The high-water mark for the Brewers this season was July 15, at which point they looked down upon the NL Central from a 5.5 game perch. With the All-Star break (signaling the unofficial beginning of baseball’s second half) having come and gone earlier in the week, and two wins under their belt to start the long summer stretch, things were looking up.
But what goes up usually comes down, and by July 30, the 5.5 game lead had become a distant memory. A brutal road trip left the team’s record in shambles: swept in four games in Pittsburgh, losses in two out of three games in Philadelphia, a single win in Washington D.C., and a brutal series defeat at the hands of the Cubs in their return home. The carnage relegated the Brewers to 2.5 games back at the close of business on Sunday.
What was a storied run atop the Central, the kind that had finally attracted the notice of national writers everywhere, vanished in what seemed like an instant. And GM David Stearns was left with a mess on his hands.
When the Brewers acquired C.C. Sabathia on July 7, 2008, the trade came with the stipulation that it occur as early as possible to maximize the pitcher’s innings with his new team. GM Doug Melvin was at the time so confident in Sabathia’s ability to propel the Brewers to the postseason that he offered up the team’s best prospect in the trade, 1B Matt LaPorta.
With a 4.66 ERA after April, the Brewers starting corps hardly looked like a solid bet to challenge the Cubs for the NL Central lead. And yet, despite losing opening day starter Junior Guerra and Chase Anderson for extended periods, the Brewers improved their starting rotation’s ERA – in every single month, all the way to a 3.51 ERA in July. In other words, by ERA the starting rotation improved from a bottom 5 to a top 6 rotation over the course of four months. (FIP is a little less kind to the Brewers, but hey, when Manny Pina can throw out would-be basestealers at a 33% clip and Lewis Brinson can go over the wall to rob home runs, it’s going to fudge the numbers a bit).
The general improvement in the starting rotation-led by Zach Davies’ recent reemergence, as well as an All-Star caliber season from Jimmy Nelson-lessened the pressure to pay for a top arm like Sonny Gray. And boy, would the price tag have been exorbitant. The mere rumors surrounding Gray and the Brewers prompted the Cubs to make a preemptive move and trad their top two prospects (including a consensus top 5 prospect) for Jose Quintana. The Yankees later acquired Gray for the team’s 4th, 8th, and 12th best prospects. For reference, that would have been Brett Phillips, Tristen Lutz, and Brandon Woodruff for the Brewers, according to MLB.com.
Meanwhile, the Brewers bullpen hasn’t found similar success. The relief corp in the top half of the league in Fangraph’s “Meltdowns” stat and lead the league in walks per 9 innings. They give up far too many home runs, and pitched too many innings early on. Carlos Torres and Jacob Barnes, once thought to form a solid one-two punch in the 7th and 8th innings, are giving up a run nearly every other inning. The one saving grace is the number of ground balls they produce, in no small part due to Jared Hughes’ extreme batted ball profile (nearly 60% grounders). Corey Knebel, the Brewers’ lone All-Star representative, has distinguished himself and still holds a sparkling 1.68 ERA with 18 saves, but one man does not a bullpen make.
It’s only natural, then, that David Stearns, surveying the team’s general collapse, his starters’ strong performances, and the bullpen’s woes, decided to address the latter issue by making modest additions. The Brewers first nabbed a resurgent 31-year-old right, Anthony Swarzak, from the White Sox for OF Ryan Cordell, the player to be named later in last year’s trade sending Jonathan Lucroy and Jeremy Jeffress to the Rangers. Stearns also pulled off a deadline deal, reacquiring Jeffress from the Rangers in exchange for Shuckers RHP Tayler Scott.
Swarzak has already slotted into the set-up role; tonight is Jeffress’ first game back in now his third stint with the Brewers. Jeffress hasn’t had a great year with Texas, but his previous body of work stands for itself. (We’ll ignore Stearns earlier dealing for LHP Tyler Webb, who pitched all of 2 innings with Milwaukee before being sent down to Colorado Springs).
The modest acquisitions should help shore up a taxed bullpen (though Jeffress’ home run rate this season is reason for pause). But most importantly, the players added cost little in terms of prospects. The best prospect given up was Ryan Cordell, #17 on the team’s list according to MLB.com in a system brimming with OF talent. Stearns didn’t make a splashy add like the Cubs, but he also did something the Cubs weren’t able to do: hold on to the team’s future. The middle-of-the-road approach likely won’t win amongst the Brewers fanbase, but it’s the right tactic in a rebuilding year in which the Brewers find themselves suddenly in postseason contention.