The Milwaukee Brewers entered the 2019 summer trading season with an acute need to add pitching to their roster. The hope was that David Stearns would find an impact starter to the staff, but the fact that the deadline came and went with notable hurlers like Zack Wheeler, Mike Minor, Madison Bumgarner, and Noah Syndergaard all staying with their teams is probably indicative of just how high the prospect prices were set by prospective sellers for their coveted starting pitchers. Without much ammunition to work with in his farm system to work with, Slingin’ Stearns was forced to get creative.
Injuries to Brandon Woodruff, Jhoulys Chacin, and Gio Gonzalez quickly made ‘TBD’ a popular name on the pitching probable list so at the very least, the club needed to add at least one player capable of starting ballgames to the roster. With a top-flight hurler likely out of reach, Slingin’ Stearns had to focus on cheaper options or buy-low type players in order to shore up his rotation depth. He could have gone after someone like Dylan Bundy, Tanner Roark, Mike Leake, or Aaron Sanchez, but he opted to go with familiarity by acquiring a player who he has worked with at two different stops during his career — right-hander Jordan Lyles.
Stearns was a member of the Astros’ front office around the time that Lyles was beginning his big league career, crossing paths with with the pitcher in 2012-13 before he was traded to Colorado. Then last summer as GM of the Brewers, Stearns picked Lyles up off waivers from the Padres and the hurler held down a bullpen spot for the team during the final two months of the season. As Jack Stern explored yesterday, it was during that period of time that the club, under old pitching coach Derek Johnson, worked with Lyles on improving his strengths by focusing mainly on his fastball and curveball offerings as well as pitching more frequently ‘up’ in the strike zone. The results were a 3.31 ERA and 22:9 K/BB ratio in 16.1 innings, equaling out to stellar marks of 60 FIP- and 57 DRA-.
Lyles had made a compelling case for the team to pick up his modest $3.5 mil contract option for 2019, but the Brewers instead elected to move on and Lyles signed for one-year and $2.05 mil with the Pirates. The move to Pittsburgh afforded Jordan the opportunity to become a regular member of the starting rotation, a role he hadn’t gotten the chance to fill consistently since 2015. And though his first nine starts, it looked like Lyles was finally on the way to delivering his long-awaited breakout campaign after debuting as a 20 year old top prospect all the way back in 2011. After his 12th start of the year on June 8th, Lyles was the owner of a 3.64 ERA in 64.1 innings. But two days later he went on the injured list with a hamstring issue and missed the next three weeks of action.
Lyles returned to active duty on June 29th (against the Brewers, as it happens), but his final five starts for the Pirates after the injury were largely disastrous. He yielded 23 earned runs in his next 18.0 innings, helping the Pirates to fall out of contention as well as tanking most of his trade value. But Stearns, who mentioned last year that he has long been a fan of Lyles’ arm, saw an opportunity to buy-low on an obvious trade candidate at a time when he needed a warm body for his own starting rotation.
Lyles made his first start for the Brewers last night in Oakland and delivered five innings of one-run baseball to earn the winning decision in Milwaukee’s 4-2 triumph. The Brewers don’t need or expect Lyles to be some kind of ace or the savior of their starting rotation, all he needs to do is continue to turn in performances on par with Wednesday’s outing. If Lyles can consistently work at least five innings while allowing three or fewer runs, that should be strong enough production to keep the team in ballgames with a chance to win. The Brewers have stacked up a bevy of multi-inning pitchers for Craig Counsell’s staff down the stretch, so expect plenty of short leashes and “bullpenning” to occur during August and September. That should help shield Lyles, and the other healthy starters, from overexposure and having to navigate the dreaded “third time through the order.”
The Brewers didn’t have to give up much in order to bring Jordan Lyles back into the fold. Cody Ponce was the club’s second round pick back in 2015 and showed early promise as a starter, but diminished ‘stuff’ and inconsistent performance eventually led to a full-time move to the bullpen in 2019. His arsenal predictably ticked up with the transition to relief, and he was regularly running his fastball up in the 95-96 MPH range for Double-A Biloxi this season. Leaning more heavily on his fastball and cutter, Ponce worked to a 3.29 ERA in 27 appearances and 38.1 innings for the Shuckers, striking out 44 batters against only 12 walks. Just one Southern League hitter has taken him deep. The caveat to Ponce’s success is that he is doing it in his age-25 season and is nearly a year older than the median age for his league. As an older, right-handed relief prospect, Ponce’s profile and ceiling are akin to that of current 40-man pitchers like Taylor Williams or Jacob Barnes. If Ponce can ever nail down his consistency in relief, he could wind up being a valuable setup man. But the most likely outcome here is probably something along the lines of a shuttle reliever. He was passed over in the Rule 5 Draft last year and will be eligible again this season if not added to the 40-man.
It is worth noting, too, that the deal did indirectly cost the Brewers another pitching prospect in Marcos Diplan. The 22 year old was DFA’d to make room on the 40-man roster for Lyles and he was later dealt to the Twins for cash considerations. Diplan, who came to Milwaukee in the 2015 Yovani Gallardo trade, was once considered a top pitching prospect within the org and held a 40-man roster spot for nearly two years. But he has battled some major control issues over the past few years and, like Ponce, was transitioned to a full-time reliever this year. It probably says something about the org’s feelings on Diplan’s future that is was he was who designated for assignment, rather than someone like David Freitas, Troy Stokes, or Tyrone Taylor.
This wasn’t the big-ticket trade that most fans around the Cream City were hoping for, but make no mistake about it, this was a move that our beloved local nine desperately needed to make. Jordan Lyles brings a comfort and familiarity factor to Milwaukee along with his ability to begin ballgames for Craig Counsell, and he delivered a solid performance in his re-debut for the team on Wednesday in Oakland. If he can bounce back from a tough month of July and continue to deliver solid performances down the stretch as the Brewers chase another pennant, then this trade will easily be a worthwhile one.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus