For all the talk about having confidence in “our guys,” staying the course with this pitching staff wasn’t really an option for David Stearns and the Milwaukee Brewers. Overall, the Brewers have the league’s fifth-worst ERA at 5.35 through roughly the first month of the season. They are also fifth-worst by FIP, at 5.15. The group is giving up home runs at the third-highest rate, 1.82 HR/9. Milwaukee’s pitchers have yielded the third-highest rate of hard contact at 41%. Four of the five starters who began the year in the Opening Day rotation have an ERA above 5.80. One has already been demoted, and another placed on the injured list.
The Brewers very obviously needed help, and it is now coming in the form of Gio Gonzalez.
Last year, Slingin’ Stearns and company built up a relatively deep stable of experienced pitching depth entering the regular season. Chase Anderson, Zach Davies, Jhoulys Chacin, Wade Miley, and Junior Guerra all had multiple seasons of starting experience under their belts, Brent Suter already had more than 100 MLB innings, and the group was rounded out by prospects like Freddy Peralta and Brandon Woodruff as insurance. All eight of those players wound up making multiple starts for Milwaukee, and Stearns still had to go out and add throughout the course of the regular season. The team won 96 games and a division title on their way to the NLCS.
This season, when the team should have been looking to get over the hump and into the World Series, Stearns chose to invest heavily into the starting lineup but largely ignore the pitching depth during the offseason. Woodruff, Peralta, and Corbin Burnes would be made into full-time starters and given their first trials in the Opening Day rotation all at the same time, with little in the way of proven depth behind them. Chacin and Davies began the year in the starting five, Guerra was turned into a full-time reliever, leaving Chase as the only proven option in the fold as protection against injury or struggles sustained by anyone ahead on the depth chart. He is already back in the rotation. The ceiling of this group was high, to be sure, but the floor of such an inexperienced cache of arms had the chance to be awfully low. And so far, the floor is what this pitching staff has been dragging themselves across.
There has been a lot of talk about the tough schedule and attempts to justify the struggles of the pitching staff so far. That doesn’t jive with how their hurlers performed last year, though. Milwaukee sustained an ERA of 3.75 against teams with records of .500 or better last season. They posted a 2.66 ERA against the Cubs. A 3.58 mark against the Cardinals. This year, Milwaukee’s hurlers has a 5.57 ERA so far against winning teams. It’s more than just facing a tough schedule; Milwaukee pitchers have looked bad while doing it.
It may have been hard to foresee this level of ineffectiveness from the starting rotation, all at the same time, but that’s the risk that Stearns and company took when they decided to fill 3/5 of the starting rotation with a group of pitchers who had less than 30 MLB starts between them. There are reasons to be excited about what the future holds for Burnes, Peralta, and Woodruff, but expecting all three of them to hold their own, without any real legitimate options behind them, looks like it was a mistake for a team with designs on competing for the World Series. Player development is non-linear, after all, and there are scores of examples of pitchers who took multiple seasons to figure things out at the big league level. We should have expected all three arms to take their lumps, and they happened to come all at the same time. But the Brewers can’t afford to rest on their laurels and wait for all three to figure it out, not while you’re within the Cain-Yelich window and figure to lose key cogs in Mike Moustakas and Yasmani Grandal after the season.
Maybe this is all avoided if Stearns makes a more concerted effort to simply retain some of the depth pitchers they had under contract in 2018. Wade Miley, who last season posted the second-lowest ERA of any Brewers starter (min 80 IP) in the Miller Park era, took a $4.5 mil deal for one year with Houston and has a 3.58 ERA through five starts. Jordan Lyles, who we suggested the Brewers consider keeping based on his work out of the bullpen last season, had his $3.5 mil option declined. Lyles signed in Pittsburgh for a little over $2 mil and is the owner of a 2.05 ERA in four starts. Gonzalez signed his minor league pact with New York in the middle of Spring Training. (Maybe part of the problem stems from losing Derek Johnson to a more lucrative offer from the Reds — who have a 3.29 team ERA, third-best in baseball). Those options were overlooked, and the team was left scrambling for help in mid-April.
Fortunately for Stearns and the Menomonee Valley Nine, Gio Gonzalez was sitting out in free agency after opting out of his deal with the Yankees. Some nine teams were reported to have interest and four teams made guaranteed MLB offers. Gonzalez chose to return to Milwaukee, where he finished out last season, on a $2 mil deal with another $2 mil of incentives available. He’s already stretched out and should be able to jump right into the rotation shortly after the deal is officially announced. Gonzalez is no longer the stud he was for many years in Washington, but he is a floor-raiser for this rotation. He’s a guy that one can generally expect to go out and give a five-inning, 2-3 run performance on a regular basis. Gio Gonzalez is basically a league-average starter at this point in his career, and right now, ‘average’ is a necessary upgrade for this Milwaukee Brewers pitching staff.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference