Friday was a pretty significant day for the Milwaukee Brewers. The club defeated the Washington Nationals, 4-1, behind a strong start from Jhoulys Chacin and three home runs from the offense. That victory marked eight wins in their last 11 games and pushed the club to 76-60, 2.5 games clear of the Dodgers for the second Wild Card, a half-game back of the Cardinals for WC1, and four games back of the Cubs for the NL Central lead. It also meant closing the book on a tumultuous month of August with an even 13-13 record, even after losses in 10 of their first 15 games and a pitching staff that could muster only a 5.33 ERA across 26 games.
Of course, important events were taking place beyond what was happening on the field, too. Slingin’ David Stearns and company completed not one, not two, but three seperate trades in advance of last night’s deadline for postseason eligibility, adding three veteran players - two pitchers and another bat - to the fold just as roster expansion comes into play.
The first deal that was announced was yet another exchange with the White Sox for a reliever. The Brewers picked up left-hander Xavier Cedeno, who has appeared in eight different big league seasons with four teams, in exchange for Helena players Bryan Connell and Johan Dominguez. Cedeno missed most of 2017 with a forearm injury and signed a minor league deal with the White Sox prior to the start of this season. He began the year in the minors but made his way back to The Show by the start of June.
Since returning to the big leagues, the southpaw has accrued 25.1 innings across 33 appearances. In terms of run prevention, he’s enjoying the second-best season of his career; Cedeno has worked to a 2.84 ERA along with marks of 9.95 K/9 and 4.62 BB/9. His high walk rate would be the worst in any season during which he’s made at least 20 appearances, but beyond his ability to miss bats (13% swinging strike rate this season), he’s also been quite adept at keeping the ball on the ground (55.4% grounder rate) and in the ballpark (0.36 HR/9). Utilizing primarily a cutter and curveball, he’s held left-handed hitters to a .209 average this season and a .219 mark for his career.
In return for Cedeno’s service for the rest of 2018 and potentially 2019 (he’s got one year of arbitration control left), the Brewers gave up two prospects without either pedigree or track record. It took Connell three cracks at the Dominican Summer League before finally posting an above-average batting line there in 2018 and earning a promotion to Helena, where he’s hitting .219/.288/.342 with two homers. Dominguez, meanwhile, will already be 23 by the start of next season and he has yet to make it to full season ball. He has an impressive 0.82 ERA and a 36:13 K/BB ratio across 33.0 innings the DOSL, Arizona League, and Pioneer League this season. After getting the start in 11 games during his first two professional seasons, Dominguez has worked solely out of the bullpen in 2018.
Josh Hader isn’t your typical lefty and Dan Jennings has had both an injury scare and performance issues lately, creating a discernible need to add another southpaw to the mix and augment the relief corps. The bullpen as a whole had regressed in August, limping to a 5.99 ERA that was the third-worst mark in baseball. Quintin Torres-Costa could have been one internal candidate to join the roster, but rather than rely on someone who has never pitched in the highest level, Stearns and company went out and paid a rather modest sum for a lefty who has a successful track record of retiring big league hitters. Milwaukee’s other two deals were for pure rental players who will become free agents after spending the next month or so suiting up for the Brewers, and in both those cases the cost was a bit higher than “modest.”
The loudest cry among fans this season has been for the Brewers to acquire a starting pitcher to bolster their rotation. The hollering only grew after the club didn’t pick up a starter in July and the starting five proceeded to post a cumulative 4.87 ERA in August. The team was unable to work out a deal with the Reds last week after claiming Matt Harvey on waivers, but Stearns and company finally sated the masses by pushing a deal with the Nationals across the finish line that made Gio Gonzalez a Brewer. Oddly enough, however, the Brewers refused to immediately commit to Gio as one of their starting pitchers down the stretch.
We were given no assurances Gonzalez will be a starting pitcher with #Brewers. Asst GM Matt Arnold: "“We’re going to talk to (Gonzalez) about how we’re going to use him. We’re still sorting that out. Once we get him in and get him settled, we’ll work through his role.”— Tom (@Haudricourt) September 1, 2018
A day after the trade, still no clear plan for Gio Gonzalez. He won’t start in the Brewers’ next series against the Cubs so he’ll be available in the ‘pen, Craig Counsell said.— Adam McCalvy (@AdamMcCalvy) September 1, 2018
Gonzalez has put together quite an impressive career with the Athletics and Nationals over the last 11 seasons, appearing in 308 games and tossing 1,788.2 innings with a 3.71 ERA. He has pitched like an ace at times, recording an ERA below 3.50 in five separate seasons, including two years - 2012 and 2017 - with a sub-3.00 earned run average. Right now, however, it’s hard to argue that he is better than any of the options Milwaukee already had in-house.
