Wednesday, March 30, 2011

2011 Milwaukee Brewers: We've Come A Long Way From Rafael Roque


To be perfectly blunt, that is a word that could be used to describe the state of the Milwaukee Brewers' pitching staff in 2010.

Outside of Yovani Gallardo being Yovani Gallardo (meaning, he was quite effective, got shelled once in a while, and sometimes took way too many pitches to get through six innings), the Brewers had virtually nothing that could be passed off as major-league caliber starting pitching. Chris Narveson and Randy Wolf are the only returnees from last year's rotation besides Gallardo, and neither was exactly stellar in 2010. Narveson had a nice season after a long minor-league odyssey, but there's no reason to think he's anything more than a fifth starter in an acceptable major-league rotation. Wolf was general manager Doug Melvin's big free-agent prize last offseason, and while he pitched well after a poor start and did log over 200 innings, he's going to be an expensive fourth starter on this team.

Dave Bush? He's in Texas. Doug Davis? Can't find him because no one wants him. Manny Parra? Bullpen-ized. And thank goodness.

After a 77-85 season that sent Ken Macha to find a different place to sleep, the Brewers entered the offseason with a decision to make.

They could trade Prince Fielder -- a free agent after the 2011 season unless hell freezes over and he signs an extention -- and get what they could for the big man. The price, besides losing the big man, would be that the 2011 Brewers had virtually no chance of being good enough to be a playoff contender.

Or ...

Finding no real market for Prince, the Brewers could load up on starting pitching through trades, deal with the potentially-gutted minor-league system later, and field a contender in 2011.

Melvin pulled off moves to bring in Shawn Marcum from Toronto (for infielder Brett Lawrie, who is a much better prospect because of his hitting than his defense, and has flashed plenty of immaturity), then pulled off a blockbuster a week before Christmas, as he was able to acquire 2009 AL Cy Young winner Zack Greinke from Kansas City.

Melvin paid a steep price, giving up his best hitting prospect (Lawrie) for Marcum, then dealing his two best pitching prospects (Jake Odorizzi and Jeremy Jeffress), along with the Brewers' potential Opening Day center fielder (Lorenzo Cain) and shortstop (Alcides Escobar).

Marcum and Greinke -- combined with Gallardo -- give the Brewers a formidable starting rotation. Considering what St. Louis can do, even now that Adam Wainwright is out of the picture for 2011 because of Tommy John surgery, and what the Reds have on their staff, the Brewers needed to get better in a hurry.

Factor in other National League clubs who have arms, and the decision looks even smarter. Philadelphia signed Cliff Lee, and already had Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, and Roy Oswalt. San Francisco -- defending WORLD CHAMPIONS -- proved they can pitch with anyone, thanks to guys like Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, and Madison Bumgarner.

There is virtually no chance the Brewers can win the National League Central, or National League, without their pitchers out-pitching guys everyone else thinks are better. Talk all you want about Fielder and Ryan Braun, but the pitching matters.

Of course, guys like Fielder, Braun, Rickie Weeks, Corey Hart, and Casey McGehee can bash, and they will make the pitchers better by lowering their margin for error.

In all honesty, when you look at the 2011 Brewers, it's hard not to be excited. Then you look at all the preview magazines tabbing other teams ahead of them (I've seen Milwaukee picked as low as fourth), and it really makes you wonder.

How does a team this good on paper fly so far under the radar?

Imagine if they had "Cardinals" instead of "Brewers" on their shirts. They'd be the talk of baseball as Opening Day approaches.

That's fine. If I've learned anything in the last week, it's that flying under the radar isn't always a bad thing.

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