MILWAUKEE — The Milwaukee Brewers finally have shown they can make tough decisions.
Sending third baseman Travis Shaw, who had 63 home runs the previous two seasons, to Class AAA San Antonio and releasing utilityman Hernan Perez, an asset on and off the field since 2015, late last week couldn’t have been easy. Necessary maybe, but not easy.
The Brewers’ next call might be just as difficult. Though they’re still in the thick of the bunched up National League playoff race midway through the season, they’ve reached the point where they must do something to boost their starting rotation if they hope to return to the postseason.
With the calendar flipping to July and a rule change limiting teams to only one trade deadline — July 31 — this season, the Brewers are on the clock. They’ve flirted with acquiring a big-name starter the past two off-seasons and at the July 31 trade deadline last year, but never pulled the trigger. They did sign Wade Miley during spring training in 2018 and acquired Gio Gonzalez at the Aug. 31 trade deadline in less-splashy deals, but even though both contributed to a magical season, they weren’t the top-of-the-rotation types the Brewers have been lacking. This month, it’s time for the Brewers to stop flirting and get serious.
Their 2-1 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates on Sunday at Miller Park gave them an 13-13 record in June and moved them into a tie with the Chicago Cubs for first place in the NL Central Division. Still, it seems like they frittered away an opportunity to take control of the division largely because their starting pitchers, at least those not named Brandon Woodruff, failed miserably in June.
The Brewers suffered through a 12-13 June in 2018 and recovered to win the division title. Now they’ll have to do it again.
“I don’t think we’re satisfied at .500 ever,” manager Craig Counsell said. “There are reasons why we played .500 baseball. We’re going to try to get better because we know we need to be better than that to be a playoff team. I don’t feel like we survived, we just played like a .500 team this month. It’s going to take better than that over the course of the rest of the season.”
Just because the Brewers recovered last year doesn’t mean history will repeat itself. Like last year, they have an ace, though Woodruff, the NL’s first 10-game winner, has replaced the scuffling Jhoulys Chacin in that role. Unlike last year, there is no cavalry riding over the hill to contribute like Miley and Gonzalez, to the surprise of many, did down the stretch. Not yet, anyway.
So far this year, young starters Freddy Peralta and Corbin Burnes pitched their way out of the rotation and into the bullpen. Meanwhile, Gonzalez, Jimmy Nelson and Brent Suter are still on the injured list and no one knows when — of if — they’re coming back.
Currently, the Brewers’ rotation consists of Woodruff, Chacin, Zach Davies, Chase Anderson and young Adrian Houser. The first four are all coming off starts in which they allowed only one earned run, the first encouraging sign for the rotation since late May.
“It was a very good pitching weekend for us,” Counsell said.
The Brewers can’t be seduced by that, however. One turn through the rotation, no matter how solid, shouldn’t be enough to ease their concerns. Indeed, things are different than they were last year at this time.
First, the starters are seldom pitching past the fifth inning, putting enormous stress on the bullpen. Second, with Cory Knebel on the IL, the bullpen isn’t as dominant or deep as it was last year, when it carried the team. Third, the Brewers might be tied for first, but the Cubs just addressed their biggest weakness by signing free-agent closer Craig Kimbrel. Finally, with only one trade deadline, the scramble for pitching figures to be more competitive than usual and, thus, most costly.
Based on the first 84 games, Milwaukee’s hitting and bullpen are good enough to make the playoffs. The rotation isn’t, which means general manager David Stearns needs to find another starter in a potentially volatile market.
San Francisco’s Madison Bumgarner, who would be a short-term rental, and Toronto’s Marcus Stroman, who has another year of arbitration remaining, are the hot names at present. But the Brewers insist they’re looking within first in hopes of bolstering the rotation.
“That’s what we have to focus on,” Counsell said last week. “And it’s the guys we’ve got here. That’s what we’ve got. Freddy could factor into that. That’s probably the six right now, the five (current starters) plus Freddy. Those are our guys. We’ve got to focus on them being better. We need Jhoulys to be better. I think he’d say the same thing. That’s a big one. Jhoulys getting better is a big part of our starting pitching getting better. (Otherwise), you’re going to have to do it with a lot of offense. If you’re not getting good starting pitching, you’re going to have to mitigate it with some big-time offense. That’s not going to happen every night.”
The past four games were a positive sign, but instead of proving that the Brewers don’t need to add to their rotation, they showed how good the team can be when it does get good starting pitching. That makes acquiring another starter imperative.