Spring Training starts soon, which means a number of things to everyone. It’s a chance for young players to make an impression with the big club. It’s two months to prepare for the season for those assured of a roster spot. And, in quite a few cases, it’s a semi-open audition for the unfilled spots on the roster. This is true in every spring camp across Florida and Arizona, but it might be more true for the Brewers than any other franchise. Milwaukee has finished a combined 62.5 games out of first place over the past two seasons, has an entire Top 10 prospect list that wasn’t in the organization at the start of that losing stretch, and is looking to shift gears in the path to competitiveness.
This year’s Brewers, like every Major League team, will break camp with five starting pitchers holding down a spot in the rotation. Who those five will be however, is a topic that has yet to be settled. And even when it settles, its implications might take months to work themselves out. Last Spring, Zach Davies was not expected to earn a roster spot out of camp, and he did not. But he pitched well, impressed the Major League coaches and scouts, and it took less than a month for a spot to open up for him. Davies took the job, never looked back, and he comes into this Spring in a completely different role–as one of the front-line starters all but assured of job security.
Let’s break down all the potential starters.
1-Star Tier (The Dark Horses)
These pitchers are all likely to end up pitching for Biloxi, Colorado Springs, or a bullpen job at the most. But they’re candidates to start games at some point if they earn it, or things get desperate.
As Wily Peralta and Matt Garza proved down the stretch last year, you can always bounce back from pitching really, really terribly. But unfortunately for Jungmann, he might have lost too much ground to make up in the organizational pecking order. To put it bluntly and simply: the kind of blow-you-away spring that he would need to show to win a job, he’s just not good enough to pull off. I’m not saying he’s done as a Major League pitcher, I’m just saying the smart money is on that next big-league start of his coming in an Angels or Marlins uniform.
Oliver was a top-100 prospect in 2011. Back then, the common refrain on him was “electric, top-of-the-rotation stuff, if he can learn to control it.” That never happened. But Oliver is left-handed and he’s always been able to blow minor-league hitters away. In 2016, pitching for AAA Norfolk, his BB/9 rate plummeted to 3.7, the best mark he’s posted as a professional since 2010. He’d be a less improbable reclamation project than Junior Guerra, for what that’s worth. And he’s worked both as a starter and in relief throughout his career. Long relief is a more likely use for him unless the starting rotation is really victimized by injuries.
Milone spent the past two seasons shuttling back and forth between the Twins and their AAA squad in Rochester. Like Oliver, he throws left-handed. Unlike Oliver, he’s a soft-tosser who relies on inducing soft contact to get outs. Milone’s 2016 numbers weren’t great, and he doesn’t have a single “out” pitch, but he’s been a passable Major League swingman in the past. He’s another guy who might be more useful as a long man out of the bullpen.
The Brewers selected Williams’s contract this past November along with Ryan Cordell, Lewis Brinson, and Josh Hader, leaving several young pitchers exposed to the Rule 5 draft (including Miguel Diaz, who went first in that draft). Williams hasn’t pitched since 2014, when he popped up on prospect radars with a 2.36 ERA for the Timber Rattlers while hitting 98 on the radar gun, but he missed all of 2015 with elbow trouble, and all of 2016 rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. Now Williams is 25 years old and hasn’t pitched above A-ball, but David Stearns saw fit to protect him over several highly-touted arms, which makes . He’ll likely be ticketed for AA, and if he can pick up where he left off three years ago the team likely won’t be shy about ushering him up the ladder. I put him here, after the other three one-stars, because I’d almost classify Williams as a 1.5-star on this list. He’s got more upside and youth than the rest of the dark horses, but he’s too much of an unknown quantity at this point to really be a 2-star guy.
2-Star Tier (The Zach Davies Memorial Tier)
This tier is also full of players unlikely to start the year with the big club. But these guys are already regarded as important parts of the team’s future, so if they pitch well in the spring they could catapult themselves into consideration for a job down the line. And if either one sets Arizona ablaze this March, well, it’s not like the Brewers front office wants to keep them out of the starting rotation. Both of these guys are in a position to force the team’s hand this spring, but it’s probably more realistic to expect that they set themselves up for an opportunity later on this season.
