When the Milwaukee Brewers momentarily woke up baseball’s sleepy offseason by acquiring outfielders Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich two weeks ago, it signaled an organizational shift from rebuilding team to all-in contender.
Now it’s up to Brewers general manager David Stearns to finish the job.
Cain and Yelich will be an improvement offensively and defensively for a surprising 86-win team that fell one game short of the playoffs. However, none of it will matter if the Brewers can’t complete their starting rotation between now and the season opener.
Indeed, as they head to spring training, the Brewers are one high-quality starter away from competing with the Chicago Cubs for the National League Central Division title, a point that was driven home with gusto Saturday when the Cubs agreed to terms with the gem of the 2017 free agent class, starter Yu Darvish, to a six-year, $126 million contract.
The problem is, the Brewers likely won’t be able to acquire a starter prior to pitchers and catchers reporting Thursday. And given the winter-long stalemate in baseball, with about 100 free agents still unsigned, they might not find another starter until late in spring training, if at all.
For the past few weeks, there has been a high-stakes stare-down between free agent starters such as Darvish, Jake Arrieta, Alex Cobb and Lance Lynn and eight to 10 pitching-hungry contenders that are hoping to land a top-of-the-rotation guy at a reasonable price. Brewers owner Mark Attanasio said two weeks ago there is still room in the team’s payroll to add one of the big free agent pitchers and the Brewers subsequently stated their intentions by being linked with all four of those starters in media reports.
Everyone expected a game of musical chairs with the top pitchers to break out at any time and the Cubs getting Darvish was the signal to start the music. The Brewers, Cubs, Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Yankees and Minnesota Twins all had an interest in the 31-year-old, who finished last season with the Dodgers. But not even the most ardent Brewers fan can like the team’s chances when it is competing with the Cubs, Dodgers and Yankees for a free agent, which proved to be the case.
Now that the music has started, however, every team needs to find a seat quickly. Especially the Brewers.
Of course, Milwaukee has other questions to answer in spring training. Will it trade Domingo Santana to relieve the pressure on a suddenly crowded outfield? Can Ryan Braun play first base? Can second baseman Jonathan Villar become the offensive force he was in 2016? Does one-time ace Yovani Gallardo have anything left in the tank for his second stint with the team? What role will new bullpen arms Matt Albers and Boone Logan have?
By far the biggest question facing the Brewers, however, is their starting rotation.
Zach Davies, Chase Anderson and under-the-radar free agent signee Jhoulys Chacin are all set, with Davies and Anderson coming off breakthrough seasons. Jimmy Nelson would be at the top of that group, but he had late-season shoulder surgery and isn’t due back until June at the earliest.
The leaves two spots open. Brent Suter pitched well the second half of last season and Brandon Woodruff, the No. 2 prospect in the organization, got his feet wet during the playoff chase. Gallardo is on a make-good contract after two seasons with ERAs north of 5.00. After Woodruff, the most promising young arms in the organization are Corbin Burnes, Luis Ortiz and Freddy Peralta, but none has pitched beyond Class AA.
This might all be a moot point if Nelson was healthy, but the team doesn’t know when he’ll return or how well he’ll pitch once he does. In their new win-now mode, the Brewers clearly need a top-of-the-rotation starter.
As for the top free agents, the Brewers reportedly made a nine-figure offer to Darvish, but he was still out of their price range at $21 million per year guaranteed for six years. The same is probably true for Arrieta, who will command a similar contract. Maybe that’s for the best since both have age and injury concerns.
But now that the music has started playing, the Brewers could be in play for Cobb or Lynn. Both are 30 and missed seasons recently due to Tommy John surgery, but both are coming off solid, healthy seasons. Plus, signing one of those two at considerably less than Darvish or Arrieta money might leave the Brewers with enough financial flexibility to make a move or two during the season.
A trade is another possibility and the Brewers have a chip to dangle in Santana, who is only 25 and had a breakthough season in 2017. They reportedly have looked at Tampa Bay’s Chris Archer, but trading for him would further deplete the farm system, which took a hit when the Brewers sent three of their top 10 prospects to Miami for Yelich. There are plenty of other potential trades out there with roughly a third of the major league teams in the rebuilding process, but none of the likely targets looks like a top-of-the-rotation talent.
The Brewers have been waiting patiently for the right opportunity, which was a wise course of action. But the music is going to stop soon and if Milwaukee is the team left standing, the acquisitions that ignited its fan base two weeks ago won’t mean much when the season starts.