What Colorado Springs Means for Jorge Lopez and Zach Davies

Just two weeks ago, I speculated about the state of the Brewers’ rotation. I concluded that Matt Garza’s contract status and Taylor Jungmann’s 2015 performance have made them near-locks for the Opening Day rotation. Furthermore, I argued that although Wily Peralta has recently trended in the wrong direction, he has proven to be a consistent part of the club for the last few seasons, and the club’s new acquisition, Chase Anderson, would probably push Jimmy Nelson to the fifth spot. In the end, I argued that those five are presumably at the top of the organization’s rotation pecking order.

Over the weekend, manager Craig Counsell confirmed that Anderson will be in the opening day rotation, and this statement has some interesting implications. Most importantly for Anderson, this announcement allows the young righty to methodically prepare in spring training without needing to look over his shoulder and wonder if he is pitching for a job. It presents him an ability to focus on developing his repertoire and command in a stress-free environment. In terms of roster construction and player development , though, it confirms that young hurlers Jorge Lopez and Zach Davies are expected to begin the year in Triple-A Colorado Springs. This article will delve into the consequences of that decision.

The most important point here—and the big caveat to the analysis that will follow—is that this decision ultimately makes sense. Neither Lopez nor Davies made a big-league appearance before September last year, so neither of them should have been expecting to break camp with the major-league team. It’s not a shot to the ego. But Nelson, Anderson, and Peralta have all spent various chunks of seasons in the major leagues, so being sent to the minor leagues would certainly be viewed as a demotion.

However, Lopez and Davies may very well be better than at least one of those three — and it wouldn’t be prudent to consider Garza or Jungmann as “sure things” in 2015 — and although Peralta had an impressive debut in 2012, he has compiled a pedestrian 4.11 ERA in the three years and 490.2 innings since his debut. The 26-year-old has posted just 2.0 WARP in over 500 innings, but continues to get opportunities due to the promise of his power sinker-slider arsenal. Anderson, on the other hand, is already 28 but didn’t make his big-league debut until his age-26 season. Nonetheless, his career 4.32 DRA is uninspiring. Even if we acknowledge that pitchers develop at different rates, we have to presume that Anderson is unlikely to tap into some unreached potential at this stage of his career. Finally, Nelson had a nice enough rebound season in 2015, but his 2014 campaign was so disastrous (6.13 DRA in 69.3 innings) that it won’t leave our memory anytime soon.

Both Lopez and Davies are promising youngsters. While there’s no guarantee that either of them will turn out to be mid-rotation starters that could make them an upgrade over Nelson, Anderson, or Peralta, it’s not an unreasonable outcome to expect. Plus, both are nearly (if not already) big-league ready pitchers, so the fact that they’ll likely begin the year in the minors illustrates how the Brewers are truly committed to their current starting five. Or perhaps playing the service-time game. Or both.

We also have to take into account what this decision could do to the confidence of Lopez and Davies. This isn’t to suggest that they’ll be disheartened by the minor-league optioning itself. Rather, it’s more that the Brewers’ Triple-A affiliate is in Colorado Springs, which is notoriously hitter-friendly. The ballclub suffers from the same problems that affect the Rockies’ ability to develop pitchers, in that the altitude not only inflates hitters’ numbers but also affects the break on off-speed pitches. Too much time in that environment could do damage to a pitcher’s confidence and development, as the Rockies saw when their Triple-A team was in Colorado Springs. Given the potential of both Lopez and Davies — and even lefty Josh Hader, who will likely join them — the Brewers will want to be sure their young pitchers do not spend too much time in that sort of funhouse-type environment.

An additional factor in their development concerns is that both Lopez and Davies rely on off-speed pitches to be effective. As was mentioned in their scouting reports in the Brewers’ Top-10 list, Lopez possesses an above-average curveball and Davies has an above-average changeup. Given the fact that the environment in Colorado Springs is different from what it is in nearly every other ballpark in which the two will pitch in the majors, too much time trying to adjust could have adverse consequences.

The final consideration here is what this announcement means for their 2016 timing. Presumably, the fact that Counsell announced his rotation so early indicates that this was not a close decision. This means that each of the three “veterans” will have a relatively long leash, so I would guess that neither Lopez nor Davies should expect to get a chance for a couple months, unless an injury forces the organization’s hands. Those couple months in a rebuilding year may not seem like a big deal, after all the team is not trying to win, but leaving the two pitchers in Colorado Springs for an extended period of time could be harmful to their development.

Davies and Lopez are young pitchers who have impressed in the minor leagues and in camp, but Counsell’s recent proclamation that Chase Anderson will be in the rotation indicates that neither of them are likely to break camp with the big-league team. Instead, they will be forced to develop in Colorado Springs, where the altitude can affect breaking pitches and, subsequently, mechanics. This settled rotation, which doesn’t seem like a big deal at the outset, could actually have on-the-mound consequences for both Lopez and Davies, and that will be important to remember as the Brewers develop more pitching prospects at the high ends of the minors.

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