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Milwaukee Brewers raise floor of starting rotation, but still need to elevate ceiling

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Milwaukee has the flexibility to pursue a myriad of upgrades in order to take advantage of a weak NL in 2018.

Minnesota Twins v San Diego Padres Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images

A lot of digital ink has been spilled regarding Milwaukee’s need to address their starting rotation this winter. After a couple months of speculation, David Stearns and company took their first steps towards shoring up this need with the recent signings of Jhoulys Chacin and Yovani Gallardo. Neither of these two pitchers were necessarily on the radar of the local fan base, but the arrival of both arms should help establish a solid floor for the starting staff in 2018.

Chacin is the more notable signing of the two, a soon-to-be 30 year old who has re-established his value over the last two seasons after losing most of 2014-15 to injury. The right-hander has eaten up 324.1 innings with a 4.30 ERA and 92 DRA- for the Braves, Angels, and Padres since 2016 began. This past season with San Diego his four-seam fastball averaged 91.8 MPH (the 2nd highest velocity of his career) and his slider graded out as the 2nd-most valuable of any big league pitcher according to Fangraphs’ linear weights, coming in at +22.4 runs (behind only Max Scherzer at +30.0). His curveball and sinker also graded out positively, and Chacin was among the league’s best at inducing soft contact. This skill, along with an above-average ability at inducing ground balls (49.1% GB rate in 2017), helps Chacin overcome his perennially high walk rates (3.67 career BB/9) and has lead to plenty of success throughout his 9-year big league career (1,023 IP, 3.93 ERA).

Chacin’s reasonable contract (2 years, $15.5 mil guaranteed) leaves plenty of room for excess value to be mined by the Brewers. Marcel projections from Baseball-Reference predict that Chacin will provide Milwaukee 159 innings of 4.30 ERA baseball next season. If those numbers come to fruition, it would certainly go a long way to filling the hole left by Jimmy Nelson’s injury. Chacin’s demonstrated ceiling is clearly not as high as Nelson’s, although it’s worth noting that Marcel hasn’t fully bought in to Jimmy’s pre-injury breakout (165 IP, 4.09 ERA projected for 2018). In reality, it’s probably best for Milwaukee not to count on Nelson contributing anything next season and take whatever he may be able to provide as icing on the cake.

The Brewers now appear to have three capable arms to spearhead their 2018 starting five, with Chacin slotting in behind Zach Davies (projected 172 IP, 3.98 ERA) and Chase Anderson (projected 145 IP, 3.85 ERA). Gallardo’s presence provides a different level of depth, adding a reclamation project and familiar, veteran face to the in-house group of arms that will compete in spring to round out the rotation. Gallardo’s projection for 2018 isn’t exactly rosy (133 IP, 5.03 ERA), but his one-year contract is non-guaranteed and would only pay him $2 mil (with another $2 mil in addition incentives available), mitigating just about any risk involved. Although Yovani’s run prevention has been sub-optimal over the last two seasons (5.57 ERA across 248.2 IP), some peripheral numbers like increased fastball velocity and swinging strike rate in 2017 help inspire at least feint hope for a bounce back next season. Derek Johnson along with Milwaukee’s analytics department will be tasked with finding the tweaks to help one of the top pitchers in franchise history re-capture some semblance of his prior form.

Gallardo will join a cluster of hurlers that includes Brent Suter, Junior Guerra, Aaron Wilkerson, Brandon Woodruff, and perhaps even Taylor Jungmann as candidates fighting for the final two rotation spots next spring. As things stand now, the current collection of pitchers ought to be able to form a steady, if unspectacular staff for Milwaukee. Marcel pegs the group for a collective 4.15 ERA (based on the current MLB.com depth chart), which would be right around where they finished up 2017 (4.00 ERA). Combine that with an offense that will be returning almost all of its key contributors from last season, and it’s no wonder why “State of the Franchise” ZiPS projections from the beginning of the winter pegged the Brewers to win the 4th-most games in the National League in 2018.

The National League as a whole is down right now. There are several teams are still mired in or only beginning to emerge from rebuilding cycles - Philadelphia, Atlanta, Miami, Cincinnati, and San Diego. In addition to those teams, the Giants, Mets, and Pirates may have seen the first signs of their competitive windows beginning to close last season (indeed, reports indicate that the Pirates have been shopping ace Gerrit Cole and face-of-the-franchise Andrew McCutchen, among others, this winter). That leaves the Cubs, Dodgers, Nationals, Brewers, Cardinals, Rockies, and Diamondbacks remaining as the teams that figure to compete for five playoff spots next season.

