Should Brewers Have Kept Zack Greinke?

Ezra Shaw - Getty Images

With the Brewers still on the fringe of Wild Card relevancy, it's fair to question management's decision to give up on the season in late July. Should they now regret trading their best starting pitcher?

No, they shouldn't have.

Good night, folks! Drive home safely!

Oh. Right. Reasons.

But first, let's mention, for you American League followers, why we're even talking about this. See, two months ago the Milwaukee Brewers were dead in the water, way off the pace in the National League Central and not really sniffing a wild card, either. So with pitching ace Zack Greinke set for free agency this winter, the Brewers got what they could for him: Angels prospects Ariel Peña, John Hellweg, and (especially) Jean Segura.

Not a bad haul, actually. Pena and Hellweg, both pitchers, struggled in the minors upon joining the Milwaukee organization, but Segura looks like the Brewers' Shortstop (or Third Baseman) of the Future. Trading two months of a starting pitcher for six-plus seasons of a cost-controlled every-day player ... That's an easy one, right? If your starting pitcher isn't going to lead you to the Promised Land?

Of course, something funny happened on the way to irrelevance: the Milwaukee Brewers somehow became relevant. At this moment, the Brewers are merely 2 games out of the money in the Wild Card standings, with only two teams ahead of them. If you're a Brewers fan, don't you have to at least wonder how different the world might seem right now, if Greinke were still around? And more broadly, if the Brewers had committed to winning as many games as possible this season?

Let's start with the substantive moves they have made.

As noted, the Brewers traded Greinke for Segura and the others. They also traded backup catcher George Kottaras for minor-league pitcher Fautino De Los Santos.

Kottaras's limited playing time with the Brewers has gone to Martin Maldonado, who's been perfectly adequate. De Los Santos hasn't pitched for the big club. So that deal's an absolute nothing. We are free, as near as I can tell, to focus purely on the loss of Greinke and the addition of Segura.

With the departure of Greinke, the Brewers recalled rookie pitcher Mark Rogers from the minors; since then, he's started seven games and been a pleasant surprise.

The fifth overall choice in the 2004 amateur draft, Rogers has struggled for years with injuries and ineffectiveness. This season with Triple-A Nashville, Rogers posted a 4.72 ERA with a sub-par strikeout-to-walk ratio. Giving him Greinke's old rotation slot seemed like an act of desperation; they just didn't really have anyone else.

And it's worked. In those seven starts with the big club, Rogers has gone 3-1 with a 3.71 ERA, striking out three times more batters than he's walked. It's not a miracle, exactly. But the Brewers are playing with house money.

Does that mean they haven't missed Greinke, though?

I'm not sure that it does. While Rogers is 3-1, the Brewers are just 3-4 in his starts. In the three wins, the Brewers scored 9, 7, and 9 runs. So we can assume they would have won all three of those games, had Greinke (or anyone else) started. In the four losses, the Brewers scored 10, 1, 3, and 6 runs. While Rogers has pitched well, he's not as economical as Greinke, and thus hasn't lasted more than six innings just once. In Rogers' first start, he left with a lead but the bullpen got killed and the Brewers wound up losing 11-10. Gotta chalk up a win for Greinke in that one. In another start, Rogers gave up five runs in six innings and the Brewers lost 7-6. Gotta chalk up a win for Greinke in that one, too.

Now, this might strain credulity just a bit. After all, Greinke went through a four-start stretch with the Angels in which he didn't pitch well. But I'm going to guess that the Brewers would have won either five or six of the games that Rogers has started, if Greinke had been around instead.*

* There's another problem, which is that Greinke probably would have started different games than Rogers, at least to some degree. Which makes looking at the scores in particular games sort of pointless. But we have to start somewhere, right?

The bottom line is that Greinke probably would have pitched slightly better than Rogers if he'd stayed in Milwaukee, particularly considering the difference between the leagues. Call it one win better, or two wins. But the Brewers are probably better with Greinke, these last seven weeks, than without him.

Ah, but what about Segura? Upon the trade, he reported to Double-A Huntsville, batted .433 in eight games, and was quickly installed as the Brewers' starting shortstop, supplanting Cesar Izturis.

Izturis had been terrible, fielding just adequately and hitting like a poor-hitting shortstop. Segura hasn't been much better, though. He's occasionally been spelled by utilityman Jeff Bianchi, who's been worse. Essentially, the Brewers entered the season's last two months having gotten virtually nothing from their shortstops, and that has merely continued.

For the sake of argument, then, let's assume that giving up on the season in late July has cost the Brewers two wins. So had they not given up, they would be just a half-game behind the Cardinals for the second wild card. First you gotta beat out the Cardinals, who are really good. But if you win the second wild card, you get ... what? Right: a shot at the Braves in the Wild Card Playoff. Win that coin-flip game -- on the road, by the way -- and you have a best-of-five series against a superior team. Win that series, and a best-of-seven series against a superior team. Win that series, and a best-of-seven series against a superior team.

Which is to say, even with Greinke, the road to the World Series would have been strewn with Claymore mines. If you were the Brewers, and you knew what we know today, would you trade Jean Segura for a trip down that road?

I would not. It's hard to give up on a season, and it hurts when you realize maybe you shouldn't have. But the Brewers probably win more championships without Zack Greinke than with him. It might look bad right now. It was the right call, though.

Update: As a few readers have pointed out, Rogers has made only seven starts in Greinke's stead because he was shut down at the end of August. Since then, that slot in the rotation has been filled by rookie Wily Peralta. He's been good, and the Brewers have won all three of his starts: 8-5, 3-1, and 4-0. I don't believe this materially affects the basic conclusion, although Greinke certainly might have lost one of those games. Thanks for the correction.

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