The Brewers are to be praised for investing in the product this offseason. While other teams have slow-played to the point of absurdity, the Brewers -- denizens of one of MLB's smallest markets -- have signed Lorenzo Cain, traded for Christian Yelich, and fortified the pitching staff with a handful of less notable moves.
Milwaukee last season arrived ahead of schedule after a rebuild and emerged as surprise contenders. To owner Mark Attanasio's credit, he and his front office are seizing the moment and positioning the club to contend for seasons to come.
Insofar as that near- to mid-term is concerned, however, the Brewers still have work to do. Specifically, they need free agent right-hander Jake Arrieta.
Know that this is a bit more than idle wishcasting on the team's behalf. Attanasio said after the pricey Cain addition that the team still wanted to fortify the rotation in a notable (and perhaps expensive) way. Teams, even small-market ones, are so overloaded with cash right now that paying the going rates for free agents is more a matter of willingness than capability. So if the Brewers want to whittle away at the distance between themselves and the Cubs atop the NL Central and perhaps distinguish themselves in the NL wild-card fray, adding Arrieta to the fold makes a lot of sense.
First, Arrieta, who'll turn 32 in a few days, is really good. Yes, he's come down from the lofty heights he reached in 2015 when he won the NL Cy Young Award, but he's still been a major asset. Over the last two seasons, Arrieta's made 61 starts and pitched to a 3.30 ERA (129 ERA+) while striking out roughly a batter per inning. As well, he hasn't been on the disabled list since early in the 2014 season (Arrieta's rather famous workout regimen probably has something to do with that). Yes, his velocity was down overall last season, but part of that was by design. As well, Arrieta still missed bats, and he saw an uptick in fastball velo over the final weeks of the regular season. Add it all up, and that's a frontline starting pitcher. That's also exactly what the Brewers need.
Last season, Milwaukee, en route to an 86-win season, ranked a respectable fifth in the NL in rotation ERA. However, Jimmy Nelson, who's in the discussion for best Brewers pitcher in 2017, is recovering from shoulder surgery and isn't expected back before June. Setbacks are of course possible, as are diminished skills upon his return. That's a huge blow, and the Brewers thus far have compensated for Nelson's loss by signing Jhoulys Chacin and Yovani Gallardo and giving an NRI to Wade Miley. Not exactly inspiring stuff, and that's even if you assume Chacin can repeat his 2017 adequacy.
Speaking of repeating 2017, another concern for the Brewers is possible regression at the front of the rotation. Take a look at these numbers relevant to the 2018 fortunes of Chase Anderson and Zach Davies, who are right now the Brewers' No. 1 and No. 2 starters ...
|Pitcher||2017 ERA||2017 FIP||Pre-2017 career ERA|
In the above table, "FIP" stands for Fielding Independent Pitching. It's scaled to look like ERA but reflects just those outcomes that have nothing to do with fielding -- i.e., strikeouts, walks, and home runs allowed. As such, it's a better measure of raw pitching skill than ERA is. As you can see, FIP and the pre-2017 bodies of work suggest Anderson and Davies were pitching a bit over their heads last season.
Anderson looked very strong down the stretch in 2017, and he's going to be a useful pitcher going forward. However, his BABIP allowed, his rate of stranded base-runners, and his rate of home runs per fly ball say that he won't be replicating that sub-3.00 ERA. Davies, thanks to his inability to get swings and misses, probably won't be registering a sub-4.00 ERA again in 2018. Regardless of all that, we're still talking about a rotation that, in 2018, has Gallardo (5.57 ERA over the last two seasons) and Miley (5.48 ERA over the last two seasons) in it, at least until Nelson gets back. Ideally, Brandon Woodruff bumps aside one of those guys during the course of spring training, but depth and certainty will remain concerns no matter how the in-house options shake out.
Maybe the Brewers can build a package around their surplus of outfielders and trade for what they need (Chris Archer would be ideal, but the Rays seem disinclined to move him). A more likely option, though, is signing the best starting pitcher on the market. The Brewers have the money, and they have the need. Maybe the Nationals or Phillies wind up having a say, but right now Arrieta and the Brewers looks like a sound pairing.