It’s no secret that the Brewers’ pitching staff has struggled tremendously this year: they rank last in baseball in DRA, are the only group to have posted negative WARP, and are leading only Cincinnati in FIP. And unfortunately for the Brewers, many of the culprits are young pitchers who the club was hoping to be able to build around. While last year blame could justifiably be assigned to veterans Kyle Lohse and Matt Garza, Lohse’s departure and Garza’s injury have removed that excuse.
Instead, the Brewers have given all of their starts to young pitchers in 2016. Wily Peralta’s 566 career innings are the most of any of the seven starters that have had a chance this season, and even he only made his debut four seasons ago. In a best case scenario, this would have definitely been a positive; a rebuilding season is an excellent opportunity to give young players a chance to sink or swim without the stress of expectations.
Thus far, though, the experiment has been mostly disastrous. Junior Guerra’s 3.46 DRA is the only one of the seven below 4.00, and only Jimmy Nelson and Tyler Cravy (who has made only start and is basically a reliever) are even below 5.00. Wily Peralta has been terrible, Chase Anderson and Zach Davis have been bad, and Taylor Jungmann was demoted. This series of performances does not bode well for the future.
Relevantly, the Brewers are in a bit of a weird place with their rebuild. Their three best hitters right now are the 32-year-old Ryan Braun, 29-year-old Jonathan Lucroy, and 29-year-old Chris Carter—each of whom is, at the very least, on his way out of his prime years. Meanwhile, their young hitters are not going to be ready to fully contribute for the next couple years, meaning that even as Orlando Arcia and Brett Phillips develop into being able to fill the holes the team currently has, new ones will be created (particularly at catcher).
There was a best-case scenario where the Brewers actually took a monstrous step forward in 2017. It would have involved Arcia and Phillips having huge years, getting called up at some point in 2016, and demonstrating they were ready to contribute full-time in 2017—all to such an extent that both Lucroy and the Brewers were convinced that keeping him through the end of his contract was worth it. This is still possible, as both Arcia and Phillips are having good seasons in the high minors, despite being just 21 and 22 years old, respectively.
However, there was another step necessary for this scenario, and it involved a pitching staff that looks much different than the one that currently takes the mound for the Brewers. While good teams can win with a mediocre rotation and excellent offense, the Brewers’ offense is just good, not great, and the current crop of pitchers is about as far below “mediocre” as it can get.
For the ideal 2017 scenario to come off, the Brewers would have been counting on Nelson taking steps forward to become a solid number two starter, Peralta to halt the downward slide his career has been on, and one or two more solid performances that hinted at something positive to come. Instead, they have gotten a nice start from Guerra and occasional hints at optimism from Nelson.
The question here, then, is what this dumpster fire of a performance does to the rebuilding timeline, and the honest answer is probably not much. It does very likely kill any 2017 dreams, simply because there is no urgency to ensure Arcia (or even Phillips) is ready and because there is little justification for keeping Lucroy beyond this offseason, but—if we’re being honest—there wasn’t a ton of hope for immediate contention anyway, especially with the strength of the division.
However, this doesn’t irreparably set back the rebuild. First and most importantly, pitcher development doesn’t follow a specific aging curve the way hitters’ development does, so it is entirely possible that Peralta and/or Jungmann will turn themselves around and end up as serviceable big leaguers. Second, though, the Brewers still have options in the minor leagues; it wasn’t as if the four pitchers who broke spring training in the rotation were the only ones in the organization.
We have already seen Junior Guerra in 2016, and Jorge Lopez and Josh Hader (among others) are still in the high minors. The hope for the Brewers’ pitching staff will remain the same—if just three or four of the seven or eight options hit, then Milwaukee will have a quality major league starting rotation. And given that Nelson is already basically there, the Brewers remain in good shape.
Overall, this also allows the position players to catch up in terms of development. The first of the group of young pitchers reached the big leagues this year, and if they had succeeded, they would have been peaking a couple years before the position players. With this path, though, the younger position players—Trent Clark is 19, Monte Harrison is 20—may now have the opportunity to reach the big leagues with their pitching counterparts.
Of course, that isn’t to say that the Brewers are better off because now they can organize their timetable in a slightly neater fashion. The best way to win is just to develop good players, regardless of age, so any conscious effort to line up timelines is a fool’s errand. Additionally, there is clearly no guarantee that any of these younger players are any more likely to develop than the ones that came before, especially given the similar pedigrees.
However, this disastrous stretch isn’t likely to set the Brewers back significantly, except of course that Peralta and Jungmann appear to officially be lost causes. That is clearly a disappointment, but given that the huge age gap between the current offensive production (Braun, Lucroy, Carter) and the next generation was likely to create some struggles anyway, the fact that the pitching might take a couple extra years to develop could turn out to be a blessing in disguise, as it will allow the front office to identify and address lineup holes that will appear in the next year or two. Ultimately, then, this is not a huge setback, no matter how horrific the numbers appear today.