As the summer wears on and the Brewers inch closer to their first postseason berth in seven years, one thing is clear: Trade chatter is coming.
Much of that chatter, at least on the national level, will likely focus on Milwaukee’s apparent lack of elite starting pitching. That’s the sticking point about this team, the brightly-colored flag that gives armchair analysts and casual fans something to grab ahold of and wave around. The fact remains that, yes, the Brewers could use a Justin Verlander. So could every other non-Astros team in the league, or at least the ones that care about winning games. But given the steep acquisition cost and dearth of true aces likely to hit the market, that scenario is unlikely to come to fruition. Rather, the Brewers will probably tinker around the periphery of their roster, subtly reinforcing their depth in a critical area or two (see the recent trades for Erik Kratz and Brad Miller), and continue to place their faith in an average staff, great bullpen, and up-and-down offense that could at any moment find its groove.
And yet, the pitching staff is likely to be the single most important part of the roster as Milwaukee chases its playoff dreams. Any avowed fan has heard the adage: You can never have too much pitching.
Good news on that front. The 2018 Brewers are uniquely positioned to add from within.
Assuming health and no outside additions (both of which, admittedly, are very difficult to count on), the Brewers seem poised to take Chase Anderson, Jhoulys Chacín, Junior Guerra, and Zach Davies into the second half of the season as the four pillars of the starting rotation. Just behind that quartet, rookie Freddy Peralta will jostle with Brent Suter, Wade Miley, and Brandon Woodruff for additional starts, with the losers of that contest pitching in AAA or working as long men out of the bullpen. Jimmy Nelson, for the time being, is out of the picture.
In the ‘pen, Corey Knebel, Josh Hader, and Jeremy Jeffress will be around to record high-leverage outs. Matt Albers will join that trio once he returns from the disabled list. Dan Jennings, Jacob Barnes, and Taylor Williams all figure to see a lot of time, as well, and Adrian Houser, Jorge López, and Woodruff are all pushing for extended looks. Add them all up, and that’s seventeen capable pitchers for twelve or thirteen roster spots.
The Brewers have taken advantage of this surplus all season, weathering injuries with ease and setting up a revolving door at Triple-A Colorado Springs to bring in a fresh arm as often as possible. They’ll continue to do so as the season progresses. But it will really come in handy in September, and particularly if the Brewers are still locked in a tight race for the division crown. Milwaukee starters have had a short leash this season, with Craig Counsell often opting to turn to his bullpen before a member of the starting five has a chance to suffer through a meltdown inning. Come September, that leash could grow shorter still, as multi-inning options like Hader, Jeffress, Suter, Peralta, Houser, López, and Woodruff could all soak up innings as an expanded staff absorbs a heavier load.
That kind of flexibility usually isn’t an option, but Milwaukee benefits from the fact that every single pitcher on their forty-man roster is close enough to the majors to be considered for a September call-up. In fact, the only forty-man pitcher without MLB experience is Marcos Diplan, and he’s pitching in the advanced minors for Double-A Biloxi. Beyond the aforementioned group, the Crew has Alec Asher and Aaron Wilkerson a phone call away. Top prospect Corbin Burnes isn’t on the forty-man roster yet, but he’s recently been pitching out of the bullpen to speed his ascent to the majors.
Counsell and the Brewers have been bold in using their bullpen and moving beyond traditionally-defined pitching roles. They have the pieces to be even more bold in September, when as many as twenty pitchers could make up a super-staff of fresh, well-rested starters who never have to navigate a lineup more than twice and promising multi-inning relievers tasked with getting between four and six outs each.
If anything, the fact that this scenario is even possible for the Brewers reveals the absurdity inherent to September roster expansion. But a rule is a rule, and the Brewers are in prime position to take advantage. September baseball in Milwaukee might not look much like the baseball we all grew up with. But it could be that very distinction that carries the Brewers back to the playoffs.
Photo Credit: Benny Sieu, USA Today Sports Images