Many - maybe most - fans and pundits viewed the starting rotation as the biggest weakness for the Milwaukee Brewers entering the 2018 season. Halfway through the year, however, the rotation has proven to be surprisingly solid. Brewers’ starters have produced a 3.93 ERA through 81 games, which ranks 14th among the 30 MLB clubs. Milwaukee’s “initial out-getters” are consistently keeping the team in games before turning things over to the bullpen, averaging 5.1 innings and between two and three earned runs allowed (2.33 to be exact) on a given night.
The top duo in the rotation probably isn’t the two pitchers one would’ve expected back in Spring Training, with Jhoulys Chacin (3.82, 96) and Junior Guerra (3.05, 97) leading the regular starters in both ERA and FIP-. Expected #1 Chase Anderson and Brent Suter have provided decent, if inconsistent, production so far in 2018, each taking regular turns in the rotation while turning out slightly below-average run prevention totals. In the fifth spot, the team has cycled through several options. Zach Davies mostly struggled in eight starts and is now on the DL. He originally went out with shoulder issues, but left his rehab start last night with back tightness. Wade Miley made two starts before straining his oblique, but could return before the All-Star break. Brandon Woodruff has been up and down to the minors and back and forth from the rotation to the bullpen several times this year. For now, the final spot is occupied by rookie sensation Freddy Peralta, who has looked mostly dominant while leaning on his fastball in the first four starts of his MLB career.
“Depth” was one of the buzzwords for David Stearns and Craig Counsell all spring, and right now the Brewers are in a good position regarding the depth in their starting rotation. Beyond the eight capable starters that have already appeared in the big leagues, Alec Asher and Aaron Wilkerson are on the 40-man roster and have previous MLB experience. Prospects like Bowdien Derby, Corbin Burnes (who is currently being groomed for a relief role), Luis Ortiz, or Zack Brown could also be called upon in an emergency. For the time being at least, it doesn’t sound like Jimmy Nelson is really in the picture as he continues his rehab from shoulder surgery.
So, with all that in mind, Slingin’ Stearns was in Appleton yesterday ahead of Zach Davies’ rehab start for the Class A Timber Rattlers. He spoke with the media beforehand, touching on topics like Nelson’s recovery and Freddy Fastball’s sensational start:
David Stearns met reporters in Grand Chute tonight including @ByAndrewWagner and talked about Davies and Miley working back to health. He then offered this on Jimmy Nelson’s comeback from shoulder surgery: pic.twitter.com/BQkqSg1zkl— Adam McCalvy (@AdamMcCalvy) June 29, 2018
David Stearns chatted with the Fox Valley media ahead of Zach Davies rehab start in Appleton. No breaking news but did note that there are no plans to move Peralta into a relief role to manage innings this season and there will be “tough decisions” when Davies and Miley return.— Andrew Wagner (@ByAndrewWagner) June 29, 2018
On Peralta: "I think he's distinguishing himself as one of these better young pitchers in the National League right now...We are going to have to some decisions to make as everyone gets healthy, but clearly if Freddy pitches as he's pitched, he's going to continue to get starts." pic.twitter.com/TCjjATkWGa— Kelly Price (@thekellyprice) June 29, 2018
Despite the solid performance of the team’s starting pitchers and the copious amounts of useful depth the team possesses, the national media continues to insist that the Brewers need to add to their rotation. Stearns was also asked about the team’s deadline approach, and while he didn’t agree that the team absolutely has to add a starter, he did offer a notable quote about the type of arm he and his brain trust will be on the lookout for:
Stearns said in spring training that a trade for a starter would have to “push the needle.” That’s still the case now, perhaps a little more so considering how well the starters have fared. pic.twitter.com/7xY5kD0G7h— Andrew Wagner (@ByAndrewWagner) June 29, 2018
If Stearns and company are looking for someone to help “lead the rotation” for a postseason run in 2018, that means they probably aren’t looking at guys like J.A. Happ, Tyson Ross, Cole Hamels, Dan Straily, Clayton Richard, etc. While each of those guys are having decent seasons and may be incremental upgrades, none of them profile as the type of arm who can help push a team over the top and dominate an opponent’s lineup in the postseason.
Stearns exhibited restraint last summer while getting heavily involved in negotiations for Jose Quintana and Sonny Gray, ultimately getting outbid for both players. So the dreaded “overpay” shouldn’t be something that fans need to worry excessively about. Stearns’ comments do make it sound like he’ll look to add a big fish at the deadline, and if he can’t he will simply stick with the capable depth that is already in-house. He didn’t say so explicitly, but it seems as though the team will at least be involved in the bidding for Met co-aces Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard.
At this point, those two are the only obvious #1 starter types that will be marketed this summer, although it’s not yet clear that New York will actually trade either player. In both cases, though, the combination of skill and control would warrant a significant prospect return almost assuredly led by Keston Hiura. If Stearns is going to be exploring deals for top-flight starters, he must at least be willing to consider parting with his org’s most prized prospect as well as a host of others to make it happen. But after cutting such a wide swath through the farm with the Yelich trade, imagining what the system might look like after a deGrom or Syndergaard trade may cause the GM some hesitation.
If the Brewers are willing to bet on guys with the upside of a front-of-the-rotation starter but maybe don’t have the current performance to match, they might be able to find a cheaper trade option. It’s worth checking in with the Rays to see if they’d be willing to deal Chris Archer on the cheap due to his 2018 performance/injuries, or how much the Orioles would want for Dylan Bundy or Kevin Gausman, or if the Rockies would be willing to move Jon Gray. Seth Lugo of the Mets is also someone that the org has had interest in in the past. None of those pitchers would cost as much as a deGrom or Syndergaard, but letting any one of them work with Derek Johnson (and learn the Guerra splitter?) could help take their performance to the next level.
The 2018 championship season is now halfway complete, and the non-waiver trade deadline is only about a month away. Brewers’ fans should probably get ready to buckle up, because it sounds like the rumors are really going to start to fly in the coming weeks.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs