What is the Mets' plan? Inside the mind of David Stearns

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SINCE THE DAY he was hired to run the Milwaukee Brewers at the age of 30 in 2015, David Stearns has always been young for his job. And yet he never seemed out of place as the Brewers general manager back then -- or now, seven months into his tenure as the president of baseball operations of the New York Mets.

Some 8½ years after his big break, though, there are times when Stearns' youth seems to bubble closer to the surface than it ever has before.

Why? He's excited.

"I had a very good idea of what I was stepping into," Stearns said, speaking on a sleepy March day in the dugout of the Mets' training facility in Port St. Lucie, Florida. The sun was shining and guys with hoses were on the field and beyond the outfield fence swayed the tops of palm trees. The reality of the maelstrom into which Stearns had entered was still a couple of weeks away and 1,200 miles up the Atlantic coast. "It helps that I'm from New York and know this fan base. For a good part of my life, I was among this fan base."

Stearns, now 39, somehow landed in the waking version of a boyhood dream, running the team he fawned over while growing up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. And he is all too aware of the storybook element of this high-profile career transition.

"Look, this is the type of thing that never happens, right?" Stearns said on a Mets podcast before the season. "Like, you don't grow up a fan of a team and then one day get to help run that team. So, I recognize how ridiculous this whole thing is."

Stearns' new boss, Steve Cohen, can relate. A Long Island native and self-professed Mets fan, Cohen assumed controlling interest of his favorite team in 2020. When that happened, Cohen set the tone of his early stewardship with an answer to a question about which franchise he'd like to see his team emulate: "I like what the Dodgers are doing," Cohen said before elaborating on the various methods he hoped the Mets could adopt.

Just like that, the "Dodgers East" ideal was born. The hiring of Stearns to a contract that puts him in the neighborhood of the Los Angeles Dodgers' Andrew Friedman -- now both among baseball's highest-paid executives -- seems like a big step in that direction. Actually, though, Stearns' hiring might prove to be the death of that trope.

That's because Stearns, whose grandfather was once a fan of the original Dodgers East -- the Brooklyn Dodgers -- isn't emulating anyone. That's not how organizations are built in his world, and if there is one thing about Stearns that can be highlighted as a standout trait, it's organization building.

"Sustained competitiveness means competing for and being in the playoffs on an annual basis," Stearns said. "And ultimately competing for championships on an annual basis. That is our goal as an organization. We'll be able to get there and are on a path to get there."

It's not that Cohen couldn't afford to continue to spend more than anyone else. Indeed, even after their modest offseason, the Mets still have baseball's highest payroll. Spending is not enough, though, particularly for teams without a sound infrastructure.

"With all of these things, it's important to recognize that every situation is unique," Stearns said. "We aren't going to be the Dodgers. We have to create our own identity, our own organizational way and be elite in a way that is unique to the New York Mets."

The Mets started Stearns' tenure on a 0-5 skid, swept by his former team to start the season. But since then, they're 12-4, with two strong wins against those same Dodgers in Los Angeles in the first two games of this past weekend's series.

It's only the beginning. But if Stearns can get the Mets where he wants them to go, the path might look more like Milwaukee Plus than Dodgers East. And the result might leave the Dodgers wondering how they can become Mets West.

OVER THE WINTER, the Mets' offseason was a little quieter than their fans might have hoped. After a few winters since Cohen took over in which an aggressive player acquisition strategy has made New York baseball's most expensive team, this past winter marked only the first steps in a complicated overhaul that is going to take multiple years to fully take root.

Much of what happens will not be visible except in how it translates to the eventual bottom line in terms of wins, postseason appearances and, especially, championships. Stearns, who was born Feb. 18, 1985, has never witnessed a Mets championship that he can remember. It has been a very long time since Dwight Gooden, Darryl Strawberry and the '86 World Series champs.

That's why Stearns, the splashiest acquisition the Mets have made since last season's 75-87 debacle, was brought in. His job is to do something the Mets have rarely been able to do during their 62 years of existence -- win big and win consistently.

When the Mets have been successful, they have featured a stable front office leader who has built a foundation based on homegrown talent, usually starting pitchers. From George Weiss to Bing Devine to Frank Cashen to Sandy Alderson, when the Mets were good, there was a respected executive setting the tone. And there were ace pitchers -- Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Gooden, Ron Darling, Sid Fernandez, Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom -- leading the way.

And yet all of those various versions of the Mets fizzled too soon, with injuries, off-the-field problems and, well, trading Seaver, before lapsing into excess with bloated rosters. Too often, the Mets featured veterans with recognizable names and big contracts who were being paid for exploits that came for other teams during earlier parts of their careers.

