The Milwaukee Brewers pitching staff had one of their more embarrassing days of the young season yesterday, which is quite an accomplishment for a group that kicked off the 2013 campaign with a home series against Colorado in which the Rockies hit like they were playing in Coors Field. Then again, it's not every day the ace gets pulled over with a 0.22 BAC and the team almost blows a six-run lead hours later. Thanks to their bats, and to Barry Zito, the Brewers managed to pull out a 10-8 win over the San Francisco Giants, though the Giants did bring the tying run to the plate in each of the last four innings and the game ended on a warning track flyball that, had it traveled a few more feet, would have sent the game to extra innings.
The Brewers are 4-8 and a half-game out of last place in the NL Central, with the usual caveat that it is very early in the season. It's not the start fans were hoping for or expecting, given that the Brewers finished above .500 for the second straight season last year and five games out of the Wild Card chase mostly on the back of a strong performance from the team's starting pitching. But while the Brewer staff probably isn't this bad -- Yovani Gallardo, for instance, has historically had bad Aprils and gone on to recover, though getting arrested for drunk driving is a new wrinkle -- it likely won't be anything resembling a strength for the Brewers in 2013. And the reason for that goes back to the choices the Milwaukee front office made over the last eight or nine months.
When Milwaukee traded Zack Greinke to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim on July 27th, 2012, it was clearly the right move. The Brewer ace wasn't interested in signing a contract extension with Milwaukee or in returning to the city without testing the waters of free agency, and the Los Angeles Dodgers, who would eventually sign the right hander to a long-term deal, had already made their interest known. Moreover, the Brewers were 45-54, nine games back of the second place Cardinals and with the first place Cincinnati Reds well out of reach. With the trade deadline looming, the only sensible choice was to deal Greinke for the highest quality return they could muster -- which turned out to be the Angels' top prospect, shortstop Jean Segura, and a pair of right-handed minor league pitchers -- and reload for 2013 or, more likely, 2014. The Brewers would've dealt away the rest of their veterans as well, but Shaun Marcum was hurt and K-Rod and Randy Wolf were ineffective, so there was no interest there. So it goes sometimes.
But then something started to happen in Milwaukee. It wasn't the worst thing imaginable, not by a long shot, but for a team that's just dealt its ace and is trying to see what they have in terms of major-league-ready pitching for the next year, it's at least a bit startling: the Brewers started to win. They went 43-34 in the second half of the season behind a rotation anchored by Yovani Gallardo, the new ace by default, and a bunch of guys who started the season in the minors or in the bullpen: Marco Estrada, Mike Fiers, Mark Rogers and Wily Peralta.
Peralta was especially notable for his fantastic September call-up, pitching 29 innings of 2.48 ERA ball across five starts and a relief appearance, with 23 strikeouts and 11 walks. Only 23 years old, Peralta had been a top prospect in the Brewers system for some time, but his performance down the stretch fixed him in Brewers' fans minds as a major part of the team's 2013 plans. Solid performances from Mark Rogers over seven starts and Mike Fiers for the majority of the season, along with the perhaps unfair or premature expectation that because these pitchers were relatively new (Rogers was 26 and Fiers 27, so calling them "young" would be stretching it a bit) they would build on these performances, gave Milwaukee fans hope for an almost entirely homegrown, effective rotation in 2013.
Which forced the Brewers to make a gamble: would they go to the free agent market and chase guys like Brandon McCarthy or Joe Blanton, in an effort to stabilize the rotation and provide MLB innings in case Peralta needed more time in the minors or Mark Rogers' shoulder issues cropped back up? Or would they buy into these performances by their homegrown starters and give them the keys to the family car?
In the end, the Brewers tried to have it both ways, which if the team thinks they'll be contending in 2014 is probably the best way out of a pair of bad choices. The only free agent starter they signed who made the club was Scott Boras client Kyle Lohse, who cost them a draft pick but will be under contract for the next three years. Lohse isn't Jeff Suppan -- he's been a better pitcher and had a much better walk year, for one -- and as long as the Brewers are fine with overpaying him and he stays healthy, he should be a decent middle-of-the-rotation guy through the end of his contract. Edwin Jackson would have been a better fit, but that would've meant outbidding the Chicago Cubs offer of 4 years, $52 million, and Jackson's not a good enough pitcher to deserve that kind of investment.
Ideally, the Brewers want a rotation with Gallardo, Peralta, and Lohse as the top three, with Fiers and Rogers behind them, and as time goes on for Rogers to move up and Lohse move down. They want guys in the minors like Tyler Thornburg and Taylor Jungmann to step up and replace Fiers, Lohse and perhaps even Gallardo eventually, as he may decide to test the free agent waters in 2015 when his contract expires (or the Brewers might speed the process up by declining his $13 million team option after the 2014 season, given that it only has a $600,000 buyout).
Of course, if things worked out ideally for every pitcher, there'd be 30 teams tied for the best staff in baseball. The reality is that the Brewers should be -- and probably are -- making their decisions about this year's rotation with more of an eye to the future than the present. While three starts don't mean anything in terms of how a guy's career turns out, Wily Peralta may need to go down for a while (perhaps to AA instead of AAA, since the Brewers' AAA affiliate in Nashville is part of the notoriously hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League and whatever his current issues, they won't be helped if his confidence is shot due to giving up dingers in those launchpads disguised as ballparks). And one 15 day DL stint for shoulder fatigue doesn't doom a career in a vacuum, but Rogers has had two surgeries on that right shoulder already, and if he's getting fatigued in Spring Training after throwing less than 140 innings the season before, it might be best to plan around him and hope to be pleasantly surprised. Mike Fiers has always been the sort of guy whose game relies entirely on controlling his pitches instead of having great stuff or velocity, and it's not unreasonable to think he's already had his best year in the majors, but he and Marco Estrada, if they're healthy, should stick in the Brewers' rotation all year unless they start putting up Kameron Loe-type numbers.
Milwaukee's a victim of their own improbable late-season success, though there's nothing to say that sort of thing can't happen again for them. Once it's May and Gallardo starts pitching like Gallardo again, if Lohse keeps looking like 2012 Kyle Lohse and a light goes on for Peralta they could very easily make some noise in the NL Central, though there's a bunch of unlikely things that also have to go right on the offensive side of the ball for any real shot at a Wild Card berth. It's legitimate to ask whether or not fans should be panicking over Wily Peralta's rocky start to the season (perhaps; his peripherals have cratered) or Tyler Thornberg's similarly concerning lack of success so far in AAA (no; don't panic over minor league stats, especially before midseason), but anyone thinking that Milwaukee's chances of contention are just now coming into serious question has unfortunately read promises into that roster it was never going to keep.