The Milwaukee Brewers have had the worst pitching staff in baseball this season, with a 4.82 FIP, .01 behind the second-worst Cleveland Indians.
Yet, despite the awful pitching, the Brewers sit just three games out of first place in the NL Central, and have a chance to make the playoffs if they can stop the bleeding on the mound.
The following is a plan I've put together for the Brewers to revamp their pitching staff to ensure the highest chance of returning to the postseason in 2009.
The first thing to do when making a pitching staff is to identify the good elements already on hand.
The Brewers have sort of a bipolar pitching staff. Half of the pitchers have performed extremely well, while the other half have been terrible.
The only pitcher who's pitched on the Brewers with a FIP between 3.99 and 5.47 is Manny Parra (4.58). Half of the pitchers have sub-4.00 FIPs, and half have 5.48 or higher marks in the stat.
The pitchers with the sub-4.00 FIPs are worth keeping around. They are:
Trevor Hoffman (2.31)
Todd Coffey (2.91)
Mark DiFelice (2.97)
Carlos Villanueva (3.94)
Yovani Gallardo (3.97)
Mitch Stetter (3.98)
So the Brewers have a nice group of three right-handed relievers (Hoffman, Coffey, and DiFelice. They also have a nice swingman (Villanueva), an excellent starter (Gallardo), and a useful lefty reliever (Stetter).
All six should stay on the staff.
With the six keepers in mind, Milwaukee now needs to look at the pitchers dragging the staff down.
Like I mentioned, Manny Parra has a 4.58 FIP, but the next-best figure belongs to Jeff Suppan (5.59).
Coming behind Suppan are Braden Looper (5.64), Mike Burns (5.70), Dave Bush (5.81, currently on the DL), Chris Smith (6.01), and Seth McClung (6.08).
While Parra isn't an ideal pitcher on a playoff team, he also isn't really the problem.
Suppan, Looper, and Burns (and Bush, who takes Burns' spot in the rotation when he returns) make up three-fifths of this rotation, and none have a FIP below 5.50. That's completely unacceptable for a playoff-aspiring team.
Smith is a filler guy who also shouldn't be on a contending team, and McClung, after a nice 2008, has gone back to being wild and ineffective this season.
These players need to be upgraded on for the Brewers to have a chance at the playoffs.
With the roster evaluated, the Brewers should declare themselves in "sell mode."
You're probably thinking "What?! Isn't this supposed to HELP them get into the playoffs???!"
Relax. Declaring yourself to be in "sell mode" just means you want to unload your veterans.
Teams desperate for starting pitching will likely give up something, maybe not much, for guys like Suppan and Looper, whose ERAs run about a run below their FIPs.
Burns, McClung, and Smith can probably be sent back to the minors as insurance, so that's not a big issue.
The key here is to get Looper and Suppan (and their sizeable contracts) out of Milwaukee. If the Brewers have to cut them and eat the salary, so be it.
Given the big need for starting pitching, however, they may have to eat some of the money, but most likely not all.
If everything goes right, perhaps the Brewers get a usable fifth starter in a trade for Suppan or Looper, but there's no guarantees.
Let's assume that doesn't happen (although they should try to make it happen).
Cutting ties with Suppan and Looper and sending McClung, Smith, and Burns to the minors leaves the Brewers with a seven-man pitching staff of Gallardo and Parra in the rotation and Villanueva, Hoffman, DiFelice, Stetter, and Coffey in the bullpen.
To the casual observer, righthander Carlos Villanueva may appear to be a big part of the Brewers' problem, with a 6.12 ERA.
However, upon closer inspection, he's a big part of the solution.
Villanueva's 58.9% strand rate will regress to the mean, as he's always been in the high 70s over the course of his career. It's the only reason his ERA is bad, as his FIP is 3.94.
Villanueva has starting experience, and his excellent changeup makes him effective against lefties and righties, so it's not like you're taking a career reliever and throwing him into a role he's completely unfamiliar with.
It has been shown that a pitcher typically can expect to post a FIP of about a run higher as a starter than in relief, which would put Villanueva's starter FIP at 4.94.
That's not exactly stellar, but as a fifth starter replacing Burns, that's nearly a full run of FIP difference.
Making Villanueva the fifth starter gives the Brewers a third guy already in the majors to put alongside Gallardo and Parra.
Also, in the event that the Brewers make the playoffs, Villanueva could slide back into the bullpen, as the team would need only four starters.
It's long been time for R.J. Swindle to get an extended look in the majors. The soft-tossing lefty has a 0.86 ERA and 2.72 FIP in Triple-A this year.
Yes, he's struggled in 7.3 MLB innings, but that's far too small of a sample to render a verdict on his pitching ability there.
What we do know is that few minor league relievers have been more dominant than Swindle.
The Brewers, playing in the matchup-happy NL, could certainly use a second lefty in the bullpen to complement Stetter, and Swindle is a perfect fit.
Jeremy Johnson is a right-handed pitcher released last week by the Astros in Houston's seeming quest to never have a decent farm system.
Something of a journeyman, the 27-year-old righthander was having a nice year as a swingman for Triple-A Round Rock, with a strong 3.43 FIP. He was particularly excellent in relief.
