There is no one way to build a really good baseball team. Historically, the innovative Just Spend As Much Money As Needed On The Best Players Available model has a pretty solid track record, but even longtime adherents of that approach have recently backed away from it due to … well, we can probably just call it “light collusion” and leave it at that, but also because of some new insights into how and when baseball players decline. Gaudy Steinbrennerian spendiness doesn’t work as well when owners are honoring a tacit agreement not to exceed the luxury tax threshold, but it also might just not work as well, period, as the hybrid model that rich teams like the Yankees and Dodgers have adopted.
Most of those teams’ best players are young and relatively inexpensive and either entirely home-grown or, in the case of the Yankees, came aboard as the result of a whirlwind on-the-fly rebuild and also home-grown; these teams can afford to pay to keep their biggest stars as they become more expensive, and they can afford to take on big stars with big contracts attached as needed. It’s nice that the Dodgers turn a different bargain-bin rando into a legit middle-of-the-order star every year, and that the Yankees are developing more promising pitchers than they can fit on their 40-man roster, but they also don’t really have to. If they do all that intelligently, and assuming that the specific inequities and opportunities to cheat built into baseball’s business structure remain in place, there’s no real reason these teams should ever be bad again.
That method isn’t an option for every organization. Baseball teams are owned by rich people, and so subject to the same risks as anything else owned by rich people, which risk amounts to the rich people in charge making it over so that it more closely resembles and more shamelessly benefits its tacky, stupid, shortsighted owners. As a result, baseball teams get things wrong in weird ways that tend to reflect the ways that their owners are weird, running their teams like failing family businesses or cheesy real-estate scams or fractious country clubs or an acidly satirical anti-capitalist art installation that somehow expanded to include a bullpen and athletic training staff and uniforms that say Marlins on the front.
But there is one broad approach that all good teams have in common, and it is the one that, as much as any other, explains why the Milwaukee Brewers are going to be competing for at least a National League pennant. One of the best ways to build a really good baseball team is trying to build a really good baseball team.
This admittedly does not look revolutionary sitting there on the page like that, mostly because it’s difficult to imagine what else a baseball organization might spend its time and energy and money on. And yet, last offseason and the one before that, numerous baseball organizations just kind of opted out of that work. Some are tanking in pursuit of longer-term success or short-term savings or both, and some front offices are held hostage by owners who are either actively incompetent or insufficiently committed. A number seem to have blasted off completely into realms of pure abstraction, prioritizing the pursuit of a mythical wins-per-dollar-spent title instead of the sorts of pennants that can actually be run up flagpoles. What these teams have in common is that the owners are so insulated by their locked-in profits that they feel compelled to do only as much as they think is necessary—to contend or to appear to contend, or at least be respectable enough that fans will continue coming out to games and drinking $12 beers. None of this is the same thing as trying to build a really good team.
The Brewers are a really good team, and they’ve become good without the sort of advantage that the Dodgers and Yankees’ bottomless wealth affords. They got good in the ways that smaller-market teams have traditionally won—by drafting and developing players that became valuable contributors, and by identifying free agent values that every other team missed. This is not any easier than it sounds, and it’s something that no team ever gets completely right. Good teams like the Brewers tend to find a way to get as much as they can out of what amount to misses. They spin their busted starter prospects into component parts of a deep and affordable bullpen staff, or get the most out of unidimensional position players by featuring them as complimentary pieces in ways that feature and flatter that dimension only.
Developing a supporting cast like this leaves management with more money in the budget to spend or not spend. The Brewers took on some veteran players with veteran-player contracts down the stretch, and while the results have ranged from Excellent (Gio Gonzalez) to Objectively Cromulent (Mike Moustakas) to Does Jonathan Schoop Have An Intestinal Parasite Or What, this is the sort of thing that teams that are actually trying tend to do. And because of the big things that the Brewers got right during the last offseason, this year’s results in no way depended upon the continued studliness of poor ringworm-afflicted Jonathan Schoop. Because of the bigger chances that the Brewers had already taken successfully, a few failures were more or less fine.
The Brewers went into last winter as an 86-win team with a perfectly respectable young outfield and then went ahead and acquired a new and even better one. They signed Lorenzo Cain at a price that was only made possible by a plurality of teams opting to more or less sit the offseason out or pursue bespoke ownership-directed courses of idiocy; they dealt a bunch of promising prospects to a Marlins team once again selling off everything it could and received Christian Yelich in return. These were gambles—Cain’s game is built around speed, a tool that is not at all age-resistant, and Yelich was a good big leaguer who hadn’t developed into the sort of star that scouts had long believed he could be—and ones that the Brewers didn’t strictly need to take. Signing Cain blocked top centerfield prospect Lewis Brinson, so the team made Brinson the centerpiece of its Yelich offer. Yelich in turn squeezed out Domingo Santana, who hit 30 homers for the Brewers as a 24-year-old in 2017 and started this season in Triple-A. The Brewers made these moves because they identified a chance make the team not just better but a lot better, and they worked out. Cain was brilliant in every facet; by Fangraphs’ reckoning, he was worth roughly three times his $14 million salary this year. Yelich, at 26, abruptly became the best hitter in the National League; he will be under team control until 2022, when a team-friendly contract he signed with the Marlins will pay him $15 million.
That the Brewers are still alive and cruising has a lot to do with how well their bets on Cain and Yelich worked out. It helps, too, that they hit on bargain-bin free agent starter Jhoulys Chacin, and 2017 waiver claim Jesus Aguilar, and 2016 trade acquisition Travis Shaw. It helps that journeyman goofus Erik Kratz, acquired in May for a non-prospect named Wendell, has somehow started playing like Buster Posey in October. These are all the sorts of things that have to happen for a team to make it to October, let alone make noise there. But the Brewers got this good not just by making a series of individual decisions correctly in isolation, but by continuing to try—by identifying their chance to do the thing that every baseball team is supposed to want to do, which is win a World Series and hold a big dumb parade afterwards, and then by continuing to do whatever they could to make that outcome more and more likely.
This is revolutionary only relative to all the many teams that refused to do the same. This is not to take anything away from how brilliantly Milwaukee’s decision-makers built this very good baseball team, but at some point there’s no reason to call it anything more than what it is: The Brewers seized a chance that other teams, for various reasons, refused to take, and then they just kept on seizing it. Look at them now.