Ortiz was #68 on last year’s BP 101, and he should be even higher this time around. He loves to mix speeds with his fastball, bringing it in as steady as 92 and as quick as 97, and he compliments this array of looks with a plus slider in addition to a changeup and a curveball that he’s got command over. It’s an impressively polished arsenal for such a young pitcher. But, on the other hand, his health has been a repeated concern throughout his minor-league career, from both a “he can’t log innings consistently” perspective and a “he’s got a bad case of Body By Bartolo” perspective. Ortiz has never thrown more than 91 innings in a pro season, which makes him an interesting case–it’d be easier to look at that and turn him into a reliever, but Ortiz’s four-pitch mix screams “starting rotation.”
I have nothing but questions when it comes to how he will be handled. How many innings will the team feel safe giving him this year? Where should those innings be? He pitched well at AA, well enough to earn a promotion… but do we really want to sail such a rickety ship through the Bermuda Triangle that is Colorado Springs? If he’s ready for the big leagues, when do you use his innings? If his stuff is ready but his stamina isn’t, and maybe at some point we need to replace ineffective/injured big-league starters, what do you do?
I’m thinking the Brewers play it conservative with Ortiz this year. They’ve got more than enough other options. Why bring him up, if you’re not sure he’s ready? The thing is, his stuff might be ready. If it is, it’ll be awfully hard to keep him shut out of the rotation.
Hader ranks three spots ahead of Ortiz in this year’s BP Top Ten for the Brewers. He’s the number one left-handed pitching prospect in baseball according to MLB Pipeline. And he did this despite a 5.22 ERA in 14 starts at Colorado Springs. (This is an indictment of Colorado Springs, not of Hader.)
When I profiled Hader approximately a year and a half ago, the Chris Sale comparison was mostly a byproduct of similar deliveries. But Hader’s return to Biloxi early last year blew the cover off of expectations–a 0.95 ERA, 11.5 K/9, and just one home run allowed in 57 innings. Even walks, which have long been Hader’s bugaboo, didn’t pose much of an issue, although he did struggle with control more frequently in Colorado, enough that you can’t just blame it on the thin air. The base on balls might yet relegate Hader to a bullpen role.
But before that happens, the left-hander with the funky delivery will almost certainly get to show his stuff as a starter sometime in 2017.
3-Star Tier (The Hunger Games)
The mathematically astute among my readers will notice that there’s an asymmetry brewing: the Brewers have five starting rotation spots to play with, there are four pitchers in this coming tier, and we still have two tiers left to play with. Someone out of this group is not going to make the cut. These guys aren’t castoffs or still-ripening prospects; we’re dealing with a group of big-league veterans, plus one prospect who has no reason to go back down to the minor leagues. That means it’s put up or shut up time–each of these players could work their way into the rotation, but it’s likely that one or more will be sentenced to hard time at Colorado Springs–or, if they’re truly lucky, long relief duty.
Chase Anderson is 29 years old. He has been a Major League pitcher for three years. He’s thrown 418 and 2/3 innings, started 78 games, and over that stretch he’s performed exactly two noteworthy feats: he’s maintained both a perfectly level 24-24 career won/loss record and a perfectly level 0.0 career WARP mark. For this off-season, at least, Anderson stands as the benchmark against which average pitching is measured–and a rare point of perfect symmetry between the old-school and new-school baseball statistics.
To be bluntly honest, that just about sums up the book on Chase Anderson. He’s average; replacement level. He’s got an underwhelming fastball, but he survives with a superior changeup and stuff like “pitchability” and “guts,” whatever you want to call it that gives you the edge in the chess match between pitcher and hitter. Unfortunately, Miller Park is not a friendly home for replacement-level pitchers with flyball tendencies trying to get by with inferior stuff, and Colorado Springs is even worse.
I could easily see Anderson turning into the “cagey veteran innings-eater” trope, the type of guy who never excels but is good enough to earn a paycheck propping up the back end of rotations well into his 30s, but I don’t see it happening for the Brewers. Miller Park is a stadium that feels almost like it was made to squeeze out Anderson’s shortcomings as a pitcher.
Nelson has thrown exactly 17.3 innings more than Chase Anderson in his career, a number that drops to 7.3, a single start, if you take away Nelson’s four 2013 appearances and look at each of them over a three-year span. Nelson’s 21-38 won/loss record isn’t as perfectly balanced as Anderson, but he’s in the same club of 400+ inning-tossers to balance a perfect 0.0 WARP total.
Back in November, Ryan Romano sought to explore the dissonance in Nelson’s numbers: his ERA has been acceptable, if not great, the past couple of seasons, but by DRA, he has been one of the worst pitchers in baseball. Looking at his strikeout and walk rates, one is inclined to predict a coming implosion from Nelson. Considering he’s exactly replacement level now (and was almost a win below replacement level over 2016), this could look particularly ugly.