Johnson would slide into McClung's slot in the bullpen.
While nearly any Triple-A pitcher would be an upgrade on McClung's 6.08 FIP, Johnson is particularly helpful because he's a free agent, so the Brewers don't have to give anyone up to get him.
Johnson is a sinkerballer who throws strikes and keeps the ball in the park. Unlike McClung, who's liable to make a lot of mistakes both in and out of the zone, Johnson maximizes his modest stuff with pinpoint location.
He's not any sort of season savior, but he's a consistent, MLB-quality performer who is a huge upgrade on McClung and his command issues.
Chris Smith has a 6.01 FIP in the majors largely because of an awful home run rate, as he's allowed 6 big flies in 25.3 innings.
He is an extreme flyball pitcher (51.3% FB), but Smith is hurt somewhat by a high HR/FB ratio, which should regress to the mean.
His xFIP (FIP with a normalized homer rate) is 5.17, which is nearly a run lower.
That doesn't make Smith a good pitcher by any means, but as a last guy in the bullpen, you could do worse.
However, the Brewers also have to figure out what to do with Dave Bush when he comes back from the DL. Bush was struggling for much the same reason as Smith: he doesn't strike out many batters and is a flyball guy who allows lots of homers.
Like Smith, Bush is hurt by an elevated HR/FB rate (16.8%), and his xFIP is a tolerable 4.82. Moved to the bullpen, Bush could improve on that figure by a run and be a decent middle guy.
As for Bush's injury, he's currently on a rehab assignment and should return soon.
So, I'd recommend keeping Smith around until Bush is back and then sending him down and moving Bush to the bullpen.
The bullpen is now complete. Here it is:
And the rotation looks like this:
1.) Yovani Gallardo
3.) Manny Parra
5.) Carlos Villanueva
There are two spots open in the rotation. The Brewers badly need a No. 2 guy to back up Gallardo, and they need a quality fourth starter to slot in between Parra and Villanueva.
Obviously, a team can't just find a No. 2 starter easily. The Brewers will have to pay a steep price to acquire a legit front-of-the-rotation guy to team with Gallardo.
Because they're likely to need some resources for that (we'll get to that move next), the Brewers need to look for cheaper alternatives to fill the fourth starter role.
There are a bunch of successful Triple-A pitchers 24 or older who could be successful major league No. 4 guys.
Six quick examples (there are many more):
Of course, hanging your hopes on just one of these guys would be a foolish move. I recommend just acquiring three. Let's use the first three: Igawa, Alvarado, and Ambriz.
All three could be acquired at very little cost (cash considerations or a D-grade prospect).
So the Brewers plug, say, Giancarlo Alvarado into the No. 4 slot, and send Igawa and Ambriz to Triple-A. Alvarado gets three or four starts to show he can translate his minor league success (3.37 FIP in a hitter's haven this year) to the majors.
If he does, great. If he doesn't, you give one of the other two a look.
None of the three are likely to do any worse than Suppan or Looper, and at least two should prove to be upgrades.
Also, in case another pitcher on the staff gets hurt, these players provide quality insurance.
Ultimately, acquiring some good Triple-A performers gives the team a No. 4 starter upgrade and more Triple-A insurance, all at little to no cost.
Mat Gamel, Mark Rogers, and Jeremy Jeffress are all great prospects, but all have a big problem clouding their futures in Milwaukee.
Gamel is a terrible third baseman and he's blocked by Prince Fielder at first base and Ryan Braun in left field.
Rogers has had so many injury issues that he's far from a lock to have a big league career.
Jeffress has been suspended twice for marijuana use, and even before his latest 100-game suspension, he had completely lost command of the strike zone.
Yes, Gamel can hit extremely well, Rogers was once a top-10 pick, and Jeffress throws 100 mph.
But none of the three fit well with the Brewers.
The talent of the three young players, however, could easily entice a team looking for an MLB-level bat and some good young pitching.
Is there a team with a tradeable No. 2 starter looking for a third baseman and some young pitching?
Yes, there is.
That team is the Seattle Mariners, who have Erik Bedard.
Bedard has a 3.52 FIP (and 2.70 ERA) this year in the AL. With a move to the NL, he could dominate, much like CC Sabathia did last year.
Even better, former Brewers scouting director Jack Zduriencik is Seattle's GM.
He drafted all three players and would be more comfortable than any other GM with their various issues.
This trade makes sense for both sides.
1.) Erik Bedard
2.) Yovani Gallardo
3.) Manny Parra
4.) Giancarlo Alvarado/Kei Igawa/Hector Ambriz (ride the hot hand)
5.) Carlos Villanueva
Bullpen (from long relief to closer):
Is this the majors' best staff? Hell no.
Is it much better than the Brewers' current staff? Hell yes.
Does it give the team a chance to win every night? Yes, it does, certainly given the good offense.
Ultimately, all the Brewers have to do is think outside the box, eat some money on the Suppan and Looper contracts, and get creative looking for minor league performers, and they can put together a decent staff to combine with their very good offense and propel Milwaukee back into the playoffs.