This season, rather than repeat those mistakes (Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander, the previous offseasons' big gets, are now pitching for other teams), the Mets detached from their all-in push. Though they're quick to declare they don't take any season for granted, this is a transitional year, one in which the Mets set themselves up for a more targeted -- and sustainable -- approach in the future.

"There is always going to be this desire in New York to target the top of whatever is available," Stearns said. "That's the top of free agency and the top of the trade market, and we're very fortunate that there are going to be times when we can execute at that level, where we can go after premium free agents and execute very aggressive buy-side trades. I also understand that it can't be every single year. It can't be every single trade or every single trade opportunity. We have to be thoughtful and strategic about when we're going to do that."

In order to keep the Mets in that conversation in 2024, most of Stearns' offseason plan was to build depth, something the Mets have lacked with their top-heavy rosters in recent years. This meant deploying many of the strategies Stearns followed over his highly successful tenure in Milwaukee, the longest stretch of continuous success in the history of that franchise.

Not much of it was sexy. Not much of it was going to stir happy calls to WFAN praising the genius of the Mets' new baseball chief. But it's the kind of stuff that keeps teams afloat during a long season.

The priciest moves during the offseason sought to balance roster holes and address depth without limiting future flexibility. The additions of Sean Manaea and Luis Severino to the rotation, Harrison Bader to the outfield and Jake Diekman to the bullpen fell under this umbrella. So too did the trade for ex-Brewers Adrian Houser and Tyrone Taylor. There were numerous other low-level trades, minor league deals and waiver claims.

And of course, they didn't completely sit out the more exciting aspects of free agency.

In December, before the winter meetings, Stearns and Cohen flew to Japan to woo Yoshinobu Yamamoto. They also were connected early on to Shohei Ohtani, at least in the rumor mill.

Together, those two Japanese-born stars landed deals worth more than a billion dollars from the Dodgers. For Stearns, these kinds of conversations simply weren't possible during his time in Milwaukee. And it's why going to the Mets was alluring for reasons well beyond his childhood fandom.

"We made a run at a top-tier free agent this offseason," Stearns said. "We did not get him, and that's going to happen sometimes. But we will pick our spots, and there will be times when we're going to bring in premium free agents. There are going to be times when we're focusing on other areas of the player-acquisition market. We still feel like we can field a very competitive team while doing so."

While the elite free agents generate the headlines, spending clout manifests in less visible ways and can shorten the timeline Stearns and the Mets must endure as they reshape the organization and its internal processes.

The proof in this particular pudding is always the final standings. But beyond that, it's how those standings look against expectation and how much it costs to create those wins, with the cost aspect carrying a varying amount of weight depending on the market. Under Stearns in Milwaukee, baseball's smallest market, payrolls ran about a third of what the Mets have spent in recent years. But the team won.

How? Everyone else is left to try to figure it out, because Stearns is not eager to pound his chest or create any road maps for anyone else to follow. But the key to understanding his acumen is that the Brewers didn't just win; they won more than they were supposed to, based on forecasts and the betting markets, and they did so almost every season. The Mets? Not so much.

For Stearns to take the next step as a baseball executive and ascend to the heights of Friedman or Theo Epstein and the game's other top executives, replicating that dynamic in New York is what will set him apart. We know the Mets will spend, and with the spending will come a high level of expectation. If you can exceed an already high level of expectation, well, then you're getting somewhere.

The financial heft "allows for creativity, because you know that anything is possible," Stearns said. "The player universe in smaller or midsize markets is just much smaller. The transaction patterns you can execute over the course of an offseason are just much more finite. It is fun when you look at the entirety of players available and you know that any of them could be a New York Met."

WE PAY A lot of attention to the roster-building aspect of running a team. But there is so much more to building a winning organization -- everything from sports medicine to international scouting to analytics to just about anything you can conceive of. And those elements happen to be some of what Stearns cares about the most.

"There is a lot that goes into it," Stearns said. "Some of it is what is talked about on a daily basis externally, the transactions on the major league level, the trades we're considering, all of it. But there is so much that goes on beneath the surface from a process standpoint -- how we're developing our players, how we're scouting both domestically and internationally, how we're implementing the best performance techniques through strength, conditioning and nutrition. All of those things are incredibly important to competing at the highest level."

Establishing best practices in any facet of a baseball operation can create competitive advantages. The gains are small. But if they work, they will be studied by other teams, so clubs keep the details of how they do things close to the vest.

This is why Stearns pushes back on the idea of a model to follow. As much as the Dodgers operate under the brightest of spotlights, so much of what makes them tick takes place behind closed doors.

