This is the first in a five-part series previewing the Milwaukee Brewers by position heading into spring training, which starts Tuesday with pitchers and catchers reporting.
Today: Starting pitchers
Saturday: Relief pitchers
ON THE ROSTER (alphabetical order): RHP Nick Bucci (2-2, 1.99 ERA in Single-A), RHP Hiram Burgos (2-2, 2.91 ERA in Triple-A), LHP Miguel De Los Santos (3-2, 5.22 ERA in Double-A), RHP Marco Estrada (5-7, 3.64 ERA), Mike Fiers (9-10, 3.74 ERA), Yovani Gallardo (16-9, 3.66 ERA), LHP Chris Narveson (1-1, 7.00 ERA), RHP Ariel Pena (6-8, 3.93 ERA in Double-A), RHP Wily Peralta (2-1, 2.48 ERA), RHP Mark Rogers (3-1, 3.92 ERA), RHP Tyler Thornburg (0-0, 4.50 ERA)
OFFSEASON CHANGES: An obvious theme hovered over Brewers On Deck a couple weeks ago: Can this team win with an inexperienced group of starting pitchers?
General manager Doug Melvin was asked the question ad nauseam, but he gave the same calm response each time. Though the Brewers did nothing to their starting pitching corps but add minor league depth, they believe this inexperienced group will be just fine. Instead of jumping into the free-agent pool and tossing big money to starting pitchers, Melvin decided to stay in-house and give his young pitchers a crack at carrying over the success they found at the end of last season. With pitchers getting crazy money on the open market, the strategy makes sense. Instead of trying to sign pitchers who will give Milwaukee an ERA around 4.50, the Brewers are deciding to give youth a chance, just like they did with their position players earlier in the 2000s.
All six serious contenders for the rotation have had success in the big leagues, be it in 2011 or at the end of last season. If the Brewers were going out and looking for free agents, Melvin said they’d be searching for pitchers with the strikeout-to-walk ratios similar to Fiers and Estrada and for players with the stuff of Rogers, Peralta, Thornburg and Burgos.
Milwaukee went hard after right-hander Ryan Dempster, but it didn’t pursue any other veteran starting pitchers after Dempster signed with Boston. The door isn’t shut on signing Kyle Lohse, but it’s only open a crack. Lohse is represented by Scott Boras, and the reason he’s still available is his asking price. While he’d be a nice addition to the staff, Lohse’s price would have to come down drastically for the Brewers to have a chance. With Zack Greinke getting $147 million and a guy like Joe Blanton and his career 4.37 ERA getting $7 million a year, Melvin is playing his hand wisely.
Because they didn’t spend big on starting pitching, the Brewers have the ability to make a trade and add salary if they are in the race toward the end of July. Owner Mark Attanasio admitted he may give Melvin the flexibility to add a pitcher at the trade deadline, something the club has done successfully before.
STARTER SPOTLIGHT: There’s no question Gallardo will be Milwaukee’s Opening Day starter and ace of the staff, but the other four spots are completely up for grabs in spring training.
Estrada has the inside track to landing somewhere in the rotation, but he’ll still have to earn his spot. With Estrada in behind Gallardo, three spots would remain. Because he is out of options, Mark Rogers is going to be given every chance to claim one of the open positions. Rogers is no sure thing and could be moved to the bullpen, as well.
Chris Narveson is the only left-hander in the mix, and that could give him an advantage. He still must prove he’s healthy after making just two starts in 2012 before tearing his rotator cuff. Fiers took the league by storm last season by racing out to a fantastic start but faded late in the year. The Brewers are hoping that was a bit of fatigue setting in rather than a regression to the mean. Milwaukee’s top pitching prospect the past few seasons, Peralta has outstanding stuff. The question with him will be whether he can find consistent control of his pitches and stay healthy.
Because he can be sent back to Triple-A for seasoning and because the Brewers want him to be a starter, Peralta might be the odd man out if the competition is close. Gallardo, Estrada, Fiers, Narveson and Rogers would be a safe bet for the Opening Day rotation, but Peralta certainly could swoop in and push one of those five to the bullpen.
Though those are the guys who have the best chance to make the rotation, the Brewers believe Burgos and Thornburg both could step in and be successful in the big leagues right now.
SPRING TRAINING QUESTION: Can this inexperienced group be successful? The players believe it can and point to how the Brewers got back in the race last season and were one of the best teams in baseball with these pitchers being a big reason for the surge.
Winning with an inexperienced pitching staff worked for a couple of months in Milwaukee, but Oakland proved it could work over the course of an entire season. The Athletics sent talented but young arms to the mound the majority of the time in 2012 and ended up surprising everyone and winning 94 games and the American League West. Jarrod Parker, A.J. Griffin, Tommy Malone and Travis Blakely all blossomed into quality big league pitchers and each entered the season unproven.
Because the Brewers have so many options, they can mix and match until they find a group that works. There are eight big league-ready pitchers in the organization, and all Milwaukee needs is five to step up. The talent this group flashed at the end of 2012 wasn’t a fluke, but now they all must be able to hold up for 162 games.
MELVIN SAYS: “It’s no different than when we went with our young positional players: Corey Hart, J.J. Hardy, Rickie Weeks, Prince Fielder. The reason we got (Zack) Greinke and (Randy) Wolf a couple years ago was to bide time to give our younger guys the ability to develop in the big leagues. Now it’s their time to do it on the big league level.”