The only downside was being shut down for the final week of the season with a bad back.

Braun was joined at the All-Star Game by Francisco Rodriguez, who had moved up to seventh on Major League Baseball's all-time saves list thanks to another sensational season. Who needs a power fastball?

The collapse of a trade that would have sent Carlos Gomez to the Mets might have been a good thing, considering early returns on a deal consummated the next day to ship Gomez and Mike Fiers to the Astros the next day. Two prospects who came back in that trade, outfielder Domingo Santana and pitcher Adrian Houser, already made it to the Majors. Santana flashed impressive power while holding his own in center field.

The Counsell era began with an uplifting win over Clayton Kershaw and the Dodgers, and while he couldn't prevent the loss total from climbing into the 90s, he generally drew positive reviews from players for ushering the team through the beginning of a rebuilding process that led to 12 players making their Major League debut in 2015 -- a franchise record.

What went wrong: Everything else. A fourth-place finisher in NL MVP balloting a year earlier, Jonathan Lucroy slumped early, then endured extended absences for a broken toe and a concussion.

Veterans Lohse and Garza combined to go 11-27 with a 5.78 ERA, and each were bumped from the rotation. Lohse accepted a move to the bullpen. Garza did not, and was eventually sent home to California to be with his expectant wife. He has two years and $25 million left on his contract.

Garza wasn't the only player whose season ended early. Braun was shut down Sept. 27 because of a herniated disc in his back that will need offseason surgery. Lucroy returned to pinch-hitting and first base duty during the final road trip, but was held out of catching because of concern about his concussion. Nelson was shut down after taking a line drive off his head, and Wily Peralta was shut down with the recurrence of discomfort in his right oblique, an issue that kept him on the disabled list for two months in the middle of the season.

Biggest surprise: It was not a surprise when Melvin announced on Aug. 11 that he was transitioning out of a general manager post he'd held since September 2002. With the Brewers entering a rebuild, that was somewhat expected. But his replacement was a stunner. 

On Sept. 21, the Brewers introduced 30-year-old David Stearns, a Harvard graduate who spent the past three seasons as assistant general manager of the Astros. He had previous experience with the Pirates, the Mets and the Indians, plus the Arizona Fall League and the MLB Commissioner's Office, but Stearns' young age was jarring. He is the youngest current GM in baseball, though he pointed out that others before him (Jon Daniels, Theo Epstein, Andrew Friedman) were younger.

"Throughout my career, I've always been on the younger side for positions I've held," Stearns said. "It's never proven a hindrance for me, and I certainly don't anticipate the youthful appearance to hurt me in this one. Trust me, I've had plenty of text messages in the last 24 hours to tell me that I will age tremendously over the next couple of years."

Hitter of the year: Lind filled the black hole that was first base, and Khris Davis led the team in home runs, but Braun returned to his former status as the Brewers' best hitter. He notched his fourth season of at least 20 homers and 20 steals, and on Aug. 19 belted career home run No. 252 to pass Robin Yount as the Brewers' all-time leader. That the milestone occurred on 8/19 was fitting, since Braun wears No. 8 and Yount's No. 19 is retired by the Brewers.

Pitcher of the year: Rodriguez is an entirely different pitcher than the one who broke through with the Angels in 2002, but he remains just as effective. He's still just 33 years old, and signed through next season with a 2017 option, making the veteran a potential trade chip for Stearns this winter.

Rookie of the year: Taylor Jungmann was terrific through his first 16 Major League starts, finishing the season with a 9-8 record and a 3.77 ERA and drawing surprising statistical comparisons to the likes of Mark Fidrych and Jose Fernandez at the starts of their careers. Jungmann faded somewhat down the stretch, burned particularly by home runs, but remained the far and away leader in wins above replacement for Brewers rookies. He will be an important part of the rotation in 2016.

Adam McCalvy is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @AdamMcCalvy, like him on Facebook and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.