A month later, Seth Victor took a more in-depth look under the hood at Nelson. It seems that his release point this past season was off point from where he was throwing in prior seasons. This can affect a pitcher’s command, Victor argues, and the numbers back that argument up: Nelson walked 4.3 batters every nine innings in 2016, up from 3.3 in 2015 and 2.5 in 2014.
If the Brewers can fix Nelson’s release point problems and get his pinpoint command back, he could again become a valuable asset. If not, he’s probably coming to the end of his rope in Milwaukee. As we’ve established, there’s no shortage of hungry, young, talented hurlers gunning for his job.
If everything breaks right for Jorge Lopez, he could be one of the most fascinating stories of the 2017 baseball season. A year ago, the right hander was 23 years old and one of Milwaukee’s few pitching prospects with any upside to speak of. But when Lopez failed to crack the starting rotation of the big club, things took a turn for the ugly as he went to AAA Colorado Springs and was basically used as a pinata by opposing hitters for 17 gruesome starts.
But Lopez made some mechanical adjustments with Milwaukee’s instructional league staff this past autumn, and proceeded to set the Puerto Rican Winter League ablaze: a 1.56 ERA and 0.87 WHIP in 34.7 innings. He’s got nothing to prove at AA anymore, and our AAA club’s home stadium is the place of his nightmares. Lopez doesn’t have a spot locked up at this point, but if the mechanical tweaks he made have really fixed the command issues that plagued him as a prospect, that will change in a hurry. His ceiling is significantly higher than that of Nelson or Anderson.
Both Dylan Svoboda and Nicholas Zettel have taken contrasting looks at Garza for this site in recent weeks. Svoboda argued that Garza’s second-half momentum and potential as a midseason trade chip to a contending team should get him a rotation spot for the first half of the season or so. Zettel, on the other hand, argued that Garza’s perceived trade value is overinflated and that, by keeping him around, the Brewers are paying a tremendous opportunity cost in giving innings to Garza rather than one of their up-and-coming young pitchers.
In a perfect world for the Brewers, a team with no pitching depth loses a couple of their starters to injury early on in spring training, and they can get the best of both worlds–something of value back without having to waste innings on him this season. But that probably won’t happen, so the Brewers’ front office will have to make a judgment call at the end of the spring. Can this guy pull an Aaron Hill and find some trade value up his kiester, or are we better off cutting the sunk costs and giving those innings to someone else? A lot, like, this guy’s whole career, will depend on how frisky or how finished he looks this spring.
4-Star Tier (He’s a lock, well, unless that thing happens again…)
I’ve got to admit, I didn’t see this coming. Last June, after Peralta had been bad enough to go from “opening-day starter” to “minor leaguer,” I wrote a very detailed argument as to why the Brewers should consider moving him to the bullpen, where he could be more effective.
What happened since then is Peralta made some major changes, ended a year-and-a-half-long skid of mediocrity, got another shot with the Major League club, and looked like a whole new ballplayer. He might have made sense in the bullpen at the time, but things change.
Peralta got a shot at redemption in August, took back his job in the rotation, and never looked back. He posted a sub-3.00 ERA down the stretch, struck out batters at a higher clip than ever before in his career, and worked far deeper into games than he had earlier in the season. I’d like to think that maybe he read my case to move him to the bullpen, got angry, and vowed to become a better starter. But whatever happened, it’s been good.
Back in September, Ryan Romano took a look at Peralta’s surging whiff rate. The reason he was improved, Romano argued, is that he induced swings-and-misses at a rate previously untouched in his career, because he’d begun relying on his slider, his best pitch, statistically, but always a secondary offering to his fastball or sinker, far more than ever before. As such, the Peralta we saw in August and September should be closer to what we can expect going forward.
That being said, there are a couple of nitpicky, but still valid, reasons I’m not giving Peralta quite as much job security as the two guys in the next tier. The slider is a notoriously abusive pitch on the human elbow, and Peralta’s increased reliance on it also increases the chance that he’ll spend significant time on the DL. And if he runs into trouble again, and goes back to “throw more sliders” as the strategy to fix things once again, that elevates the risk further and further. But the version of Wily Peralta we watched get turned into a human pincushion on Opening Day is, for all intents and purposes, a relic of the past–and that is a good, good thing for the Brewers and their fans.