"Candidly, we don't know what the Dodgers are doing, and even if we did, it would be really tough to replicate that," Stearns said. "We will create systems here that are elite, that produce elite results, but that we create organically."

The Mets' new pitching lab is the perfect example. Cohen commissioned the construction of the facility located at the Mets' training camp in Port St. Lucie, and it opened in June. He also acknowledged the Mets were behind a number of other teams when it came to creating such a facility. Case in point: Stearns oversaw the construction of the Brewers' pitching lab nearly a decade ago, well before such things were all the rage.

Now, the Mets can generate the kind of biomechanical data that many progressive clubs lean on when it comes to pitch mechanics and pitch design. But to make use of the data, the information has to be analyzed and turned into an action plan, and that plan has to be communicated in a productive way so that it actually becomes useful to players.

"That's the most difficult part," Stearns said. "Collecting the data is generally pretty easy."

Even if and when this part of the Mets' operation matures, the team can still go out and sign a Verlander or a Yamamoto. But in Milwaukee, much of the team's steady success was attributed to development: a star-level rotation that featured two non-premium draft picks (Corbin Burnes, fourth round, and Brandon Woodruff, 11th round). Rounding out the rotation big three was Freddy Peralta, a middling international prospect ($137,000 signing bonus in 2013) acquired by Stearns in 2015 from the Seattle Mariners in a trade for Adam Lind.

It won't stop there. The Mets will target overlooked and undervalued players from other teams, a practice at which teams such as the Dodgers and Tampa Bay Rays have been so adept. Milwaukee benefited from this analysis-fueled trait, as well, one in which a team coaxes more from a struggling big leaguer than his old team was able to extract.

In other words, whether it is spending, minor league development or major league development, the Mets will exhaust every avenue to create value with every spot on the roster while building up the layers of alternatives beneath. Roster spot No. 40 will get as much attention as roster spot No. 1. It's a process already underway, and it's one that never ends.

"[The options] create more work," Stearns said. "It creates more potential outcomes throughout an offseason, so you probably can't be too definitive with any one plan. There is probably more scenario planning involved when you have so many different options available."

WITH THE FOCUS on so many elements of the organization -- certainly more than the "shiny toy" spending that seemed to define Cohen's earlier years -- Stearns also cares deeply about with whom he will work. The collaboration he preaches includes everybody, from Cohen to all the facets of the front office to the players and to Stearns' handpicked manager, Carlos Mendoza.

The tone was set right away, when Stearns addressed his new team and emphasized an atmosphere that allows everyone to flourish in their work.

"I don't think it works if any leader just comes in and sets down a definitive set of processes and rules and systems," Stearns said. "That makes it very difficult to create the type of continuous innovation cycle that you need in this game to compete at a high level."

There are lots of corporate rah-rah words that can be employed here: collaboration, consistency, creativity, camaraderie, continuity. Until they are real, they remain just words, ones that too often have not applied to the Mets over the decades.

Here are two others: Craig Counsell.

That, of course, is the name of Stearns' manager in Milwaukee, the guy who is now the manager of the Chicago Cubs and is in the first year of the richest contract ever given to a big league skipper. Stearns inherited Counsell in Milwaukee and saw firsthand how the manager makes sure the signals of a high-functioning, 21st century baseball operation are reaching every destination on the organizational map.

When Counsell's contract was up after last season, there were many who figured if he left Milwaukee, it would be to join Stearns in New York. While contact was made -- you have to try when you're talking about an elite manager -- this was probably a long shot from the beginning, both geographically and philosophically.

Instead, the Mets announced the hire of Mendoza less than a week after Counsell moved to the Cubs. Mendoza, who was already well acquainted in New York as bench coach of the Yankees, is now occupying that central node in the Stearns operation. Stearns has been effusive when it comes to his new skipper, a first-time manager.

"Carlos has this very unique ability to relate to people and communicate effectively with people at all levels of the organization," Stearns said. "He can communicate with ownership, he can communicate with the front office, the other coaches and the players, the development staff, with the kids at our Dominican academy who are 16 and 17 years old.

"There are very few people in baseball that have the experience and frankly the personality to pull that off. That creates a tremendous foundation for a major league manager."

The Stearns-Mendoza relationship will set the tone for the whole operation, and it won't be what cynics might think. Too often, it's suggested that the modern field manager is nothing more than some combination of mouthpiece/lackey for micromanaging front office honchos. And sure, that such a dynamic has been true for some clubs in recent years, but it's not going to be true for a Stearns-led team.

