Milwaukee Brewers: The all or nothing that could have been

The Milwaukee Brewers were maligned by fans and pundits alike after not grabbing a big arm in free agency this preseason, but the David Stearns methodology may be turning the talking heads on their heels.

By the time last December rolled around, it seemed like a given that the Milwaukee Brewers would go out and acquire some starting pitching. Even for a team that finished fifth in ERA in 2017, it seemed like an unspoken certainty. All they needed was one big name to push them over the top.

Both Chase Anderson and Jimmy Nelson came fresh off career years and even though the latter was still months away from a true timetable, let alone a return from his shoulder surgery, it meant that when he did, the team was only one head away from having a Cerberus on the mound. It seemed that the regular cast was soon to be cast-off and Brewers fans were happy knowing, or more realistically, thinking, that the potential fours and fives and swingmen would shake themselves out in the shadows and settle in quietly.

The market was ripe, the branches heavy with names like Darvish and Arrieta and Archer, swinging so low that even a small market team like the Brewers could reach up and pluck one cleanly thanks to the height of their prior frugality.

So when the team signed Jhoulys Chacín in mid-December, it felt like a priming. They had cemented a four or a five, which meant they were positioning for a one or a two. The only other starters off the board were Tyler Chatwood and Miles Mikolas, neither of whom were at the time slated to be front-end types.

But January was quiet. In fact, almost exclusively so on the pitching front. So by the time the Brewers traded for Christian Yelich and inked Lorenzo Cain at the end of the month, it looked written in the stars. This was the year of the yellow and blue. The ball and glove. The rebuild was over and the run had begun. And just shy of the half-century mark. Only Tyson Ross had been crossed off the list since, and the two biggest names on the market were swirling amidst a whirlwind of excitement and speculation. And for once, to the delight of Brewers fans everywhere, their names were still included.

And then in mid-February, devastation. The Cubs had signed Yu Darvish. And to add insult to injury, news broke that the Brewers hadn’t even made a competitive offer. Then, the first round of cursing began. But hope remained in Arrieta, or, if nothing else, Lance Lynn. But a month and a day later, they too had been lifted almost simultaneously, and with them, several thousand pitchforks and torches. Even signing Alex Cobb would be better than nothing, but a week later, he too was on his way somewhere other than Milwaukee. And worse yet, the asking price for the esteemed Chris Archer meant betting on a rebound with a significant chunk of the remaining farm system as it’s wager, a chunk the team seemed hard-pressed to part with.

If social media was any indicator, many fans felt nothing short of shorted. It was as if the team had jogged out the trial of an Olympic sprint. And then came the dichotomy in the ranks. Those who believed in the David Stearns way, the way that had kept the team in contention to the last day the year prior, were certain it was intentional. This was just Stearns being shrewd. The market would again open at the end of July, and with it, a clearer picture of the team’s true needs once things had begun to fall in place. They had talented young arms waiting in the wings and long-shots like Wade Miley and Yovani Gallardo shoring up the gaps in the fence. And the others? They were rage red and high on the win-now.

With 80 games in the books, it seems like the pre-season prognosticators and doomsdayists were both right and wrong, the predictions of which, as baseball goes, were far from foresight.

Somehow Chacín has been better than advertised, barring a slow start and the recent bludgeoning at the hands of the Cardinals. As few expected, Junior Guerra has returned to form, riding the wave of his splitter’s renewed effectiveness. Zach Davies has been innocuous if not vacant, but much can be said about his performance’s relation to a lingering shoulder issue. Brandon Woodruff has shown improvement outside of a seven-run May battering in Colorado but hasn’t had the opportunity to showcase much more while frequently bouncing back and forth between the majors and minors. Brent Suter has filled in admirably for a guy who has never had a true home in the rotation or bullpen and has eaten innings and defended them like he’s hungry for it.

And lo and behold, something did shake out: the entrance of fastball-heavy phenom Freddy Peralta, who, despite putting up record-breaking numbers in his first four starts, continues to be written off as much as he’s idolized because “batters will catch up to his limited arsenal” even though he keenly introduced a highly-effective curve in recent weeks.

What’s more, all the big presents Brewers fans were hoping for under their Christmas trees in December, and then in the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow in March, are doing little to justify their own acquisitions for their respective teams, a poorly-kept secret no one seems to be noticing.

To be fair, there’s a lot to be said about their landing spots as well. Who knows how they would fare with the Brewers’ schedule, largely pitted against the foes of the NL Central. But then again, Miller Park is also notoriously bat-friendly (just as Jesús Aguilar).

