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It didn’t take long for Milwaukee’s greatest team need to present itself during the 2019 season. After succeeding with a run prevention system that got significant contributions from veteran hurlers in the rotation while infusing homegrown arms from the minors into a dynamic bullpen already chocked full of high-octane pitchers, the brain trust in the front office decided that this year’s relief corps would be strong enough to support giving three rookies the opportunity to prove themselves in the Opening Day starting rotation. Corbin Burnes, Freddy Peralta, and Brandon Woodruff all flashed their signficant potential during the Brewers’ deep playoff run, and there was reason to believe that each of them could be effective starters this season.
As we know now, of course, things obviously haven’t worked out as hoped. Quite the opposite, in fact; the bullpen was weakened before the season began by injuries to Corey Knebel and Jeremy Jeffress, two-thirds of last year’s “Electric Dudes.” Knebel won’t make it back in 2019 after Tommy John; Jeffress returned from shoulder weakness but has looked like a shell of his 2018 All-Star self. Peralta flopped in the rotation, but has been generally useful, if inconsistent, in the bullpen. Burnes, however, has had his performance diminish to almost unfathomably poor levels. He’s been on and off the IL, posting a 9.00 ERA in the big leagues and an 8.31 ERA in Triple-A that eventually led to a demotion to Double-A. Seriously, who could have seen him being that bad when the year began?
2018’s most consistent starter in Jhoulys Chacin has lost the feel for his slider. Jimmy Nelson’s comeback attempt never really got off the ground, and he’s on the IL and pitching in the bullpen in Triple-A. The team eventually brought in Gio Gonzalez and has gotten some decent work from him and a group of others — Woodruff took off and earned himself a spot on the All-Star team, Chase Anderson has been sturdy, Zach Davies rebounded from his down year, and Adrian Houser has shown flashes as a starter while mowing down hitters in the bullpen.
On the relief side of things, Josh Hader has generally continued his string of dominance, although lately he has dealt with notable home run troubles. But he’s been forced to function as a more typical ‘Closer,’ making the team vulnerable in the middle innings. Junior Guerra, Alex Claudio, and Matt Albers have been above-average on the whole, but each has limitations that leave them prone to inconsistency. Peralta and Houser have both factored in here at times with great aplomb, but no one has really stepped up behind them.
The rotation finished the first half ranked 12th in the National League with a 4.82 ERA while working the fewest innings-per-start, and the bullpen led the Senior Circuit with 369.0 innings and had the seventh-best ERA at 4.39. But things had sort of settled down with the pitching staff, and at the All-Star break things didn’t look too bad — Gonzalez had returned from a near two-month absence to rejoin a rotation of Davies, Woodruff, Anderson, and Chacin. Houser and Peralta had shown the potential to be high-leverage arms alongside Hader. The Brewers needed to add some pitching, of course, but if they could just find like, one pretty good starting pitcher and one late-inning bullpen arm on the trade market, things would have looked pretty good.
Unfortunately during the two weeks leading up to the deadline, disaster struck in the form of a string of unforeseeable and incredibly unlucky string of injuries to the pitching staff. First, Woodruff went down with an oblique injury that was immediately deemed a six-week absence. Then, Chacin went down with a lat injury that put him on a similar timeline to Woody. Two days later, Gio left his start with shoulder discomfort that would push back his next scheduled start by a few days. Suddenly, simply finding enough pitching depth to whether the storm was forced to become the priority for Slingin’ David Stearns and company, rather than looking solely for impact.
Stearns and his brain trust appeared hesitant to part with the top remaining prospects left within an already decimated farm system ranked last in the league by Baseball America, limiting the types of players that could realistically be targeted at the deadline. In fact, asking prices for impact starters wound up being so high across the league that assumed trade candidates like Madison Bumgarner, Zack Wheeler, Mike Minor, Noah Syndergaard, Robbie Ray, and Matthew Boyd all wound up staying put. Only three notable upper-echelon hurlers — and one true “ace” — wound up moving to new homers, those being Zack Greinke, Marcus Stroman, and Trevor Bauer. The fact that so many players who were the center of trade rumors ended up staying put probably says something about the level of return that selling teams were looking for this summer.
In the end, Milwaukee wound up making three separate trades to bring in four new arms to the organization. Stearns opted for familiarity in his search for starting rotation depth by picking up old friend Jordan Lyles, who has pitched for two different orgs that Stearns has worked for (Houston and Milwaukee), from the Pirates in exchange for Cody Ponce. He completed a change-of-scenery swap with the Rays that sent out Jesus Aguilar and brought in Jake Faria. And finally, he leveraged the top prospect that he appeared willing to deal — infielder Maurcio Dubon, a top-5 player in the org but not a top-100 prospect league-wide — to find a two-player return, bringing back Drew Pomeranz and Ray Black.
Given the state of the pitching depth at the time, it was hard to argue the fact that the 40-man roster was in better shape after July 31st than it was before. Still, a pair of rentals and a couple of controllable but underperforming arms wasn’t exactly the kind of splash that most fans around Milwaukee were hoping to see at the deadline. We can now look back on a couple different data points to show that those among the Brewer faithful were anywhere from ‘meh’ to quite upset with how Stearns handled the trade deadline this year.
According to polling from SB Nation Fanpulse respondents, a large majority of those who answered — 69% — were dissatisfied with the moves that the front office was able to execute before the deadline. Furthermore, fan confidence in the team’s direction dwindled to a season-low 32%. This, after spending most of the first half of the season at 84% or higher fan confidence.
Per Brew Crew Ball’s own series of trade deadline follow-up polls, most voters were pretty lukewarm about how they graded the club’s deadline approach. Out of 1,733 total votes, 88% gave Stearns and company either a ‘B’ or a ‘C’ for their trade deadline report card. When we asked you all to grade the moves individually, all were supported by the majority of respondents, though some were more well-received than others.
The most popular move was the Lyles/Ponce trade, which received 92% “yes” votes of approval. Lyles has been nails so far in his return to the Cream City, making three starts and tossing 17.0 innings with a 1.59 ERA. He’s pitched to a fantastic DRA- of 60, and you really couldn’t ask for much better than what he’s provided the team so far. Ponce, meanwhile, has allowed four runs in his first 6.0 innings for the Pirates’ Double-A affiliate. The 25 year old will need to be added to Pittsburgh’s 40-man this winter or he’ll be eligible for the Rule 5 Draft.
Also receiving a vast majority of “yes” approval votes was the deal that sent Aguilar to Tampa Bay, at 75%. Faria got his first opportunity to show what he could do shortly after arriving, getting called up to the big leagues in the first week of August when Zach Davies went on the IL with a balky back. He quickly received some high-leverage opportunities but wasn’t up to the task, allowing three runs in 3.1 innings before getting sent back down to Triple-A. He comes with four additional seasons of control. Aguilar, on the other hand, has received more regular playing opportunities than he was in Milwaukee and is so far batting .406 in 37 plate appearances. He’s still not hitting for power, though, with one home run and 12 singles in 11 games for a paltry .094 ISO. His .429 BABIP figures to come back down to earth before long.
The most divisive move that Stearns and company made was the one that sent Dubon to San Francisco, which received a 55% to 45% yes/no split. The prevailing belief was that a prospect of Dubon’s ranking within the org should have been able to net a more significant leading piece that a Drew Pomeranz rental, and it doesn’t help matters that the southpaw has allowed four runs in his first 6.0 innings with the team. The deal did also bring back reliever Ray Black, who has seen only brief (and unsuccessful) stints in the big leagues in the last two seasons but can be controlled for up to another six seasons. He was recently recalled from the minors to replace Faria on the roster, and threw a scoreless frame in his team debut. For what it’s worth, Dubon has seen his slash crater to .227/.320/.364 through his first 13 games with San Fran’s Triple-A squad.
The two weeks since the end of trade season have been a mixed bag for our beloved local nine. A win this afternoon over the Twins moved their record to 6-6 for the month of August, and entering play they ranked 4th in the National League during the month with a 4.36 ERA. But, they also rank third-worst in the league during that time with a 5.59 FIP and second-worst with -0.6 fWAR from their pitching staff. The only thing this team has proven so far this year is that they are unpredictable, and that has not changed in the fortnight since their polarizing deadline dealings.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs