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The Milwaukee Brewers might actually roll the dice with their current group of starters

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As Opening Day gets closer, a major addition feels less and less likely.

Milwaukee Brewers Photo Day
Free agent addition Jhoulys Chacin.
Photo by Rob Tringali/Getty Images

Going back to early on in the offseason, David Stearns has downplayed the supposed “need” for his club to add to their group of starting pitchers. During December’s Winter Meetings, Stearns was quoted as saying “our market and our history here probably is a better indicator of the types of moves we’re seeking than some of the external speculation.” It was just a couple of short weeks later that Milwaukee executed their two most notable rotation additions of the winter - a two-year deal for Jhoulys Chacin worth $15.5 mil, and a one-year, non-guaranteed contract inked by former franchise stalwart Yovani Gallardo, who has struggled to ERAs north of 5.00 in each of the last two seasons. In the case of both pitchers, Milwaukee’s front office spoke of a few potential adjustments that were identified and suggested that if pitching coach Derek Johnson can help implement them, there could be an uptick of performance in 2018.

Shortly after the new year, Stearns said:

“We’ve added guys who complement our current staff very well. It does give us a level of comfort. We’re always looking to get better. We remain interested if the right opportunities are presented to us. But I am comfortable with our group, as is, if that’s how we head into spring training.”

Yet, throughout the winter most of the chatter surrounding our beloved local nine has centered around possible upgrades to the starting rotation. It began all the way back in November, when it was reported that Milwaukee was calling around looking for “elite-level” starting pitching. That included the top-four and oft-discussed free agent arms: Arrieta, Darvish, Cobb, and Lynn. A few weeks later, reports surfaced that they were exploring a trade for Chris Archer. The team is said to have inquired on Danny Salazar, Jake Odorizzi, Jharel Cotton, and Patrick Corbin at various points throughout the offseason. Yet, here we are in late February, and the only additional starter brought in by Milwaukee to this point has been Wade Miley on a minor league deal.

Instead of choosing to allocate significant resources to upgrading the rotation, Milwaukee has invested plenty of monetary and prospect capital into improving the lineup and shoring up the bullpen. Outfielders Lorenzo Cain (five-year, $80 mil free agent contract) and Christian Yelich (four prospects to Miami, owed $44.5 mil) were the splashiest outlays that Milwaukee made, while Matt Albers and Boone Logan were both signed to major league deals to join the relief corps. All told, Milwaukee took on more than $145 mil in future financial obligations and traded away four of their top-30 prospects (and three of their top-10) this past offseason as the organization turned the page from rebuilding to competing. Nevertheless, with only about $87 mil in payroll projected for the upcoming 2018 campaign and a still-solid foundation of young talent, it feels like there is work that should be done in that rotation by Slingin’ Stearns and company. Mark Attanasio suggested as much himself at Brewers On Deck.

The Brewers were reportedly willing to give Yu Darvish a nine-figure contract but it wasn’t enough to woo him away from the rival Cubs’ offer. They (and every other franchise) seem less willing to shell out significant money for Jake Arrieta, Alex Cobb, or Lance Lynn, as all three remain available on the open market. No one has met Tampa Bay’s asking price for Archer, either, and the Brewers appear to be having difficulty getting other teams to bite on a Domingo Santana-for-pitcher swap. In the meantime, Stearns and the rest of the organization continue to turn their noses up at the suggestion that they need to add another pitcher.

The Brewers obviously think enough of their in-house pitching options that they haven’t yet gone out and overpaid to bring in one of the available hurlers. As things stand now, Chase Anderson, Zach Davies, and Chacin will slot in the first three spots of the rotation. That leaves two slots to be filled by some combination of Junior Guerra, Brent Suter, Brandon Woodruff, Aaron Wilkerson, Gallardo, and Miley.

As mentioned above, the org believes there are improvements that can be made with the two vets Yo and Miley (and the contract Miley signed allows for him to start the year as depth in the minors). Suter has shown promise during his brief MLB career; despite underwhelming raw stuff, he’s used a quick pace and deceptive delivery to compile a 3.40 ERA in 103.1 innings since debuting in 2016. Given his struggles facing a lineup for a third time, though, he may be better suited for a swingman/long-relief role. Woodruff is one of the club’s top prospects and considered a top-100 talent league wide, but the fact that he and Wilkerson have minor league options could play against them in their quest to make the Opening Day rotation. Finally, Guerra struggled mightily last season after injuring his calf in Opening Day start and missing seven weeks. But after returning to pitch Venezuelan winter ball (which he suited up for each year from 2008-2015) and demonstrating improved command and velocity, manager Craig Counsell is optimistic about Guerra’s outlook for 2018:

“Because he threw a ton of innings last year and he had the injury in August of ’16, we were concerned about winter ball and about him pitching still, so we wanted a break to happen. I think our intentions were right. With someone who’s always done it, maybe we learned our lesson there. I’m really encouraged by the fact that he was able to be on the mound this winter. The thing I liked from his winter ball statistical line is that he threw a lot of strikes.”

As Jaymes explored earlier today, Milwaukee’s early season schedule and an extra man in the bullpen could help Counsell navigate through the first couple of month without specifically designating a fifth starter. The manager has certainly shown a willingness to get creative with his staff during his tenure in Milwaukee, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see him use a series of abbreviated starts and longer relief outings given that so many of his pitchers are capable of working multiple innings. Let’s say Guerra makes the squad as starter number four, leaving Suter, Gallardo, Josh Hader, and Jeremy Jeffress in the bullpen as pitchers who have shown the ability to regularly work two or more innings at a time. Then there’s Woodruff, Wilkerson, and possibly Miley as front-line reserves down in the minors, and according to Counsell top pitching prospects Corbin Burnes and Freddy Peralta aren’t too far behind. The wild card in the whole situation is how soon Jimmy Nelson can return to the rotation, and how effective he can be once he’s fully recovered from his labrum surgery.

The projection systems all generally peg the Brewers for an improved offense in 2018, but a middle-of-the-road pitching staff. Right or wrong, though, Milwaukee’s decision-makers appear to feel far more confident in the ability of their current cache of arms to help deliver a postseason berth. David Stearns and company seem to be betting on their own proprietary statistical and biomechanical analysis and the ability of their pitchers and pitching coach to work together in order to deliver better results than those outside of the org seem to expect. Per Mark Attanasio: “According to the analytics, we are going to score a lot of runs. That’s not a surprise. And our pitchers are going to perform well above replacement level.”

There’s still plenty of time for the Brewers to make a move; the regular season doesn't begin for another five weeks and plenty of options remain available. But if this the pitching staff that the Milwaukee Nine winds up taking to San Diego at the end of March, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised:

“We assess what the acquisition cost is and whether we think that player is an upgrade. And if he is an upgrade, how much? That’s really the equation we’re working through. That’s true with any of the guys that we’ve considered bringing in...We think we’ve done a nice job of helping our depth. We have guys who are likely to make the team, and guys who are likely to start the season in the minor leagues, and can fill in and grow and develop. So, for us to expend resources, whether it’s financial or prospect value, to bring someone in, it’s going to be someone we think moves the needle (substantially).”

Statistics courtesy of Baseball Prospectus

Poll

If the Brewers don’t add any more pitchers before Opening Day, do you feel confident that the starting rotation can be league-average or better as a group in 2018?

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  • 58%
    Yes
    (874 votes)
  • 41%
    No
    (621 votes)
1495 votes total Vote Now