For the third summer in a row, much of the trade speculation regarding the Milwaukee Brewers is going to be about bringing in a starting pitcher. But, unlike the last two seasons, the conjecture is based upon an actual lack of production from the initial out-getters that are in-house, rather than a simply lack of a “big name” that everyone can recognize.
Here in late June, manager Craig Counsell has already run through just about every legitimate option for the rotation that the organization began the year with. Corbin Burnes, Freddy Peralta, and Jimmy Nelson have already washed out as starters, while Chase Anderson (4.70 ERA) and Jhoulys Chacin (5.88 ERA) are still holding down spots despite unsightly earned run averages and demonstrated difficulties working through even the fifth inning with regularity. Adrian Houser will get a look in the rotation starting on Wednesday, and as good as he’s looked out of the bullpen, he’s still an unknown as a big league starter. So far, only Brandon Woodruff and Zach Davies have settled in as hurlers that the team can depend on when they toe the slab every fifth day. Gio Gonzalez has looked good too, when healthy, but he’s currently on the shelf and working his way back from a dead arm. The bullpen isn’t dominating like it was last season, meaning that the Brewers can’t lean as heavily on the relief corps and will need greater production from the starters if they hope to make another deep run in the postseason.
Unless multiple players drastically improve their performances, the David Stearns will need to acquire a starting pitcher for his Milwaukee Nine before July 31st.
Unfortunately, prospect graduations to the big leagues and aggressive trades made by Slingin’ Stearns over the past two years have left the farm system exhausted of most of its high-impact talent. That will likely limit who they can realistically target this summer; it will probably be difficult for the Brewers to put together competitive offers for controllable pitchers like Trevor Bauer or Matthew Boyd without including top prospect Keston Hiura, who has been called “untouchable” by some reports. The rental market might make more sense for Milwaukee, and that includes one notable starter that they were connected to several times during the offseason:
Madison Bumgarner of the San Francisco Giants.
MadBum has been a top starter in Major League Baseball. During his parts of 11 seasons in the big leagues, he’s thrown 1,735.0 innings with a 3.10 ERA. He’s a four-time All-Star and has also finished among the top-10 in Cy Young award voting four times. He is the owner of a 3.18 Deserved Run Average during his career and a 72 DRA-, meaning that over the course of his time in The Show he’s been 28% more effective than the league-average hurler. He has accrued 40.8 WARP based on his DRA, 32.3 WAR based on his runs allowed per nine innings, and 29.0 WAR based on his FIP.
MadBum has been a postseason hero. He has made 16 appearances in the playoffs, tossing 102.1 innings with a 2.11 ERA and 0.899 WHIP. He boasts three championship rings won during his time with the Giants, and he has been named the Most Valuable Player of an NLCS and a World Series.
The problem, however, is that Bumgarner has not been either of those things for several years. The Giants haven’t been to the playoffs since 2016, the last year that Bumgarner was an All-Star. He suffered freak injuries in 2017 (non-throwing shoulder injury riding a dirt bike) and 2018 (broken hand from getting hit by a line drive come backer), limiting him to a total of 240.2 inning during the two seasons after throwing at least 200 innings in each of the six previous seasons. His 3.29 ERA during that stretch still looked good on paper, but his peripherals trended in the wrong direction; a 3.99 FIP was a few percentage points worse than league-average, his fastball velocity dropped from 93.0 MPH in 2016 to 91.4 MPH by 2018, he lost two points on his swinging-strike rate (down to 9.2%), and opposing batters started to hit dingers off him with more regularity (1.2 HR/9 during 2017-18).
Bumgarner has been healthy throughout the 2019 season, having already tossed 96.2 innings across 16 starts. His results, though, have continued to slide. He has authored a 4.28 ERA to this point, which would be the worst earned run average of his career by nearly a full run. His long-ball issues have been exacerbated, with baseballs currently leaving the park at a rate of 1.49 HR/9. Opposing batters are making hard contact against Bumgarner 47% of the time, which is the highest rate among all qualified MLB pitchers. Both DRA- (104) and FIP- (102) agree that MadBum has been a below-average performer on the mound for the Giants in 2019.
There are some positives for Bumgarner in 2019, though. He’s recovered a little bit of the lost juice on his fastball, bumping his velo back up nearly a full mile-per-hour to 92.2. His swinging-strike rate of 11.6% is the best it has been since 2015 and would be the second-highest total of his career. He’s generating more swings outside of the strike zone and his 8.66 K/9 is his best since 2016. He’s also shaved a full walk-per-nine off, down to a 1.96 BB/9.
Bumgarner is earning $12 mil this season in his final option year before finally reaching free agency in advance of his age-30 season. The Brewers, along with a host of other playoff hopefuls, are on his no-trade list. It is an open question as to how well his bristly personality and old-school, play-the-game-the-right-way mindset will fit into a more loose and fun-loving clubhouse. It's also pretty clear that he is no longer the dominant pitcher that he once was, and he figures to be valued on the trade market as such, but it seems like some of the ingredients might still be there for him to put together a stretch of strong performances if he can get the home run ball in check. Whoever winds up dealing for MadBum will be hoping that injecting him into a pennant race will re-awaken the proverbial beast, much like Justin Verlander's turn-around for the Astros. It’s a risky proposition since he is no longer a guaranteed difference-maker at this point in his career, but few pitchers have worked as successfully in as many big games over the last decade as Madison Bumgarner.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus