Part 1 of 4: Pleasant surprises in 2012 leave a bright outlook for the 2013 starting pitchers.
By RYAN KARTJEFS Wisconsin
This is the first in a four-part series reviewing the Milwaukee Brewers' 2012 season and looking ahead to 2013.
Thursday: Starting pitchers
Friday: Relief pitchers
Sunday: Infielders and catchers
ON THE ROSTER (alphabetical order): Marco Estrada (7-6, 3.64 ERA), Mike Fiers (9-10, 3.74 ERA), Yovani Gallardo (16-9, 3.66 ERA), Chris Narveson (1-1, 7.00 ERA), Wily Peralta (2-1, 2.48 ERA), Mark Rogers (3-1, 3.92 ERA), Josh Stinson (0-0, 0.96 ERA), Tyler Thornburg (0-0, 4.50 ERA)
LOOKING BACK: When the Brewers began the 2012 season, their rotation was more or less set. Loaded with veterans Randy Wolf, Shaun Marcum, Zack Greinke and Yovani Gallardo, plus a solid fifth man in Chris Narveson, the rotation was expected to be strength of this Milwaukee squad, especially considering the hit the offense was taking with the loss of Prince Fielder.
That group had, more or less, been the only starting pitchers the Brewers needed all of last season. Unfortunately, Milwaukee learned this season that things don't always work out quite as you planned.
First, Narveson was injured after just two starts and didn't pitch another inning for the rest of the season. Then an injury to Marcum that was supposed to keep him out for a start or two turned into a two-month absence. And with the look of a team completely out of the race, the Brewers traded Greinke, their ace, to Anaheim in late July. Less than a month later, Wolf's release completed what ended up as a complete demolition of the Brewers' season-opening rotation.
It was a string of bad luck that likely would've crippled most teams. The Brewers were forced to use a 22nd-round pick with a high-80s fastball, a long reliever with little starting experience, an injury-prone former first-rounder and a struggling top prospect to bolster their rotation behind Gallardo, who became the de facto ace. The expectations, admittedly, were low.
But a funny thing happened on the way to obscurity. The Brewers' young staff started to pitch well — so well, in fact, that Milwaukee really didn't miss its departed or injured pitchers all that much.
Mike Fiers, who had never been lauded for having dynamite stuff — considering he rarely, if ever, throws a fastball that exceeds 90 mph— pitched out of his mind for a two-month stretch and vaulted himself into the race for NL Rookie of the Year. In that span of 13 starts, Fiers was the best pitcher in baseball with a 1.80 ERA. With his impressive deception and pitch variability, major league hitters just couldn't seem to figure Fiers out until late in the season.
Marco Estrada earned his spot in the rotation before Fiers, but his presence wasn't truly felt until later in the season. Now, with the season finished, Estrada actually has the lowest ERA of any starter currently on the team (3.64). As a former long reliever, Estrada struck out pitchers at a clip that no one would have imagined. Both he and Fiers finished the season with a strikeouts per nine innings ratio (among pitchers with 120 ore more innings pitched) that ranked in the top five in the National League along with Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez.
Finally, the Brewers had a chance to rediscover the talent of their top prospect and a former first-round pick in Wily Peralta and Mark Rogers. Both have dominant fastballs, both were overcoming struggles with command and both flashed their abilities in a handful of starts.
It was as good of a result in the rotation as the Brewers could've expected, given the injuries to key contributors and the trade of their ace at the deadline. There were inevitably some struggles along the way — Fiers ran out of gas in August and September and fell out of the Rookie of the Year race, while Rogers and Peralta both needed to be shut down to carefully handle their innings limits.
But likely without three of the five pieces of their 2012 opening day rotation when the Brewers open next season, there is still undeniable optimism abound.
OFFSEASON DECISIONS: There are plenty.
With Fiers, Rogers, Peralta and Estrada all having breakout seasons, there is a scenario in which the Brewers could start all four of those guys behind Gallardo next season. And with Narveson returning healthy, the competition in the rotation is certainly going to be a stiff one heading into spring training.
But are the Brewers willing to go with that youthful of a rotation? It's worked for some teams — for instance, this year's Athletics made the playoffs with a rotation comprised of, for the most part, rookies. There's no denying, however, that that scenario is a risky one, something that general manager Doug Melvin acknowledged in his season-ending press conference Thursday.
So with that in mind, it wouldn't be a surprise if the Brewers decide to bring in a second-tier veteran arm for the rotation. Manager Ron Roenicke said he'd like to get a pitcher who could help bring along the young pitchers around him, and with guys like Ryan Dempster, Jake Peavy, Dan Haren, Anibal Sanchez and more expected to be on the market, there are certainly options at the team's disposal.
Bringing back Marcum could be an option, but judging by comments from him and Brewers management, it doesn't seem likely at this point. And of course, Greinke will hit the free-agent market — a possibility the Brewers talked about when he was traded at the deadline.
But at this point, Greinke signing with the Brewers is highly unlikely. Melvin essentially has counted his team out of the race for any of this winter's top-tier free agents, of which Greinke is one. He'll likely command too much money and too long of a contract for the Brewers to bring him back to Milwaukee.
LOOKING AHEAD: Melvin said on Thursday that he wanted flexibility, and he'll certainly have that in 2013.
With the four young guys from this season, plus Narveson, expected to be in the picture, the Brewers also have prospects like Tyler Thornburg, Taylor Jungmann, Jed Bradley and Jimmy Nelson who could potentially play some kind of role late in 2013.
With this past season in mind, expect Gallardo to be joined by Estrada and Peralta at the very least. From there, it could very well be a crapshoot with Fiers, Narveson and Rogers in the mix for one spot, assuming that the No. 2 spot in the rotation is taken by a free-agent starter.
It's hard to tell how well the youth movement will work for another season, but if it does, expect the Brewers to trot out a very solid, very young group of talented pitchers in 2013.
G.M. DOUG MELVIN SAYS: "Going into this year, we were counting on Gallardo, Greinke, Marcum, Wolf, Narveson, so we had five veteran guys. So that probably is one of the challenges we'll take a look at, but the Oakland A's won 93 games and they had 101 starts out of rookie pitchers. So do all of us have the nerve to do that or the patience to do that? We'll have to figure that out."