The Milwaukee Brewers have returned all five rotation starters from 2011, a season that was almost certainly the best in franchise history other than 1982. It's a solid group that puts Milwaukee in position to reclaim its NL Central title. It is not, however, a rotation that should be considered elite or ranked among the 10 best in baseball. I put that out on Twitter last week and Brewers fans came attacking like badgers. Wisconsin badgers, I guess. So I called Tom Haudricourt, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's veteran Brewers beat writer and asked him for some perspective.
"They went so long without any starting pitching to speak of," Haudricourt said about Brewers fans, "and now they finally have some and they want some credit for it."
The Brewers' passionate fan base is rushing to fill Miller Park at a pace that has team officials expecting to exceed last season's franchise-record attendance mark of more than 3 million fans. Those fans vigorously defend reigning NL MVP Ryan Braun as if lab test results showing the presence of exogenous testosterone simply never existed. I realize watching Prince Fielder go 5-for-12 with two home runs to begin his Tigers career may send fans running and screaming into the streets of Sheboygan Falls but let's not bet the bratwurst that this 2012 rotation is a pass into the postseason.
Good versus great can be oddly subjective in baseball but a simple numbers crunch is a fair start. After the wave of Twitter outrage from Brewers fans, ESPN Stats & Information analyst Lee Singer ran some numbers and it turned out my suspicion was correct: Using 2011 Wins Above Replacement totals from Baseball-Reference.com for the five pitchers in each 2012 Opening Day rotation, Milwaukee's group does not rank among baseball's 10 best.
2012 starting rotations according to 2011 bWAR
1. Phillies, 22.5
2. Angels, 18.8
3. Tigers, 17.7
4. Yankees, 17.6
5. Diamondbacks, 16.5
6. Rays, 15.3
7. Red Sox, 14.8
8. Giants, 14.2
9. Dodgers, 13.5
10. Nationals, 12.9
11. White Sox, 11.9
12. Brewers, 11.7
"They're in the top group in the National League," Haudricourt said. "There might be other rotations that individually may rank better in across-the-board stats but this rotation just seems to work well in conjunction with their late-inning bullpen." After watching countless closers either land on the disabled list or implode to begin 2012, the Brewers' duo of Francisco Rodriguez and John Axford seems worth its weight in gold.
Jose Veras, acquired from Pittsburgh for Casey McGehee last December, gives Milwaukee a third reliable reliever. "Ron Roenicke seems really comfortable pulling the starters and giving it to the bullpen," Haudricourt said. "Sometimes your rotation is just better than its stats because of what it does in conjunction with the bullpen. They're very protective in terms of pitch counts -- you won't see any staggering 125- or 130-pitch counts." Indeed, the reliability of that bullpen and Roenicke's willingness to use it is one reason why Milwaukee pitchers posted only one complete game in 2011 but all five Brewers rotation members started at least 28 games and Milwaukee used only six starting pitchers all season.
Last season, Yovani Gallardo allowed more than three earned runs only three times in his last 16 starts. Zack Greinke had a 2.61 ERA over his final 16 starts. Gallardo, however, can't beat the Cardinals, the Brewers' NL Central rival who have now won five of their past six games in Milwaukee. Following last Friday's Opening Day drubbing in which he allowed three homers in a four-batter span, Gallardo is now 1-9 in 13 starts against St. Louis with a 6.24 ERA, including last year's postseason.
Saturday, Greinke continued to be unbeatable in a Brewers uniform at Miller Park. He's 12-0, 2.91 at home for the Brewers in the regular season with 126 strikeouts in 102 innings. He was, however, just 5-6, 4.70 on the road last season. Rotation aces win on the road and they win critical games against big rivals. Greinke said last month that he's "very comfortable" in Milwaukee and called the organization "amazing" but he's a free agent after the season, just hired a new agent last week and if you don't think Matt Cain's new $127.5 million contract just shot Greinke's price through the roof you're kidding yourself.
Shaun Marcum is also a free agent after this season. After going just 3-4 in 11 starts last August and September, Marcum turned in a 0-3, 14.90 postseason. Marcum was acquired from Toronto for top prospect Brett Lawrie, who may be headed toward superstardom with the Blue Jays. The deal could end up rivaling the 1992 trade that sent Gary Sheffield to the Padres for Ricky Bones, Matt Mieske and Jose Valentin as the worst in Brewers history. "When they traded for Marcum they had no idea they were going to be able to get Greinke and they didn't have enough starters," Haudricourt explained. "There's no question the trade is going to work out better in the long run for Toronto and the Brewers readily admit that. But they had close to an 'all-in' year, last year and they just decided to go for it. They knew it was going to bite them in the end."
Any organization which goes "all-in" deserves support from its fan base and kudos to the Brewers brass for not simply claiming tied hands. But if that gamble doesn't pay off tension can increase as the window narrows. Gallardo, Greinke, Marcum, Randy Wolf and Chris Narveson make up one of the National League's most competitive rotations, one certainly capable of bringing the postseason back to Milwaukee this year. Let's keep in mind, however, that it's a somewhat thin division in a league that fell another step behind the American League this winter.
Steve Berthiaume hosts "Baseball Tonight" on ESPN. Follow Steve on Twitter @SBerthiaumeESPN.