OOTP Brewers: The Corbin That Burnes Twice as Bright Burnes Half as Long

On Sunday, Christian Yelich powered the virtual Brewers to an emphatic 9-3 victory over Trevor Bauer and the Reds. It was part of a week long five-homer outburst, the driving force behind a .303/.361/.818 slash line. And it brought Yelich to 2.9 WAR on the season, the third-best tally in the majors. In other words, Yelich is picking up right where he left off in 2019.

So, too, are the Brewers. That rout was part of a 3-1 series victory over the Reds. The other series of the week was a 2-1 triumph over the Cubs. Together, they left us eight games over .500 and in first place by four games in the NL Central. Perhaps most impressively, the team’s run differential is now positive despite a 25-run loss earlier in the year.

But the good times weren’t universal. In Thursday’s contest against the Reds, starter Corbin Burnes felt a twinge in his shoulder as he pitched in the third inning. He left the game and immediately returned to Milwaukee for an MRI, which revealed severe shoulder inflammation. Within a day, team doctors ruled him out for the remainder of the season — he’ll hopefully be ready for rehab over the winter and pitch the entire 2021 season, but 2020 is out of the question at this point.

The pitching casualties are starting to pile up. Burnes joins Josh Lindblom 린드블럼 and Alex Claudio on the out-for-quite-a-while list — Lindblom will be able to begin rehab assignments in late July, while Claudio is out for the year. Brett Anderson is, for the moment, healthy, but he’s already hit the IL twice this year with forearm stiffness and a hamstring strain. There’s no guarantee he’ll be able to keep it together the rest of the season.

It’s a shame, because Burnes was putting together a nice little season. In fact, the starting rotation has looked like a strength this year despite going through several pitchers:

Brewers Starting Rotation
Player IP K% BB% ERA FIP WAR
Brandon Woodruff 62.2 22.7% 8.1% 4.16 3.60 1.6
Adrian Houser 58 20.4% 8.2% 4.03 3.98 1.2
Freddy Peralta 51.1 26.8% 8.9% 4.91 4.38 0.8
Eric Lauer 41.2 20.6% 4.0% 2.38 3.77 1.0
Corbin Burnes 40.1 20.0% 8.8% 4.02 3.84 0.8
Brett Anderson 7.2 11.9% 4.8% 11.74 4.86 0.1

Lauer, who spent some time in the minors to start the year, has dazzled. Burnes and Peralta have been solid in the rotation. Houser and Woodruff have provided the innings and performance the team hoped for after strong 2019 showings. Only Anderson has disappointed so far.

With Burnes out for the year, however, things are about to get harder. Anderson was only activated off of the IL yesterday; we have no clue what we’ll get from him when he returns, which is an unsettling thought given that he hasn’t exactly been lights-out even when he does pitch this year. He’s pitched only four times all year and lasted longer than an inning exactly once.

The pipeline behind Anderson isn’t overflowing either. The 40-man roster has two starters left; Trey Supak, who has been excellent at Double-A Biloxi, and Jesus Castillo, who has been lousy in Triple-A San Antonio and is currently on the shelf with a sore shoulder. We do have 40-man roster spots available, which means the current Triple-A rotation is in play as well, and they’re an intriguing bunch:

San Antonio Missions Rotation
Player Overall Potential K% BB% ERA FIP
Alec Bettinger 40 45 25.3% 4.8% 3.60 4.36
Zack Brown 40 45 35.1% 12.4% 4.15 3.10
Dylan File 40 45 23.1% 2.9% 6.13 5.52
Drew Rasmussen 35 40 31.9% 10.6% 4.09 5.16
Aaron Wilkerson 45 45 28.5% 8.5% 2.50 3.30

San Antonio isn’t an extreme hitter’s park, but it’s still in the PCL; even Rasmussen’s ratty-looking FIP works out to a 105 FIP-. Some or all of them might be better than Anderson right now. Of course, that’s hardly an over-the-top recommendation; Anderson looks like he might be one arm injury away from hanging it up at the moment. Either way, there’s room to call someone up and think that we’ll get acceptable performance, if not instant impact.

There’s one player I haven’t mentioned: Shelby Miller, who made a brief appearance in these electronic pages a few weeks ago when I used him as a relief arm during the worst of our reliever crunch. He’s no longer with the team, unfortunately. He refused an assignment to the minors when Corey Knebel and Ray Black returned from the IL, and the Nationals have since claimed him off of waivers. It’s no great loss, I think — he rates behind all five of the Triple-A rotation in my eyes — but the timing of his refusal, two days before Burnes’ injury, certainly stings.