5-Star Tier (The Mortal Locks)
These two guys cemented their 2017 jobs in 2016. They were the two Brewer pitchers to be consistently good, they were responsible for the most value on the mound, and unless either one gets hurt or struggles even worse than Wily Peralta a year ago, they’re both fixtures in the starting rotation for the forseeable future. Which is just a little ironic, as both of them started last season in AAA.
I hope Guerra’s elbow is fine. I hope he was just a little sore from being used in a way he wasn’t used to, had to adjust to, and everything will be fine going forward. I really hope last season’s “elbow soreness” doesn’t become this season’s Tommy John surgery. He’s the best story in baseball, and at his age, if he makes it back from surgery, he’ll never be the same again. From May 3rd through the end of July, Guerra was a true rags to riches story: a former Italian Leaguer who had reinvented himself with the splitter and become one of the best pitchers in baseball. It would be a true shame if that short stretch was all we got of Guerra at his apex.
Because, as I broke down last May, Guerra at his apex is really good. You could argue he’s the best pitcher the Brewers have had since the days of Zack Greinke. His splitter looks every bit as sharp and big as the Yankees’ Masahiro Tanaka, and he’s shown a propensity to dial it up for big games. Guerra beat the Cubs, he beat the Dodgers, and he beat the Nationals with Max Freakin’ Scherzer dueling him on the mound. If the elbow pain is a thing of the past, the opening day start should be Guerra’s to lose coming into spring camp.
When I was a kid, every single young athlete heard the famous story of Michael Jordan getting cut from his high school basketball team. If you were a bad young athlete, like I was, you heard it a lot. It was supposed to motivate you to pick yourself up and keep going, and the fact that Jordan was The Greatest Ever during our formative years further hammered home the point that, yeah, even the greatest ever used to suck, so don’t you give up!
At some point in its growth, the Internet destroyed the potency of that myth. And, as we’ve learned, Michael Jordan is the type of person who tends to lie to himself about the magnitude of minor slights in order to self-motivate. That story happened his sophomore year of high school, when he tried out for the varsity precociously. He wasn’t cut-cut, either; he was sent down to the junior varsity, like 98 percent of all basketball-playing sophomores in the country, where he led the team in scoring. In that light, it’s not a particularly noteworthy or inspiring anecdote, unless you’re using Michael Jordan’s psychotic competitiveness as your muse.
But Zach Davies, on the other hand, while lacking the prestige of Jordan, has his own version of this story, and it has the added benefit of being 100 percent true. Davies came into Spring Training 2016 with an outside shot at the rotation, but didn’t crack the first starting five. He started the season in Colorado Springs, and by fortune managed to survive his two starts there with a 2.00 ERA, earning him a call-up less than a month into the season.
Davies never looked back, establishing himself as Milwaukee’s most consistent starting pitcher throughout the season. His 3.92 ERA and 3.68 DRA suggest that, while he isn’t dominant, he’s a better-than-average MLB starter. Davies soft-tossing and baby-faced profile will never, ever intimidate a Major League hitter, but he doesn’t rely on intimidation. Davies instead relies on deception and keeping hitters off-balance, and he does it well as the numbers indicate.
Last Fall, Julien Assouline made the case that Davies, and not Junior Guerra, was the Brewers’ true “ace” of the 2016 season, and I have to second his reasoning. Going forward, it’s entirely likely that Davies is the Brewers’ number one starting pitcher. But I would still start Guerra on opening day since Wily Peralta emerged as the presumed third starter behind them. Guerra and Peralta throw at similar speeds and both rely on a hard breaking ball as their out pitch. By sandwiching Davies in between them, in the two slot, you break up that pattern with someone whose pitches look completely different. In certain series through the year, ideally, it will even break down with those three going back to back to back–your three best pitchers, in a pattern that prevents opposing hitters from ever getting comfortable. This maximizes the effectiveness of all three.
At the outset of this off-season, David Stearns told the Journal-Sentinel that it was going to be a quieter offseason. As we put January behind us on the calendar, it has indeed been quiet. But even with the low-profile additions and in-house options, competition for the starting rotation spots in Milwaukee is fierce enough to be worth watching. Last season, the Brewers allowed 4.52 runs per game last season, good for 20th in all of baseball. However, with Davies a year older, Peralta set to contribute for a full season, and players like Hader and Ortiz looking to break into the parent club’s rotation, there’s reason to hope that will improve in 2017.