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Brewers badly in need of a front-line starter

Milwaukee Brewers starting pitcher Jhoulys Chacin (45) throws a pitch during the first inning against the Chicago White Sox on June 2 at Guaranteed Rate Field. (Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports)

Tom Oates

The Wisconsin State Journal

Forget about the Milwaukee Brewers’ mini-slump last week.

It’s baseball, it happens.

The bats go cold, a team loses four out of five and people start searching for the panic button. Bats seldom stay cold forever though, and the Brewers resumed hitting as soon as they reached Philadelphia.

No harm, no foul, though the streaking Chicago Cubs did trim the Brewers’ lead in the National League Central Division to mere percentage points. But at 39-25, the Brewers still have the best record in the NL and it’s no fluke.

The team is well-constructed and innovative manager Craig Counsell is getting the most out of what he has. The Brewers have a balanced, deep roster that has strength at the top of the batting order, power in the middle, one of baseball’s better defenses, a solid group of worker bees in the rotation and a bullpen that is the equal of any.

Indeed, with 98 games left in the season, Milwaukee is missing only one key ingredient: a dominant starting pitcher.

Unfortunately for the Brewers’ playoff aspirations, that’s a significant ingredient. They lack a top-of-the-rotation pitcher and they’ll likely need one to keep pace with well-armed NL contenders such as Washington, Philadelphia, Chicago, St. Louis, Arizona and possibly Los Angeles over the course of the season.

Cream usually rises to the top over a 162-game season and starting pitching is the biggest reason for that. The best rotations are topped by aces who consistently overpower opponents and pitch deep into games even in this era of quick hooks for starters. Most of the contenders have such a starter — if not two — and their cumulative effect over a six-month season is incalculable because they remove the pressure to perform at a peak level from the other areas of the team every fifth day.

The Brewers are good in close games, with a major league-best 15-6 record in one-run affairs, but grinding through close game after close game for an entire season is hard to do. It can burn out a bullpen and wear down hitters who know they have to produce four or five runs every day to win. An occasional respite from the stress is welcomed, if not needed.

The statistic that best defines the Brewers rotation is quality starts.

Although the stat — six innings pitched with three or fewer runs allowed — is largely considered bogus because the bar is set so low, the Brewers have just 17 quality starts in 64 games. Only Cincinnati, which has the worst record in the NL, has fewer quality starts.

Part of that is due to Counsell’s quick hook with his starters which, by the way, falls in line with the league-wide trend. Analytics have shown many starters struggle the third time through the order, so teams are turning to their bullpens earlier than they once did.

Besides, Counsell’s personnel dictates he should do it. The Brewers have solid but not overpowering starters who generally keep them in games despite a middle-of-the-pack ERA (among starters only). As a result, Counsell calls on his strong bullpen early and often, with excellent results. With eight relief pitchers capable of taking on almost any role, Counsell doesn’t risk burning out his bullpen as much as you might think.

Still, the lack of a dominant starter could end up hurting the Brewers down the stretch. Remember how C.C. Sabathia carried Milwaukee to the 2008 playoffs after he was acquired in June? His string of dominant starts raised the play of the entire team.

That’s not to say the Brewers should have spent big for a free agent starter last offseason. First, their track record of signing veteran starters to long-term contracts in free agency is awful. Second, three of the top free agents — Yu Darvish, Lance Lynn and Alex Cobb — have struggled this season and the fourth, Jake Arrieta, was roughed up by the Brewers in their 12-3 win over the Phillies Saturday.

So what can the Brewers do?

They can cross their fingers and hope Jhoulys Chacin, a second-tier free agent signed during the offseason, continues his ace-like pitching. The Brewers are 11-3 in games Chacin has started and he is 5-0 with a 2.92 ERA in his past 11 starts. Problem is, there is little in Chacin’s resume to suggest he can sustain that performance over a full season.

They can cross their fingers and hope Jimmy Nelson returns from shoulder surgery and regains the form he showed prior to his injury. However, we’re 10 days into June and there has been no discussion about Nelson’s return, so you have to wonder if he’ll return this season or how effective he’ll be if he does.

They can hope Chase Anderson and Zach Davies start pitching as consistently as they did the second half of last season, when they anchored the rotation. Neither one has matched that this season and Davies has been on the DL twice with a shoulder issue.

To their credit, Chacin, Anderson, Davies, Junior Guerra and Brent Suter have battled and kept the Brewers close in games all season. But they’re still not the kind to pitch deep into games or keep opponents off the scoreboard entirely. In 56 starts, those five have recorded an out in the seventh inning only five times.

It looks like the Brewers’ best bet is to be active during the in-season trade market, where starters such as Cole Hamels, Chris Archer, Michael Fulmer and J.A. Happ might be available. Are any of them good enough? Are the Brewers willing to part with enough to land one of them?

We won’t know until something happens. In the meantime, the starting rotation is the only thing keeping me from going all-in on this Brewers team.

Brewers trade Choi

The Brewers acquired infielder Brad Miller and cash considerations from the Tampa Bay Rays on Sunday in exchange for first baseman/outfielder Ji-Man Choi.

Miller was designated for assignment by the Rays on Thursday. Choi was optioned to Triple-A Colorado Springs by the Brewers earlier Sunday despite hitting a grand slam on Saturday.

Miller was batting .256 with five homers and 21 RBIs this season. He is a career .240 hitter with 73 homers and 260 RBIs in 653 games. He played with the Seattle Mariners from 2013-15 before his tenure with the Rays.

Choi is batting .233 with two homers and five RBIs in 12 games with the Brewers this season. Choi belted a go-ahead, pinch-hit grand slam in Saturday’s 12-3 rout of the Phillies.

Despite his heroics, Choi was sent to Colorado Springs to open a roster spot for right-hander Brandon Woodruff, who started Sunday’s game against the Phillies and pitched the first four innings.

Meanwhile, Brewers first baseman Eric Thames will likely be activated from the disabled list on Monday.

Thames has been sidelined since leaving a contest on April 24 due to a torn ligament in his left thumb. Thames went 3-for-4 with a three-run homer Saturday in his first of two rehab games for Colorado Springs.

Thames had seven homers and 13 RBIs in 22 games before his injury. He hit a career-best 31 blasts last season.

— Copyright (c)2018, The Wisconsin State Journal/Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.