MILWAUKEE -- As general manager Doug Melvin sees it, the disappointing story of the 2009 Brewers began in 2008, when CC Sabathia and Ben Sheets combined for 48 starts, 329 innings and a 2.52 ERA before riding off into free agency. "I look back and say I probably misjudged thinking I could replace those two," Melvin said. "But who would have replaced them? I guess that's the question I'm still asking."
So instead of focusing on star starting pitchers for 2010, Melvin made depth his focus. The Brewers will head into camp with six established starters, including free-agent pickups Randy Wolf and Doug Davis, who figure to follow up-and-comer Yovani Gallardo in the rotation. That would leave three returnees coming off down years -- left-hander Manny Parra and right-handers Dave Bush and Jeff Suppan -- vying for two spots. In theory, manager Ken Macha should have more options in his second season at the helm than he did in his first, when the Brewers couldn't find capable replacements after injuries to Bush and Suppan. "We won 80 games with the worst starting pitching in the league," Macha said. "With our offense, you figure that if we can just be average in starting pitching, we should be able to compete." That offense has seen some changes, but the Brewers still should score plenty with Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder slugging their way to stardom. Melvin also focused on the bullpen this offseason, ensuring that Trevor Hoffman will return to seek career save No. 600 as a Brewer (he'll enter the season nine shy of that milestone) and adding setup man LaTroy Hawkins. But the key to the Brewers' winter was improving a group of starters who struggled last season to make up for midseason injuries to Bush and Suppan and combined for a 5.37 ERA. It was the worst mark in the National League and tied with the Orioles for worst in the Majors. Of the 67 NL starters who worked at least 100 innings last season, Braden Looper ranked 57th with a 5.22 ERA, Suppan was 58th with a 5.29 ERA, Bush was 66th at 6.36 and Parra was last at 6.38. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, that made the Brewers the first NL team since 2001 to feature four pitchers who made 20-plus starts and all posted ERAs above 5.00. The last NL club to do it was the pre-humidor Rockies in 2001, with Pedro Astacio (5.49 ERA), Shawn Chacon (5.06 ERA), Mike Hampton (5.41) and Denny Neagle (5.38). Not surprisingly, then, the Brewers ranked near the bottom of the NL with 65 quality starts (defined as outings in which a starter works at least six innings and surrenders three or fewer earned runs). Among NL rivals, only Washington had fewer quality starts, with 63. For comparison, Atlanta led the league with 99. Gallardo accounted for 17 of the Brewers' quality starts to lead the staff. Davis posted 22 for the D-backs, and Wolf 24 for the Dodgers. "We knew we didn't just need innings, we needed quality innings," Melvin said. Now comes the second part of the challenge: Deciding how the starters will line up. Barring an injury, of course, Melvin and Macha could face a tough call at the end of camp. Assuming that Gallardo, Wolf and Davis are locks, the final two rotation spots will come down to three or perhaps four candidates: Parra has been maddeningly inconsistent in his two full seasons with the Brewers, but he is only 27 years old, is out of Minor League options and would almost certainly be lost to the waiver wire if he's exposed to it. Club officials are trying to be more patient with Parra than they were with Jorge De La Rosa, who was traded to Royals in 2006 and has since become a solid member of the Rockies' rotation. But, Parra is left-handed, and keeping him would give the Brewers a trio of lefty starters in an NL Central that features right-handed sluggers like Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday of the Cardinals, Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez of the Cubs and Carlos Lee and Hunter Pence of the Astros. Melvin has downplayed that left-handedness, arguing in particular that Davis and Wolf have pitches in their arsenal to retire right-handed hitters. Righties Bush and Suppan are both coming off injury-plagued 2009 seasons. Financial considerations could come into play; Suppan's ERA and WHIP has gone up in each of the past four seasons, but he's entering the final season of a four-year contract that guarantees $12.5 million in 2010. Bush, meanwhile, settled ahead of an arbitration hearing for $4.215 million, and since arbitration contracts aren't guaranteed, the Brewers could release Bush in Spring Training and owe just a fraction of that salary. Left-hander Chris Narveson is a bit of a wild card after he finished 2009 strong. He was 1-0 with a 3.38 ERA in four September starts and is out of Minor League options. Speaking of options, here's another one: Bump someone to the bullpen. Even that could be tricky depending on performances in Spring Training, since six spots are already spoken for by closer Hoffman, setup men Hawkins and Todd Coffey, left-hander Mitch Stetter and right-handers Claudio Vargas and Carlos Villanueva. That leaves one opening for a large field of competitors including David Riske, who underwent Tommy John elbow ligament surgery last June and is guaranteed $4.5 million in 2010. Melvin said that it appears Riske will be ready for the start of Spring Training games next month. All of those questions will find answers before April 5, when the Brewers host the Colorado Rockies on Opening Day. After that, Macha figures that the pitching will probably determine how far the Brewers go. "We led all the way until July 1 [last season] until two-fifths of the rotation went out," Macha said, referring the losses of Bush and Suppan. "All we needed to do was get in the middle of the pack and it's not inconceivable that we win 8-10 more games. That might have been enough."
Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.