A year ago, the Brewers found themselves in a surprising position atop the NL Central. Many fans wanted to capitalize on the unexpected success and deal for a starting pitcher. The two most common names were Sonny Gray and Jose Quintana, because they had multiple years of team control remaining on their contracts. The Brewers did not acquire either of these players or anyone else of note, and the day after the trade deadline passed, I wrote about why I agreed with that move.
Let’s see how these two pitchers have done since being traded last July now that we have nearly a full season’s worth of starts to evaluate:
Quintana was good for the Cubs last season, helping them to win the NL Central and reach the NLCS. This year, through half of the season, the story has been different. Quintana has been a below average starting pitcher, as reflected by his 4.49 FIP, 1.41 WHIP and 97 ERA+.
The Brewers were seen as main contenders for Quintana along with the Cubs who eventually won his services at the cost of their top prospect, Eloy Jimenez–someone more highly ranked than anyone in the Brewers’ system at the time. To acquire Quintana would have taken a substantial hit out of the Brewers’ farm system and would have certainly prevented the Brewers from making their off-season deals.
Gray was okay last season for the Yankees, although his FIP of 4.87 and BABIP of .246 imply he was lucky. The good luck has crashed down to Earth this season, and Gray has been a total disaster: he’s actually below replacement level with a 1.52 WHIP, a 78 ERA+.
This one is especially interesting to me because Gray was dealt a few weeks after Quintana, and many Brewers fans (at least on Twitter) were absolutely adamant that the Brewers should trade for Gray to “answer” the Cubs’ acquisition of Quintana. This would have required the Brewers to send then top prospect Lewis Brinson to Oakland, along with other players. Brinson was of course used as the centerpiece to acquire current NL WAR leader in right field, Christian Yelich, who is, by the way, younger, under more team control, and just a far better player than Gray. It is safe to say that trading Brinson for Gray rather than Yelich a few months later would have been a very harmful move for Milwaukee.
Any Brewers fan should be very comfortable stating a year later that it is a very good thing that the Brewers did not panic and deal their top prospect in a package to acquire one of these pitchers. Christian Yelich has proven (and will continue to prove) to be a far superior acquisition. He’s younger, better, and, as a hitter, far less of an injury risk than any pitcher.
This off-season, wherever you looked, you saw articles lamenting the Brewers’ starting rotation. Even after their great trade for Yelich and signing of Lorenzo Cain (the Brewers’ two best players and two of the best players in the NL to this point), national writers and fans alike continued to state they were a “frontline starting pitcher away from contention.” They were linked to multiple starting pitchers, both via free agency and the trade market. In November, I advocated against signing Chris Archer, the number one target of many Brewer fans. Later, in what is now an admitted point of pride, I suggested the Brewers trade for Yelich instead of a starting pitcher (the Yelich deal went down a couple days later).
Finally, I lobbied against a major pitching acquisition in February. My top choice was Patrick Corbin, who, incidentally, has been excellent this season to the tune of a 2.8 FIP and 137 ERA+ (seriously, he’s a Cy Young Candidate at this point, which I would never claim to have seen coming). I argued against acquiring, among others, Jake Arrieta, Marcus Stroman, and Michael Fulmer. Other names associated with the Brewers included Lance Lynn and Alex Cobb. Cobb in particular was a very popular target among Brewer fans as Spring Training approached. Archer, Stroman, and Fulmer were trade targets, while Arietta, Cobb, and Lynn were free agents.
Amazingly, with a half-season of hindsight, the Brewers are looking smart for passing on all of these players. Let’s take a look.
Archer was arguably the most desired target among Brewer fans, if Brewerfan.net and my Twitter feed are any indication. So far this season, Archer has seen his worst FIP and ERA+ in five seasons. He’s been essentially a league average pitcher. That certainly has value, but not when you consider what the Brewers would have needed to give up to acquire him. It’s not likely to get better as he nears his 30th birthday. At this point, this is looking like a bullet dodged.