Suffice to say, Counsell was never shy about voicing disagreement when he heard things from the front office with which he did not agree. Stearns will not only tolerate similar pushback from Mendoza, he sees it as an essential quality in a manager and, for that matter, in everyone else with whom he works.

"He definitely has it, and it is incredibly important," Stearns said. "And not just for the manager, but for everyone. We are all looking at this game from different angles, and no one has the perfect perspective that can inform them in every specific situation. Combining all the different perspectives and experiences that we have I think generally leads us to the best outcome. Carlos certainly has the ability to do that. He knows how to express opinions, and they are well-founded and informed."

In the near term, it'll be a learning process, one that unfolds even as the expectation for winning never wavers. For example, one of the strengths of the Milwaukee clubs under Stearns were perennially strong and deep bullpens, all anchored by end-of-game hammers such as Corey Knebel, Josh Hader and Devin Williams. The Mets have that in Edwin Diaz, but what set the Brewers apart was the ability of the front office to staff those pens with multiple options for every role -- and to keep the group strong even as it went through never-ending iteration.

Counsell, in conjunction with his pitching coaches, was essential in manifesting that into on-field production which, in turn, helped Milwaukee excel to an uncommon level in winning close games. The ability to run a bullpen, to learn how to extract the best from each reliever, is something Mendoza must master, but he won't be going about it on his own.

"Those are some of the soft skills of a manager," Stearns said. "Maybe a player's not hurt, but they're pretty tired. Maybe they have something going on off the field. Those can be tougher to notice in large data sets. I think that Carlos is very attune to how the players are doing at any time, but he understands how important those softer skills are."

IN 2024, the twin goals for the Mets are to compete, certainly, but also to set themselves up for exploiting the real power of their new general manager, their market and their owner.

When that infrastructure is fully established, the real fun begins. When we start to contemplate a 2025 version of the fully operational, Stearns-led Mets, it is one that will have flexibility under even the lowest tax threshold to seize any opportunity that arises -- for instance, impact stars such as Juan Soto, Roki Sasaki, Walker Buehler and Burnes.

The Mets will be in those conversations, and all the while Stearns will give just as much attention to the draft, to the international scouting department, to the development staff. He will make sure that when the Mets have prospects ready for the majors, they will have a path to a legitimate opportunity. We're seeing that now with Brett Baty, Francisco Alvarez and emerging changeup wizard Jose Butto.

"It gives us a bunch of confidence to know that they believe in us and want to see what we can do and to give us a runway," Baty said. "Everybody knows what's expected of them, whether you're one of the young guys on the team or a veteran."

This kind of approach has resonance for an organization. Big league rosters need the depth and the turnover that come from fertile farm systems. And prospects are more apt to buy in if they see that they have a real chance to play at the highest level.

"For organizational development as a whole, it is very important to give those who have excelled consistently in the minor leagues a chance to establish themselves in the majors," Stearns said. "It's really tough to talk about player development and developing from within when players dominate at the high levels of the minor leagues and you tell them you don't have spots for them at the big league level."

Yet the "don't block the kids" approach won't be dogma, either. No avenue for improving the team will be shut off. Indeed, a couple of days after Stearns spoke of preserving opportunity for the kids, he signed veteran designated hitter J.D. Martinez on a one-year deal. This impacted power prospect Mark Vientos, who needed to work on his approach at the plate. (And so far in Triple-A, he is showing signs of improvement in that area.)

Stearns won't be boxed in. The roster he built in the offseason will not be the one the Mets have when the season is complete nor certainly the one that starts in 2025. Every day, when opportunities arise, you must be in position to seize them.

"Nothing stands still," Stearns said. "What was elite five years ago is no longer elite. What is elite today will not be elite five years from now. We have to really create the culture and the structure that allows for us to get better and push ourselves to be industry leaders where we can be."

When the dust settles at the end of the Mets' season, whether that's after Game 162 or a postseason series, the process of iteration will continue unabated. The Mets will continue to add to their front office and to evolve their processes as they build something they hope will be more than the sum of any of the personalities in place. Stearns hopes it will be the same kind of self-replicating mechanism he left behind in Milwaukee, one that has continued to flourish even without him around.

Now imagine that same mechanism kicking in with the Mets, but one in which they develop as many stars as they sign and keep the stars they want to keep. And any time a final brushstroke needs to be applied to a championship portrait, every resource needed to make that move happen will be available.

It's a dream scenario, one even greater than Stearns could have conceived as a young Mets fan.

"I understand the importance of this team to the community," Stearns said, back in that empty dugout in springtime Florida. "The passion that comes with it, the attention and scrutiny that comes with it. All of that is just on a bigger scale to what I've experienced previously."