With what looks to be a watered-down National League in front of them in 2018, now might be the opportune time for the Brewers to try and take that vaunted “next step” as an organization. Milwaukee’s rebuild is complete. Over the last three seasons they have:

  1. Traded away almost all their valuable MLB talent
  2. Built one of the top farm systems in the league
  3. Graduated several top prospects to the big leagues (Davies, Knebel, Santana, Arcia, Hader, Woodruff, Phillips, Brinson, Barnes, Suter)
  4. Allowed top prospects and other controllable MLB players (Shaw, Pina, Thames, Aguilar, Perez, Broxton, etc.) to grow into big league roles
  5. Won 86 games and competed for playoff spot

Logically, the stage of their progression should be for the Brewers to continue improving their major league roster. There are marginal upgrades available at second base in both free agency (Eduardo Nunez, Neil Walker) and on the trade market (Jed Lowrie, Starlin Castro, Jason Kipnis) that could pique the team’s interest; the same goes for relievers, with Addison Reed and Matt Albers standing out as arguably the top two unsigned setup men. If Milwaukee is to truly move forward as a franchise, though, adding a front-line arm to the starting rotation ought to be the top priority for the rest of the offseason.

Even with Milwaukee’s most recent signings, their projected payroll for 2018 still hasn’t even reached the $70 mil threshold. They only have a negligible amount of money on the books for future seasons, as well. Milwaukee’s collection of minor league prospects is also considered to be among the best in the league. That gives the team plenty of flexibility to pursue significant upgrades both via trade and free agency.

Given Stearns’ reported disinclination to pay the current asking prices for top hurlers like Jake Arrieta or Yu Darvish, it seems more likely that any major enhancement of the rotation will come via the trade route. The Brewers are among a large contingent of teams that have reportedly explored making a deal with the Rays for ace Chris Archer; Cole, Danny Duffy, and Marcus Stroman are among the other top-flight starters that have reportedly drawn trade interest from various ball clubs during the winter. Each of these pitchers figure to require a hefty prospect price in order to convince their current employers to part with them, but adding any one of the aforementioned players would give the Brewers multiple years of control of an upper-echelon arm at below-market salaries to help throw the competitive window wide open. Adding, say, Chris Archer to the mix ahead of Anderson, Davies, and Chacin makes the rotation look quite a bit more formidable; if Jimmy Nelson is able to return in 2019 and pitch at a level even close to what he was before his shoulder injury, that bunch looks downright dangerous. Milwaukee’s farm system ranking would no doubt take a hit, but on the whole group would still likely be ranked in the top half of the MLB. The Brewers’ core of controllable big league talent would still be intact, too, helping to render moot the arguments of a “shortened window” or “mortgaging the future.”

If no trade can be arranged, the slow-moving free agent market may wind up playing in Milwaukee’s favor, as well. The top four free agent starters - Darvish, Arrieta, Alex Cobb, and Lance Lynn - all remain unsigned as we draw nearer to the new year. It probably won’t stay that way for too long, but it stands to reason that at least one of those pitchers continues to have trouble finding the deal they are looking for and will still be sitting on the market in late January or early February. That could put the Brewers in a good position to pounce if/when the asking price drops; Jake Arrieta might not be all that enticing at five years and $125 mil, but if he could be had for something like three years, $70 mil, then all of a sudden he becomes a much more palatable sign for the small-market Brewers. This idea could theoretically be applied to any one of the quartet, should that player linger on the open market.

The Milwaukee Brewers have a cheap, controllable, and talented core of players in place at the big league level. They have money available and a plethora of prospect capital. And they already appear to have an inside track at a playoff berth in a diluted National League in 2018. Their recent additions have helped to raise the floor of their current pitching staff, but the Brewers still ought to seriously consider pursuing one of the several noteworthy additions that are available to place atop their starting rotation and help them get over the top next season and beyond.

For what it’s worth, it doesn’t sound like anything is off the table for Slingin’ Stearns if his recent comments are any indication:

"With these additions, we feel like we've made progress," Brewers GM David Stearns said. "We think we've helped solidify our pitching unit as a whole and given ourselves some options beyond what we have internally. If other opportunities emerge over the next couple of months, we're not going to turn our back on those, either."

Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference, Fangraphs, and Baseball Prospectus