On the surface, it may be hard to argue against Jake Arrieta, who, at age 32, still seems to be reliably trucking along in Philadelphia with a 3.54 ERA. That is, until you see that his strikeouts have dropped considerably (6.3 K/9) from both last year (8.7) and his career average (8.2). What’s more, is that his FIP and SIERA, two fairly accurate and advanced measures of a pitcher’s true ability and outcomes, put his ERA at 4.15 and 4.33 respectively — all at an average of $25 million a year. Chacín may not be gangbusters, but he’s doing just about the same thing for an average of $8 million a year.

Yu Darvish, the biggest fish of the offseason, may have better strikeout numbers (11 K/9) but he’s also walking batters at a troublesome rate (4.7 BB/9) and worse yet, has only pitched as many games as Davies (8) and has already hopped on and off the disabled list multiple times in the first half. His ERA (4.95) might be unsightly because of it, but it can’t all be written off as such either. His ground ball rate is dropping, his home run to fly ball rate is rising and his FIP (4.80) and SIERA (4.01) both suggest he’s still a 4+ ERA pitcher this year. Rebound or not, $20 million seems like a lot to pay for a guy who was supposed to be a co-ace with Jon Lester, who, despite a sparkling 2.18 ERA, seems potentially destined for a similar fate (4.07 FIP, 4.50 SIERA and a career-high hard contact rate of 36.2%).

Lance Lynn, who seemed to become the late-season bridesmaid, may have gotten back on course in recent weeks and does sport career-high strikeout numbers (9.3 K/9), but he’s also matched it with a career-high walk rate (5.4 BB/9) in a pitcher-friendly home ballpark and division. His peripherals look average if not steady and most advanced analytics say his ERA is worse than it should be, but they also hint he won’t likely drop it below a 4.00 either.

One might posit that Tyler Chatwood, the only modest-name pitcher with an ERA under 4.00 and a salary under $13 million (outside of the aforementioned Ross), would have been a sneaky pickup had the Brewers beaten the Cubs to the chase. This would also be incorrect. Even after leaving the hitter-happy confines of Coors Field, Chatwood has maintained his 29% hard contact rate and with it, now leads the league in walks (63), posting only one less than his number of strikeouts (64) — which is a massive contributor to his ugly 1.727 WHIP. All of this combines to drive the stake home, resulting in a FIP (4.92) and SIERA (5.94) that strongly imply that he may be falling hard in the second half if he doesn’t change course.

But what about Chris Archer? Yes, Archer should realistically be a sub-4 ERA pitcher. His numbers say so. But they also say he’s getting mashed by hard hit balls even worse than last year if that even seems possible, rising to a whopping 40.3% while his walks are up and his strikeouts are down, all with a slightly-above average BABIP, which means batters won’t likely slow down against him by any meaningful amount anytime soon. Advanced metrics put him at about a 3.88 ERA — not something you really want to sell the farm system over, especially after last year. He’ll turn 30 years old this season and seems to be trending the wrong direction, and his current DL stint may be the crowning of old age setting in.

Alex Cobb? Well, let’s not talk about Alex Cobb.

Tyson Ross, at $1.5 million, may have been the only true steal to date. He’s only pitching slightly better than his peripherals imply, which marks him as a moderately effective high-3’s arm but he does provide significant value for the cost, injury history notwithstanding. Considering he’s currently pitching for the Padres, that door remains open for the time being.

Of course, the talking heads with little knowledge of small market teams are still pushing for the Brewers to go big. Some are saying Jacob deGrom while others are mindlessly penning in high-upside relievers, even though the Brewers currently boast the second-best bullpen in the NL (4th in MLB), have recently shifted one of their top pitching prospects, Corbin Burnes, to relief in the minors to prep him for a call-up later this year, and still have effective long-relief/swingmen stuck in the rotation until their injured starters return.

David Stearns is still David Stearns: a master of the bold and unconventional as well as a guru of value-centric frugality, so if he sees an opportunity offering significant improvement, there’s no doubt he will jump. That said, his ride-it-out philosophy has kept the Brewers atop the division for much of the season (let alone the league as of late), which may not provide much incentive to shuffle the deck with a winning hand, even if the rotation has been floating around league-average numbers. After all, the enemy of good is great.

All that can be said is that the all-that-could-have-been looks much more like nothing good and places his mentality as a drop in the public bucket, diluted and forgotten thanks to the bubbling whirlpool of big-market bias and know-better punditry. The grass isn’t always greener.

And if it plays out in the second half like it did the first, the nothing that could have been is all the more appealing by the inning.

Jonathan Powell is a co-founder and lead writer for Bronx to Bushville.

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