Stearns has Brewers ahead of schedule

New general manager builds strong foundation for future in first year at helm

Stearns has Brewers ahead of schedule

MILWAUKEE -- The first full season of the Brewers' rebuilding project is in the books.

It was a year of individual hits and misses that added up to a team playing slightly above expectations, but nowhere close to contending. That was expected, the result of an effort to trade away established players for prospects under former general manager Doug Melvin in 2015 that continued under new GM David Stearns, who dealt first baseman Adam Lind, shortstop Jean Segura and left fielder Khris Davis before the season began, then kept going. Catcher Jonathan Lucroy, relievers Jeremy Jeffress and Will Smith, and third baseman Aaron Hill all were flipped during the season for more Minor Leaguers.

Still, more than 2.3 million fans passed through the turnstiles at Miller Park to watch a team in transition.

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"It helps, I think, that our front office and ownership group has been open and honest about where we're at -- the fact we're at the beginning stages of a process of getting back to where we all want to be," said left fielder Ryan Braun. "To consistently get there, the most important thing is doing it right. It's not rushing through it.

"We've played at least as well, or better, than anyone expected. And that's trading away our setup guy, closer, All-Star catcher and stud third baseman in Aaron Hill -- all things considered, I think we've performed pretty well, and the fans have supported us through everything."

Record: 73-89, Fourth place, National League Central.

Defining moment: Rebuilding is all about stockpiling prospects, so the defining moment of the 2016 Brewers was their most significant trade. After Lucroy vetoed a trade to Cleveland, Stearns had about a day to find an alternative. He found one in the club long-rumored as a Lucroy suitor that was not on his no-trade list: The Rangers. With less than 30 minutes to go before the Aug. 1 non-waiver Trade Deadline, Stearns sent Lucroy to Texas for Minor League outfielder Lewis Brinson and pitcher Luis Ortiz, plus a player to be named later (outfielder Ryan Cordell), all three of whom would end the season ranked in the Top 10 of Milwaukee's Top 30 Prospects List.

Brewers receive top prospects

What went right: More than went wrong, in the eyes of Braun and his boss, Brewers principal owner Mark Attanasio, who said the Brewers are "further along the continuum than we would have thought at this point."

Rebuilding means opportunity for unproven players, and infielders Jonathan Villar and Hernan Perez, outfielder Keon Broxton, starters Junior Guerra and Zach Davies and closer Tyler Thornburg made the most of their shot.

Villar stood out. Acquired in Stearns' first trade last November in what looked like an effort to bridge the gap at shortstop to top prospect Orlando Arcia, Villar blossomed in his age-25 season to lead the Major Leagues in stolen bases.

Guerra and Davies began the season at Triple-A Colorado Springs, but proved to be the Brewers' two most effective starting pitchers; the team was 29-19 in games started by that duo. Newcomer Chris Carter, who had been nontendered by the Astros before becoming Stearns' first Major League free-agent acquisition, set a career high for home runs.

"Craig has gotten the most out of this team, and I feel very good about that," Attanasio said.

Just as importantly, the Brewers got major contributions from their stars. Lucroy returned to his 2014 form, when he finished fourth in NL MVP Award balloting, giving Stearns an opportunity to make a significant trade. And Braun played a full, healthy season coming off back surgery, topping 30 homers for the first time since 2012.

What went wrong: The Brewers had baseball's worst starting pitching in April, dooming the team to an 8-15 record in the opening month. Opening Day starter Wily Peralta and No. 3 starter Taylor Jungmann were so ineffective that they were demoted to the Minor Leagues -- Jungmann at the end of April and Peralta at the beginning of June -- while Matt Garza was still recovering from a stint on the disabled list for a lat strain. Jimmy Nelson, on the other hand, had a 2.88 ERA through 11 starts, then struggled for the rest of the season. On the offensive side, the biggest disappointment was right fielder Domingo Santana, who began the year as Milwaukee's leadoff man but was plagued by a slow start at the plate, then by shoulder and elbow injuries which required long stays on the DL.

Biggest surprise: Guerra was pitching in Italy two years ago, part of a long journey around the world that followed his PED suspension in 2007, when Guerra was a Minor Leaguer in the Mets' farm system. The Brewers claimed the split-finger specialist off waivers on Oct. 7 -- Stearns' third official day as GM -- and Guerra went 9-3 with a 2.81 ERA in 20 starts. His ERA, WHIP (1.126) and average against (.213) were second-best for a Brewers rookie with at least 100 innings in franchise history. Only Cal Eldred in 1992 was better.

Guerra's masterful start

"I sort of remember [Stearns] calling and saying we'd picked up this guy Junior Guerra, he's got a big arm, played in Italy, played in Mexico, 31 years old, the White Sox had him," Attanasio said. "I thought, 'OK, might as well get your feet wet somewhere.' And that was one of the smartest things he's done. There are a lot of different ways to build a team, and David is using every one of them."

Hitter of the Year: Braun was not sure in Spring Training how his back would hold up after undergoing surgery last October for a bulging disc. With manager Craig Counsell and the Brewers' athletic training staff, Braun agreed to a plan for playing time that would build-in days off, and it worked just as designed. Braun led the Brewers in batting average and OPS, and he ranked second to Carter in home runs.

Pitcher of the Year: Thornburg's dominant run as closer after the Brewers traded Jeffress warrants discussion, as does Davies' 3.97 ERA in 28 starts. But nearly all of the metrics say it's Guerra, who led Brewers starters in ERA, WHIP, fielding independent pitching, strikeout rate and win probability added.

Rookie of the Year: At 31 years old, it's Guerra.

Adam McCalvy has covered the Brewers for MLB.com since 2001. 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.