Interview with Houston Astros Assistant GM David Stearns
You may not know who David Stearns is. Heck, even if you know who he is, you might not even recognize him. He’s in his late 20’s, doesn’t dress flashy or have an out-sized personality, and isn’t physically imposing. But Stearns is already quite a powerful figure in baseball, having been named assistant general manager during the 2012 off season by the Houston Astros. He’s a Harvard grad and in very short time has shot his way up the ranks of baseball while working for both the Cleveland Indians front office and for the commissioner’s office of MLB. The latter is where Stearns had a part in crafting the new collective bargaining agreement that has had an effect on the way major league teams conduct business and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
I was fortunate to be able to catch Stearns at the Academy Sports location in Austin, Texas during the recent Astros CAREavan stop and ask him some questions. Below is my interview.
Q: First off, you told me you were a Mets fans growing up. Did you have a favorite player?
A: Growing up I wanted to be a shortstop. I could never hit as a kid and the shortstop for the Mets at the time was Kevin Elster. He was kind of an all-glove, no hit shortstop. So he was the guy who was my first favorite player. Then, as I got older, Rey Ordonez became one of my favorite players. As the Mets evolved, and they got Mike Piazza, he became every Mets fans’ favorite player.
Above: Kevin Elster’s 1992 Pinnacle baseball card
Q: Is there a baseball executive you’ve tried to model your career after?
A: As far as an executive, I’ve been fortunate to know a bunch of them. Over the years, a lot have given good advice and served as mentors for me. But growing up I can’t stay I had one favorite. I was always intrigued by the game and wanted to be around it as much as possible.
Q: Maybe a question you get asked often, but having a name you share with a well-known person from another major sport (David Stern), has that ever resulted in a mix-up or strange situation?
A: Not yet. Fortunately, our names are spelled slightly differently. He’s also much more high profile than I am, so it hasn’t been a problem yet. I would imagine if I were working in basketball there would be a little bit more confusion. But the sport difference, and spelling difference, seems to work in my favor.
Above: Don’t be confused. Neither of these men are David Stearns.
Q: You now work in the Astros front office and, previous to that, worked for the Cleveland Indians and in the commissioner’s office of Major League Baseball. Some have speculated the reason you’re highly valued within the Astros organization is because of your experience with the current collective bargaining agreement (CBA). My question for you is this: Knowing how the Astros were able to get the maximum talent from the 2012 draft using the new slotted amounts, is there a way to repeat that process for the 2013 draft with everyone now knowing your draft strategy?
A: Well, I think the most important thing about drafting—regardless of strategy, what the CBA says, or what systems we’re operating in—is accurate player evaluation. That’s where it starts. You can have the best strategy in the world, and do your best to best to play within the constraints of the system, but if you’re not evaluating well it’s not going to make any difference because you’re not going to select the right players. So that’s step number one and that’s something that Jeff (Luhnow) and Mike Elias have a ton of experience and success with in St. Louis. Before we want to talk about how we want to play within the new system, it’s about evaluating players. Once you get comfortable with how you evaluate players, then you can talk about strategy. Strategies can evolve over time and they can be different from year to year. Certainly, I think that Jeff (Luhnow) executed the strategy last year tremendously well and I think both independent onlookers, both within and outside the game, think the Astros had a really strong draft. Last year really helped restock the farm system. We’re looking to have an equally (good), or even better, draft this year. What strategy we employ will in part depend on some of the constraints of the new CBA, but we’ll also in large part depend on how we’re evaluating players and where the players are that we want to select.
Q: How do you think the current CBA is going to affect baseball long-term?
A: I certainly think this was a step in the right direction. The goal of this CBA was to create a system that redistributes talent to teams that need it most. That was the goal in the amateur talent acquisition market: To get players selected in more or less their order of talent, allow the clubs some strategy in how they draft players, and not allow some of the bigger markets to force players to fall or have them hi-jack the free agent pool and the amateur acquisition market. In that part, the CBA has been a step in the right direction. Hopefully, we can continue to build on that in future iterations.
Q: Regarding international free agency, it sounds like baseball is moving closer to an international player draft. Is this something you expect will happen?
A: I honestly don’t know if we’re headed for an international draft or not. I think that’s certainly a possibility. There are some tremendous administrative hurdles that you have to get over to register every amateur baseball player in the world. I think baseball could probably employ it—if it wanted to—sometime over the term of this agreement, but that’s a discussion that’s ongoing between the commissioner’s office and the player’s association. There are a lot of smart people trying to figure out what’s in the best interest of the players, the countries, and the long-term interests of baseball. I’m not really sure where that’s going to end up.
Above: New Houston Astros assistant GM David Stearns at the Astros CAREavan tour stop at Academy Sports Austin on January 25th.
Q: Correct me if I’m wrong, but the team with that finishes with the worst record in the league the previous season gets the first shot next year at any player on irrevocable waivers. How does that affect the Astros going from one league to another?
A: It does not. Because we finished with the worst record in baseball last year, we have the first waiver selection throughout the entire off season of both leagues. Switching leagues doesn’t really affect it. So, whenever a player is put on waivers, we have the right of first refusal if we want to select that player.
Q: A few years ago, there was an Astros Asian/Pac Rim scouting department. That has been defunct for some time, but the new ownership is now trying to start back up again. Jeff Luhnow also has said recently that he wants ramp-up the Astros’ Latin America operations. What are your goals and when do you think this will bring in some talent?
A: It’s an incredibly important aspect of what we’re trying to do. The new CBA gives advantages to team that finish with poor records and we’re going to have the most money to spend internationally for the 2013 to 2014 signing period. We need to make sure we’re evaluating players internationally in the best possible manner and that we have access to all international talent. That includes Latin America and Asia. That’s something we’re ramping-up right now. We plan to be active in all international markets and procure the absolute best international talent we can.
Q: Do you have a current Astros player or prospect you want to see in spring training?
A: One of the great things about this team is we’ve got a lot of young guys who are exciting to watch and at the beginning of their careers. You look at a guy like Domingo Santana, who has flown under the prospect radar a little bit, but had an enormous year last year in Lancaster and is only 20 years old. I’m very excited to see him. I’m excited to see Delino DeShields Jr., who came off of an enormous breakout year. These are guys that, given the leagues that the Indians farm systems were in, I didn’t really have a chance to see last year. That’s really what I’m looking forward to this spring training. I’ve seen most of our big league club play, either in person or on TV. I haven’t seen a lot of our prospects play. I’m familiar with them from our internal reports and scouting reports, but getting to see them play face-to-face is going to be real exciting and helpful for me.
Above: Domingo Santana’s 2011 Topps minor league baseball card.
Q: Last question, do you have a favorite baseball movie?
A: I’m a “(The) Natural” guy. I like “The Natural” just because of that last scene. I think that’s about as good a last scene as you can possibly get in any sports movie, so I’ll go with “The Natural.”
Q: Thanks so much for your time. I really appreciate it.
A: Thank you.
A very big ‘Thank you’ to David Stearns and the Houston Astros organization for allowing me the interview opportunity.