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David Stearns brings pitching emphasis to Mets, who desperately need it

David Stearns
David Stearns / USA TODAY Sports/SNY Treated Image

David Stearns was three months into the job as a 30-year old GM with the Milwaukee Brewers when he made his first trade in December of 2015, dealing Adam Lind to the Seattle Mariners for three low-level minor league pitchers.

The deal raised a few eyebrows in Milwaukee, as Lind was coming off a solid offensive season at age 31, but Stearns, who has agreed to become the Mets’ President of Baseball Operations, as reported by SNY’s Andy Martino, saw the first baseman as replaceable.

But perhaps more to the point, pitching was Stearns’ priority, having previously worked as assistant GM with the Houston Astros under GM Jeff Luhnow.

“He believed he was bringing over some of the secret sauce from Houston,” says a person who knows Stearns well. “Remember, the Astros were on the cutting edge at the time with the way they were using analytics to improve their pitching.

“Now just about everybody is using the high-speed cameras and the spin-rate technology and all that, but not then. It’s the stuff that helped turn (Justin) Verlander into a Cy Young winner again when he went there in 2017.

“So David built a pitching lab in Arizona (at the Brewers’ spring training site) that was ahead of its time for a small-market franchise. Then he started acquiring and drafting pitchers based on spin rates, which was still a relatively new evaluating tool. And it paid off.”

It did so in the way the Brewers developed high-level pitching, most notably Corbin Burnes and Brandon Woodruff.

But also going back to that first trade Stearns made, as one of pitchers acquired for Lind was 19-year old Freddy Peralta, who had so-so minor league numbers at the time but has become a solid starter for the Brewers, even an All-Star in 2021.

Burnes and Woodruff, meanwhile, are Milwaukee’s No. 1 and 2 starters on a perennial playoff team, with Burnes winning the NL Cy Young Award in 2021. Neither was a highly-touted draft pick, Burnes going in the fourth round out of St. Mary’s College in California, Woodruff in the 11th round out of Mississippi State.

“Maybe those guys would have developed into All-Stars in another organization,” said the Stearns’ colleague, “but you have to think the Brewers’ technology helped. And I have to believe that for a team like the Mets that needs to develop pitching, it’s probably one of the things that was attractive to Steve Cohen.”

For that matter, it’s probably not coincidence the Mets built their own pitching lab in Port St. Lucie this summer. Verlander’s criticism of the Mets’ use of analytics compared to that of the Astros, which surfaced in reports after he was traded, may have pushed the organization to do more with technology, but it could also be that Cohen was confident he would be hiring Stearns as soon as he was available.

At the owner’s state-of-the team press conference in June, after all, Cohen talked about the need for the Mets to catch up.

“Other teams had pitching labs six, seven, eight years ago,” he said then. “So we’re behind.”

It’s surely not the only reason Cohen hired Stearns, who is considered a highly intelligent analytics expert by others in the baseball business, and had success overall in Milwaukee, building a team that went to the postseason four straight years while working with a small payroll.

But the pitching angle to the Stearns hire is especially intriguing, considering not only how badly the Mets pitched this season but how little help the farm system has provided in recent years.

David Peterson and Tylor Megill have made the only notable contributions since that somewhat once-ballyhooed rotation of Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Zack Wheeler, Noah Syndergaard, and Steven Matz fell apart due to injuries, underperformance, and free agency in Wheeler’s case.

Looking ahead, while scouts say some of their minor league pitchers have made significant progress this season, none are expected to be ready to start next season in the majors. And minor-league evaluators say that of the best Mets’ pitching prospects, only Blade Tidwell, a second-round draft pick out of Tennessee last year, has high-ceiling potential.

Which brings us back to Stearns. After the Mets’ sell-off at the trade deadline, they have a surplus of blue-chip position-player prospects, including several middle infielders who aren’t going to be replacing Francisco Lindor at shortstop any time soon.

As such, evaluators have suggested that the Mets’ front office, which now features Billy Eppler working under Stearns, needs to get creative and turn some of that position-player talent into trades for pitching if they want to contend next season.

The kicker to the Stearns hiring, then, is that one of the best pitchers on the trade market this winter is likely to be either Burnes or Woodruff in Milwaukee. They can be free agents after next season and, with their budget constraints, the Brewers almost surely won’t be able to retain both.

“They may not even be able to sign one of them, when you look at the cost of those types of pitchers,” said one rival executive. “So I’d have to believe they’ll trade one or the other.”

At least one person close to the situation wonders if the Brewers would make such a trade, noting the relationship between the Mets’ exec and Milwaukee owner Mark Attanasio may be strained over Stearns’ departure.

Attanasio, you might recall, wouldn’t grant Stearns permission to talk to the Mets when Cohen wanted to hire him two years ago. And Stearns left his job as Brewers’ GM this year, in the final year of his contract, setting the stage to come work in New York, where he grew up a Mets fan.

In any case, there could be other such trade candidates in small-market settings, such as Tyler Glasnow with the Tampa Bay Rays, Shane Bieber with the Cleveland Guardians, Pablo Lopez with the Minnesota Twins, and Mitch Keller with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

But you’d have to think Stearns would be interested in acquiring one of the pitchers he helped develop with the Brewers.

Pitching seems to be his priority, after all. Which pretty much explains why there’s a new pitching lab in Port St. Lucie. Clearly Stearns wasn’t coming without one.