In 27 starts and 145.2 innings in 2018, Gonzalez has worked to a 4.57 ERA - higher than any of the starters that Milwaukee has been regularly deploying of late. Right-handed hitters have crushed the southpaw to the tune of a .276/.368/.433 slash this season, his overall strikeout rate (7.78 K/9) is the lowest it has been since 2010, and his walk rate (4.32 BB/9) is his highest since 2009. He’s been particularly awful in the second half, posting a 6.55 ERA and 32:22 K/BB ratio across 44.0 innings since the All-Star break.
Gonzalez has always been adept at retiring same-handed batters and continues to be so in 2018, with his .229 batting average allowed matching his career total. So it stands to reasons that he could be a functional specialist, though it’s probably more likely that Gonzalez functions as a short starter or pitches in some kind of tandem as Milwaukee tries to do everything they can to win games down the stretch. Gonzalez has allowed only a 2.62 ERA and .726 OPS when navigating through the order for the first time; those numbers balloon to 5.37 and .811 the second time through.
In the grand scheme of things, it seems unlikely that the two prospects that Milwaukee gave up - KJ Harrison and Gilbert Lara - would have had a significant impact on the organization. Still, the Brewers sent packing their #29 prospect (according to MLB Pipeline) and a young man that they gave a bonus of more than $3 mil in order to secure the services of Gio Gonzalez for one month, and $250K in international bonus slot money. Against the context of some of the other waiver deals completed this month, it feels like Milwaukee overpaid here.
I think it's sort of odd that the Brewers gave up a top-30 prospect and a $3 mil bonus kid for what amounts to 5 or 6 regular season starts from Gio Gonzalez, but then wouldn't commit to putting Gio in the rotation so he can make those starts.— Kyle L. (@brewerfan28) September 1, 2018
Milwaukee’s final move of the day came in pretty close to the deadline, when the team picked up Curtis Granderson from the Blue Jays. Like Gonzalez, Granderson has put together an impressive career over the last 15 years since debuting with the Tigers in 2004. He has amassed more than 1,700 hits and pounded 330 home runs in nearly 8,000 plate appearances, cobbling together a .252/.339/.471 batting line for a 117 wRC+. He was an everyday player until this season with Toronto, during which he has been mostly a platoon bat facing right-handers.
Granderson and his left-handed bat have been quite effective in that role, batting .245/.342/.430 with 11 homers across 349 plate appearances. Granderson has collected only 26 plate appearances against southpaw pitchers but is the owner of a 117 wRC+ against righties. Grandy has sacrificed some contact in the late stages of his career and now at age 37, his 27.4% strikeout rate is the highest it has been 2013. He remains effective at working the count and drawing a walk (12.3% BB rate this season), and when Granderson does put the ball in play, his hard contact rate of 38.5% is the highest total he has ever produced.
Granderson has loads of experience all across the outfield, but at this stage of his career he should not be playing center field and grades out as below-average in the corners. He isn’t expected to play a significant role for the Brewers; he’ll get a start to spell someone on occasion, but he will be mostly relied upon to provide a potent left-handed pinch hitting option off the bench and some veteran leadership in the clubhouse before reaching free agency at the end of the year.
With such a small role in mind for Granderson over such a short period, it was once again a bit of a surprise to see who Milwaukee had to give up to get him. The club sent Demi Orimoloye back north of the border, where he grew up as a resident of Ontario after being born in Nigeria. The Brewers drafted Demi in the fourth roun back in 2015 and his raw tools have always jumped off the charts. He can boast plus raw power, speed, and a strong throwing arm in the outfield. He finally started to put things together this season while splitting the year between Class-A Wisconsin and Carolina. In 525 plate appearances as a 21 year old between the two levels, Demi authored a .248/.322/.393 slash with 12 homers and 22 steals. Orimoloye was no longer ranked among the club’s top-30 prospects, but his upside remains tantalizing if he can learn to control his swing-and-miss a little better.
While it is debatable just exactly how big of improvements the players brought in will be for the Brewers over the next month, it’s tough to argue the fact that the club is better off now for the pennant race than they were on the morning of August 31st. All three of the new acquisitions will have the opportunity to make important contributions down the stretch, Cedeno and Gonzalez probably more so than Granderson. Regardless, David Stearns probably did about as much as he could under the circumstances and now this is the team that Craig Counsell will be going to battle with on a daily basis. It’s time for the guys that are here to step up and perform.
None of the prospects that the Brewers gave up in their deals will bankrupt the minor league system, however when looking at the acquisition cost given up for each player versus the amount of time they will actually be in Milwaukee to contribute, it is fair to assert that Stearns likely overpaid in at least the Gonzalez and Granderson deals. But, when a club is in a tightly contested pennant race and hasn’t been to the playoffs in seven years, sometimes the General Manager is forced to put value aside and take some transactional risks to push his team over the top.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference