This is an uphill journey, but the Milwaukee Brewers continue to attempt the climb.

The Brewers on Thursday were drawing close to a deal for free-agent starting pitcher Matt Garza. The contract is reportedly for $52 million over four years, though the club has not confirmed the deal and later announced that negotiations were "ongoing."

In the supermarket of free-agent pitching, the Brewers, operating in the smallest media market in the Major Leagues, could not afford to shop in the Masahiro Tanaka aisle. The seven-year, $155 million deal that Tanaka received from the Yankees is beyond the means of many clubs, including the one that makes its home at Miller Park.

But the Brewers were still willing and able to make a major shopping excursion at the top of the second-tier free-agent pitching market, where Garza was located along with Ervin Santana, Ubaldo Jimenez and Bronson Arroyo.

The Brewers had gone in a similar direction last year, signing Kyle Lohse for $33 million over three years. The Garza deal is larger, longer and, in fact, is the most expensive free-agent deal in the history of the Milwaukee franchise.

Lohse pitched more than capably for the Brewers in 2013, but his presence did not markedly lift the club's level. The Brewers finished fourth in the National League Central, 23 games behind the St. Louis Cardinals.

And when you mention the Cardinals, you are mentioning the primary competitive problem facing Milwaukee. The Brewers are undoubtedly improved as a result of adding Garza. But their starting rotation, improved though it should be, still does not measure up to the St. Louis rotation.

This is to say nothing of the problems posed by the Pirates and the Reds. The NL Central last season became the first division in baseball to qualify three teams for the postseason. That distinction was made possible by the expansion of the Wild Card berths, but it also happened because St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati were all very good teams, each featuring strong pitching.

The Cardinals had the best record in the NL, and eventually they had the NL pennant, too. They epitomize the quality of growing their own pitching. A seemingly endless stream of young pitchers, possessing both power and poise, came up to the Cardinals last season and made the success of the St. Louis organization both possible and notable.

The Brewers, meanwhile, have in their current rotation only one proven Major League starter who came up through their own organization. That would be Yovani Gallardo, who had a sub-standard season in 2013. Other young pitchers made appearances and contributions for the Brewers in 2013, and they might eventually become impact performers. But none of them performed at the level of the Cardinals' young, homegrown starters.

Lohse had gone 16-3 for the Cardinals in 2012. How could they afford not to re-sign him? You saw how. They had not only adequate replacements on hand, they had outstanding replacements on hand.

So the Brewers are forced to pay, and perhaps, overpay in the free-agent marketplace. Credit Brewers owner Mark Attanasio with the willingness to spend major money in an attempt to keep his club highly competitive on a year-to-year basis.

If the Brewers' system was more productive in turning out its own top-flight starting pitchers, this could be a less expensive, more efficient proposition. But at least Brewers fans know that their favorite franchise is not complacently settling for secondary status.

Garza comes with a combination of plusses and question marks. He is 30, still young enough to contribute. His stuff is good enough, his record has been consistent. But he has been on the disabled list in parts of each of the last three seasons. He pitched well for the Cubs early in 2013, but when he was traded to the Rangers, who were in contention, his performance was somewhat disappointing.

Still, if healthy, Garza obviously makes the Brewers' rotation better. In a difficult division, including the defending NL champs, he gives the Brewers a better chance to compete.

The Brewers were not expected to be major players in the free-agent market, but they have obtained one of the best pitchers available, at least among the pitchers not named Tanaka. For making the effort, by courting Garza at considerable expense, the Brewers are to be commended.