In any case, Burnes’ injury means that it’s time to make a decision. The depth the team accumulated in the offseason is being sorely tested. It might be time to go outside of the organization to pick up help in the form of a veteran back-end starter who can eat some innings if Anderson isn’t up for it, or at least time to start thinking about what type of veteran we might want to target.

Let’s walk through the options for creating rotation depth. First, we could do nothing; stick with the rotation as-is, with Willkerson and some of the other minor leaguers the first line of defense the next time Anderson takes a blow. Sometimes discretion is the better part of valor; we’ve spent some marginal prospects backfilling at other positions this year (mainly shortstop), and letting the existing team handle things has some appeal on that front.

Next, we could trade for a back-end veteran to shore up the rotation. You know the type, because while their names change, they’re always around. They’re the Alex Cobbs, Drew Smylys, Gio Gonzálezes, and quite honestly Brett Andersons of the world. They’re always around, non-contending teams are always happy to trade them, and they’ll provide generally blah performance at a reasonable price point.

There’s one problem with that choice; what would we then do with Anderson? He’s the clear fifth-best starter in the current rotation, and he’d be roughly equivalent in talent, if not hardiness, to our new acquisition. Lauer has options remaining, so he could be shipped to the minors to clear a spot in the rotation, but that seems like a waste of resources given his performance so far this year.

If we don’t want to add a second Brett Anderson, we could do something splashier and trade for an actually good veteran. These aren’t quite as common, so I’ll use a concrete example rather than an archetype; Kevin Gausman, who signed with the Giants this offseason and will be a free agent at the end of the year. He’s a cut above the fringes of the rotation, particularly in OOTP, which takes ZiPS as part of its player skill inputs. ZiPS loves Gausman (no word on whether Dan’s Baltimore heritage has anything to do with it) to the tune of a 3 WAR projection in 2020.

He’s not the only name in this tier. The Cubs have made noises about moving José Quintana, though an in-division trade might be a tall order. Matthew Boyd is perpetually on offer and has three years of team control remaining. Maybe Chris Archer needs a change of scenery. Trading for this caliber of player would make the rotation even more of a strength, though it would cost more in either salary or prospects.

Lastly, we could try to build for the long-term while building for the short-term by trading for a young, controllable starter. I’m not talking about shooting for the moon here; the Pirates aren’t trading us Mitch Keller, for example. But the Phillies might be willing to trade one of Nick Pivetta or Vince Velasquez. The Royals, Tigers, and Orioles would likely trade us anyone not nailed down. Getting one of these arms we can keep for a while would let us stash them in the minors now and call them up as needed to spell or replace Anderson.

The main downside here is that they might cost as much as a shiny veteran rental. While the team control is valuable, it’s less valuable in our particular circumstance; Burnes and Lindblom will be back next year, and Zack Brown might be ready for a rotation spot by then. Multi-year flexibility is incredibly valuable, but the contours of our roster matter in valuing it, and the team is paradoxically more set for 2021 right now than it is for 2020.

So, what will it be?

Whatever our choice is, we’ll have a bit of time to make it. Anderson’s turn in the rotation is Wednesday against the Yankees, which means that even if he immediately gets hurt again, we won’t need a replacement in the rotation until next Monday. Even then, if we’re locked in trade discussions, we can call up a minor leaguer to hold us over for a start or two if we decide to hunt for bigger game. But deciding now will allow us to start the discussion process with other owners and get closer to making a move whenever we do decide to act.

As usual, I’ll be streaming further discussion of this decision tomorrow on FanGraphs Live at noon ET. Drop by and let me know what you’re thinking, or simply vote in the poll above. We’ve managed quite well so far despite a string of difficult injuries — let’s keep the momentum going.

We hoped you liked reading OOTP Brewers: The Corbin That Burnes Twice as Bright Burnes Half as Long by Ben Clemens!

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Ben is a contributor to FanGraphs. A lifelong Cardinals fan, he got his start writing for Viva El Birdos. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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I’m only interested in a pickup that would bump one of the top four starters out of a projected playoff rotation. Not sure the trade ammo is there to do it at some point. Anyone acquired as Anderson insurance isn’t necessarily likely to make a playoff roster. Peralta out of the pen in a playoff series would be a lift.