Madison Bumgarner to Brewers Blockbuster Would Create Cubs' Worst 2019 Nightmare

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterJanuary 10, 2019

San Francisco Giants starting pitcher Madison Bumgarner works in the first inning of a baseball game against the Arizona Diamondbacks Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2018, in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
Eric Risberg/Associated Press

The Milwaukee Brewers aren't out to knock the Chicago Cubs from the National League Central throne. They already did that in 2018. Their goal for 2019 is to keep the status quo.

This explains their interest in Madison Bumgarner. According to Jon Morosi of MLB.com, the San Francisco Giants have had "substantive communication" about the ace left-hander with the Brewers, who represent his "most likely destination" in a trade.

It's not guaranteed that the Giants will indeed move Bumgarner. There thus far hasn't been any indication that they hired general manager Farhan Zaidi away from the Los Angeles Dodgers just so he could carry out a rebuild. They seem to be more in a retooling mode.

Besides which, Bumgarner's trade value is compromised. The 29-year-old is set to make $12 million in 2019, which will be his final season before free agency. And over the last two years, he's struggled with shoulder and hand injuries as well as diminishing returns on the mound.

The Brewers have a shot at Bumgarner, however, because they have three young pitchers who pique San Francisco's interest:

As much as the Brewers, who won 96 regular-season games en route to the National League Championship Series in 2018, are surely loath to part with Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff or Freddy Peralta, there only seems to be room for one of them in the club's starting rotation anyway. They could do worse than moving one to put a pitcher with Bumgarner's credentials in that spot instead.

Bumgarner is a four-time All-Star who was the only pitcher in MLB to top 200 innings with an ERA under 3.00 each year between 2013 and 2016. He also owns a 2.11 ERA in 16 career playoff appearances, seven of which came when he turned into a destroyer of worlds in the 2014 postseason.

Things haven't been as great for Bumgarner over the last two seasons. His injuries have limited him to 38 starts. And while he's managed a respectable 3.29 ERA, that masks worrying trends with his fastball velocity and strikeout rate.

Bumgarner historically hasn't fared as well away from home, either. His road ERA (3.35 ERA) is more than half a run higher than his home ERA (2.69). The disparity was far wider in 2018.

However, following a year in which they struggled to get innings out of their starting rotation—12th in the NL with 847 total—the Brewers may simply be enthused with the workload Bumgarner could handle if he stays healthy in 2019. Given that his last two injuries occurred due to a dirt bike accident and a line drive and not wear and tear, any such notion is not misguided.

The Brewers also have the means to potentially boost Bumgarner's performance, starting with their catching corps.

As reported by Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic, the Brewers agreed to a one-year deal with Yasmani Grandal on Wednesday. Baseball Prospectus rated him as MLB's best framing catcher in 2018. Grandal will share time with either Erik Kratz or Manny Pina, who also rated highly in framing.

Neither Buster Posey (surprisingly) nor Nick Hundley were particularly good in that department in 2017 or 2018, and the price Bumgarner paid was mainly within the strike zone. Here's how his rate of in-zone strike calls has progressed since 2016:

  • 2016: 89.7%
  • 2017: 85.2%
  • 2018: 85.7%

Grandal and company would be up to the task of getting Bumgarner more gimme strikes. That would allow him to pitch ahead in the count more often, which would only help resuscitate his strikeout rate.

Otherwise, it's encouraging that he has been reclaiming his roots as a ground-ball pitcher of late. Keeping that up will only help him keep balls in the yard. Milwaukee's defense could do the rest for him. It was the fourth-most efficient defensive unit in MLB last year. The Giants tied for 13th.

PHILADELPHIA, PA - JUNE 08: Lorenzo Cain #6 (L) of the Milwaukee Brewers backs up teammate Orlando Arcia #3 by catching the out during the eighth inning against the Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park on June 8, 2018 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Corey Perrine/Getty Images

To take it from FanGraphs' projections for 2019, acquiring Bumgarner wouldn't actually do much for the Brewers' standing in the NL Central. They're projected for 79 wins, tied for the fewest of any team in the division.

Yet, a skeptically raised eyebrow is warranted. 

Grandal, who's averaged a .799 OPS and 24 home runs since 2016, joins a lineup that will once again feature NL MVP Christian Yelich, Lorenzo Cain, Jesus Aguilar, Travis Shaw and Ryan Braun in 2019. They've also added Alex Claudio and his ground-ball magnetism to a Josh Hader-led bullpen that emerged as baseball's best by the end of last season. At worst, Milwaukee's rotation will gain healthy versions of Jimmy Nelson (a breakout star in 2017) and Zach Davies for 2019.

Even sans Bumgarner, that doesn't sound like a team that's doomed for a drastic tumble. If the Brewers can indeed tab him to be their as-yet-undetermined No. 1 starter, a second straight run at 95-win territory will be in order.

Meanwhile, the Cubs' trade prospects are limited by having the National League's worst farm system. Likewise, their free-agent prospects are hindered by the heavy luxury-tax bill they're set to incur in 2019. They're almost certainly not going to add Bryce Harper to an offense that broke down in 2018. Heck, even adding a reliever to their vulnerable bullpen seems like a tall order.

There's therefore a solid chance that the Cubs will roll into 2019 hoping for better results from essentially the same roster they had in 2018. It could work, but they'll be in trouble if familiar weaknesses crop up again. Rather than a realistic target, a second straight 95-win season could be their best-case scenario.

In effect, the Brewers have a real chance to get comfortable atop the NL Central. A trade for Bumgarner would bring them just the cushion they need to do so.

          

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs, Baseball Savant and Baseball Prospectus. Payroll data courtesy of Roster Resource.

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