There were a few days in early 2018 when reports indicated the Brewers were making a legitimate offer to Darvish. Darvish instead signed a long-term deal with the Cubs. Due to injury, Darvish has only thrown 40 innings this season–and they haven’t even been quality innings. He has a 1.4 WHIP and an 84 ERA+. He certainly still has plenty of time to recoup value for the Cubs, but at nearly 32 years old, his years of dominance are likely behind him.
Arrieta was likely another bullet dodged when you consider his age and the salary he commanded. He’s been solidly above average, but with an FIP of 4.16, an ERA+ of 114, and a WAR of 1.0, he’s been more like a number three starter than an ace. At age 32, that production is only likely to decline over the course of his contract.
Perhaps due to desperation (he was one of the last players signed), Cobb had many fans among Brewer fans. Fortunately for the Brewers and unfortunately for Alex Cobb, he’s been dreadful this season: 1.67 WHIP, 5.12 FIP, and a 60 (!) ERA+. Imagine if he had that kind of production on the Brewers and we were looking at being locked in to that for multiple years yet. No thank you.
Lynn, largely seen as the least of the four free agents (Darvish, Arietta, Cobb, Lynn) has also struggled this season to the tune of a 1.61 WHIP and an 86 ERA+, yet his current $12 million salary would make him the highest paid pitcher on the Brewers–by far.
A less-popular-but-still-mentioned target for Milwaukee, Straily was seen as a mid-rotation pitcher who would help upgrade their rotation. But, with multiple years of team control, his price wasn’t cheap. So far, that’s looking like a blessing for the Crew: Straily has a 6.02 FIP and an ERA+ of 77.
2018 Trade Deadline
With the Brewers’ solid record and the calendar turning to July, it’s important to learn from the past year while also realizing that this team’s situation is substantially different that last year’s. The 2018 Brewers are much more “for real”–PECOTA gave them a 77.7% chance at making the playoffs as of Sunday morning, which is far better than they ever gave the Brewers last season. So, it does make more sense to make a “go for it” move now than it did last year.
However, my point all along is that it’s just rarely worth it to pay a premium price in prospects for starting pitching. The bottom line is the position is just too volatile to pay a huge premium in prospect capital. Imagine if the Brewers had paid $130 million for Yu Darvish or gave up Keston Hiura, Corbin Burnes, and Josh Hader for Chris Archer. Or if they had dealt Brinson for Gray last year instead of saving him to acquire Yelich. All those scenarios would already seem nightmarish.
Fans should learn from the past year when deciding who they want the Brewers to acquire. With the calendar turning to July and the Brewers once again in first place (by the narrowest of margins, but still), the Brewers are of course once again in the middle of trade rumors. Right now, the buzzy names are Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard of the Mets, two outstanding pitchers on a lousy team. Both are true aces and would require an enormous prospect package to acquire. This recent article from the New York Daily News suggests the Brewers acquire Syndergaard for Keston Hiura, Corbin Burnes, and Corey Ray. My two reactions to this piece: 1) Those are the two best prospects in the Brewers’ system along with a resurgent prospect in Ray, and 2) that actually seems light to me. My guess is the Mets will get more than that for a controlled ace. Problem is, Syndergaard has already had injury concerns. I am just not interested at mortgaging the future for one player whose arm/elbow could go and kill everything the Brewers have been building.
If the Brewers are truly insistent on making a big trade (not something I’m against, necessarily), there may be just as big of a need on offense anyway. The Brewers have plenty of room to upgrade at catcher and shortstop, with a bit of a lesser need at second base.
The bottom line is the Brewers are actually in a great position to be patient. There is still hope that Jimmy Nelson will return this year. We’ve already seen flashes of greatness from Freddy Peralta, and Corbin Burnes shouldn’t be far behind. Offensively, both Cain and Yelich should return imminently. Taking a longer view, it’s entirely possible that Hiura could be a solution this year at the big leagues; it’s looking more and more like he’ll have a transcendent bat. Trading much of that when they still aren’t the favorites to win the division (damn the Cubs) still doesn’t make sense when many of those players project to be impact major leaguers. I’m hoping Brewers fans learn from the last year, but whether they do or not, David Stearns has already proven that he has the ability and patience to stay disciplined.