To understand what ails the Milwaukee Brewers and how to fix it for 2011, we first must go back in time and look at where the team has come from.
The summer and fall of 2008 was the best year of my baseball life. Ben Sheets was healthy and pitching like everyone knew he was capable of. Jeff Suppan, Manny Parra, and Dave Bush were all pitching well enough to keep the team in games long enough to allow a very good offense come through with a clutch hit to give the lead to Salomon Torres. Seth McClung was filling in admirably for an injured Yovani Gallardo as well.
Then, rumblings started to surface that the Brewers were the front-runners to acquire CC Sabathia from the Cleveland Indians. As much as the thought excited me, I didn’t put much stock into the rumors. After all, this was the Milwaukee Brewers we were talking about. You know, the team that toiled in obscurity under the Wendy Selig-Prieb regime for over a decade that cared more cost-cutting than investing in the actual on-the-field product.
However, on July 7, rumor became reality when Sabathia was sent to Milwaukee for four prospects, including Matt LaPorta and Michael Brantley. The Brewers got the ace their rotation needed to pair with Sheets to give the Brewers a very impressive 1-2 punch. Sabathia was so good that he basically carried the Brewers to the Playoffs when it appeared the rest of the team was hell-bent on not playing postseason ball for the first time in 26 years.
Of course the Brewers were quickly dismissed by the eventual World Champions in Philadelphia, but players, management, and fans were shown that great pitching can carry a team and propel them to amazing heights.
Jump ahead to 2009. Sabathia and Sheets were gone with the only significant replacement to the starting staff coming in the form of Braden Looper. It’s quite easy to see why the Brewers regressed 10 games to finish back under .500. GM Doug Melvin thought adding Randy Wolf and Doug Davis to the rotation for 2010 would solve the pitching issues, but we all know just how wrong he was. Wolf finally came around and put up good numbers in the second half of the season, but Davis struggled through multiple injuries and added nothing of note to the team during his second stint in Milwaukee.
So we’ve established that the least obvious fact for Brewers baseball to obtain a high degree of success is with above average to good starting pitching. Gallardo and Wolf are two nice pieces to the puzzle, and they should be atop the rotation when the team starts the season on March 31st in Cincinnati.
The obvious answer to add starting pitching to the team is trade first baseman Prince Fielder. While Melvin does indeed need to unload Fielder this winter, he’ll get considerably less in return than he could have received last July or last offseason. At one time Melvin could have traded Fielder to the San Francisco Giants for Matt Cain. Hey Brewers fans, how nice would it be to have a 1-2 punch of Cain and Gallardo?
Here is a look at what Melvin could (potentially) get from teams that could acquire Fielder:
Giants: Jonathan Sanchez, Madison Bumgarner (HIGHLY unlikely after his postseason play), or Zack Wheeler
Rays: Wade Davis or Jeremy Hellickson
White Sox: Dan Hudson
Obviously it’s all speculation on my part, but you can see that while the Brewers could get a very good young pitcher in return, they likely won’t get the type of pitcher Melvin covets.
For arguments sake, we’ll say the Giants unload Sanchez for Fielder. That’s a top three in the rotation of Gallardo, Sanchez, and Wolf. That’s a pretty decent start to a rotation, although the two lefties take away from other thoughts I have to better the team.
Although I think signing free agent, and former Brewer, Jorge de la Rosa would be a very good move, I don’t see it happening since he is a left as well. Of course that problem could cease should Melvin trade for a righty starter. A more likely scenario could see Milwaukee sign a pitcher like Jon Garland or Kevin Correia. Will either of those names sell tickets the way Prince Fielder does? The answer is an emphatic no, but either would be a very good fourth starter in the rotation. The fifth spot could go to either Mark Rogers or Jeremy Jeffress to give one of the organization’s young arms a chance to shine. Melvin could also bring back Dave Bush or Chris Capuano to fill the role as well.
The Brewers seem set in their bullpen. John Axford burst onto the scene, taking the closer’s job away from future Hall of Famer Trevor Hoffman. Along with Axford, Kameron Loe, Zach Braddock, and Mike McClendon all had very nice years in the bullpen. Manny Parra seems better suited for the bullpen which would give the team two hard-throwing lefties. If Carlos Villanueva, Todd Coffey, and LaTroy Hawkins can revert back to their former selves, the Brewers could have a lethal bullpen in 2011.
Jonathan Sanchez* trade with Giants
Kevin Correia* free agent signing
Kameron Loe—Set up
Zach Braddock—Set up
Jeremy Jeffress—He may start the season in the Minors
To the untrained eye that might not seem like anything special, but there is a lot of talent in that group both in the starting rotation and bullpen. Things can always be reshuffled as well, with names coming and going that none of us expect right now…like the rumors springing up that Casey McGehee could be traded to Oakland for pitching.
It would be nice for Melvin to bring another CC Sabathia-type pitcher to Milwaukee, but anyone holding their breath for Cliff Lee to become a Brewer is wasting their time. With shrewd trades and free agent signings the Brewers can retool their rotation and turn it into a strength for the club instead of the albatross it was in 2009 and 2010.
Later in the week I’ll take a look at what changes may be coming for the offense and what impact (if any) McGehee, Lorenzo Cain, Rickie Weeks, and Carlos Gomez will have on the Brewers in 2011.
To read more by Jesse Motiff, click here or follow him on Twitter @jessemotiff.