Pitching help tops Brewers GM's shopping list
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
When Milwaukee Brewers general manager David Stearns arrived at baseball’s winter meetings last December in Washington, D.C., there was no way to know he’d have third baseman Travis Shaw in the fold before heading home.
“We had been discussing that, off and on for a while,” Stearns said of trade talks with Boston that eventually netted Shaw and three prospects for reliever Tyler Thornburg. “It picked up that first day of the winter meetings and we were able to get it done late that first night there.
“As usual, we had a number of parallel talks going on at one time. You’re never really sure which one will be the one you get a foothold on. Last year, we were able to get that foothold in the Shaw talks and get a deal done.”
Stearns again has multiple irons in the fire as he prepares to head to Orlando, Florida, for the winter meetings, which officially begin Monday at the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort. Whether any of them leads to a trade or free-agent signing there is difficult to say, according to Stearns.
“We’re probably not one step away (from doing a deal),” he said. “We’re in talks on a variety of fronts. So, I wouldn’t say we’re one step away but as we say all the time, that can change with one phone call.”
Last offseason was all about balancing the Brewers’ lineup, and Stearns was able to do so by acquiring a pair of left-handed sluggers. He signed first baseman Eric Thames, who had played three years in Korea, and acquired Shaw, moves that paid immediate dividends.
This winter, it’s all about starting pitching. Yes, Stearns might make an external move at second base but addressing a thin rotation is his major priority. That need was made more acute when Jimmy Nelson, a budding ace, underwent shoulder surgery that will force him to miss an undetermined portion of the 2018 season.
The Brewers return right-handers Chase Anderson and Zach Davies, both of whom performed well last season. After that, it thins out rapidly. Left-hander Brent Suter made 14 starts last season and held his own (3-2, 3.45) but might have more value as a swingman, being available in relief as well.
Rookie right-hander Brandon Woodruff showed tremendous promise and is a solid candidate to make the rotation in the spring but has started only eight games (2-3, 4.81) in the majors and will need a learning curve.
Right-hander Junior Guerra earned the right to be the Brewers’ opening day pitcher in 2017 with a banner showing in ’16 (9-3, 2.81 in 20 starts) but suffered a calf strain that day and never really recovered, eventually getting sent to the minors. Guerra turns 33 in January and there is no guarantee he will return to previous form.
The wild card in the equation is left-hander Josh Hader, who was considered the Brewers’ top starting prospect before coming up last season and pitching exclusively in relief. Hader was a difference maker coming out of the bullpen (2.08 ERA in 35 games, 68 strikeouts in 47 2/3 innings) and the Brewers must decide if they are best served—and he is best served—by remaining in that role or joining the starting rotation.
Stearns said no decision has been made as to which role Hader will serve next season.
“It remains a topic of discussion,” he said. “Some of it may be informed by how the rest of this offseason proceeds. Some of it will be informed by our continued internal dialogue on how Josh best fits on our team for next year. We want to make sure we understand the construction of our team and give ourselves plenty of time to make the decision. We’ll let it play out and see where we are heading into spring training.
“I do think he’s going to be put in a position to accumulate innings. Whether that’s in a multi-inning relief role, similar to last year, or a more conventional starter role remains to be seen. But he’s going to get outs for us and accumulate innings. We’ll try to put him in the best position to succeed.”
There is a handful of experienced, and expensive, starting pitchers on the free agent market this winter, including Jake Arrieta, Yu Darvish, Lance Lynn, CC Sabathia and Alex Cobb. Because Stearns has made no secret of being on the hunt for starting pitchers, and the Brewers have financial flexibility after operating with the lowest payroll in the majors last season, they have been linked to some of those pitchers.
But does it make sense at this time for the Brewers to spend big on a 30ish starting pitcher? They just got out from under the disastrous free-agent contract of Matt Garza (four years, $50 million) and have not fared well in the past on big deals with older pitchers.
The Brewers fared better than expected last season, winning 86 games, missing the playoffs by one victory and giving the impression that their large-scale rebuilding process is ahead of schedule. But adding an Arrieta or Darvish is more of a “finishing piece,” a move you make when you’re one pitcher away from going for it, which might be a bit aggressive and overly optimistic at this stage.
Stearns never tips his hand on his pursuit of players but didn’t sound like a general manager preparing to spend gobs of money on an older free-agent pitcher.
“It’s natural this time of year to have a lot of speculation,” he said. “We’re not the only team that is surrounded by various levels of speculation. Our market and our history here probably is a better indicator of the types of moves we’re seeking than some of the external speculation.
“We’ve shown a pretty consistent pattern for the types of moves we seek and ways to upgrade the club. We stay open to every opportunity out there. We have to do our due diligence and assure we know where the markets are. Then we can make the most informed decisions.”
One free agent starter came off the board Thursday when right-hander Tyler Chatwood signed a three-year, $38 million deal with the Chicago Cubs. Stearns wouldn’t say the Brewers were in on Chatwood specifically but you can bet they were because he fits the profile of what they are seeking.
“I will say that we’ve checked in on a variety of starting pitchers, many of whom are still available and some of whom have already signed,” Stearns said. “We’ll continue that effort and see where it lands. The good news is that at this stage of the offseason there are a lot of different options, both with free agency and trades.
“We have a lot of offseason to go, so we need to make sure when we are ready to make a deal, it’s the right people for our organization moving forward.”
Before the July 31 trade deadline last season, the Brewers were in the mix for Cubs lefty Jose Quintana and Oakland righty Sonny Gray but thought the asking price was too high in terms of surrendering top prospects. Quintana went to the Cubs, giving them a big edge on the Brewers, and Gray went to the Yankees.
Stearns said those decisions did not necessarily mean the Brewers would avoid trading top prospects this winter in the right deal for a young, controllable starting pitcher.
“We’ve been pretty consistent that we don’t have untouchables,” Stearns said. “We’re willing to talk about anyone. That’s always been our philosophy.
“If the right deal comes along that motivates us on certain players, we have to listen. We have some prospects and younger, controllable major-league players that we think highly of. The industry also thinks highly of them. So, if some sort of blockbuster deal emerges that we think make sense, we have to pay attention to it.
“At the same time, I can’t say I necessarily envision or expect to move a lot of premium talent.”