As we approach the 2017 season, the Brewers’ rotation is relatively unsettled. Tom Haudricourt reported that only two spots are spoken for at this point in the spring: Junior Guerra and Zach Davies. That leaves three spots for the Brewers to fill, and they have the opportunity to be creative with those places.
According to Haudricourt (and verified by common sense), there are five pitchers vying for those spots: Wily Peralta, Jimmy Nelson, Matt Garza, Chase Anderson, and Tommy Milone. However, there are also some other starting pitchers on the fringes of the rotation who may end up either in the big league bullpen or the Class-AAA Colorado Springs rotation. A non-exhaustive list includes Jorge Lopez, Taylor Jungmann, Josh Hader, and Brent Suter.
Starts are a finite resource. The Brewers only get 162 of them to dole out among all of these candidates, and they have to balance three separate goals. The club will be trying to win, develop young players, and maintain (or grow) trade value, all at the same time. For a team at this point in the rebuild stage, that is not uncommon, nor is it even a negative. It is simply a reality.
The most straightforward place to start is with trying to win, as that is the nominal goal of essentially every team at all times. If the Brewers simply threw their best pitchers, then this would be a different but equally difficult issue. The identity of the three next-best starters is an open question. Peralta, Anderson, and Nelson are probably the three favorites, but none of them were particularly good last season (4.60, 5.50, and 5.64 DRAs, respectively). A rebounded Garza or one of the younger arms could just as easily be better than any (or all) of those three.
Fortunately, though, the question goes beyond simply who the best pitcher is. Matt Garza’s contract status is a concern here as well, as it will likely expire after this season (there is are several options, including a vesting option with three conditions). The Brewers can handle this one of two ways; they can either give him a bunch of starts and hope that he performs well enough to have a modicum of trade value, or they can bury him on the depth chart or in the bullpen and keep him around as depth. He was so bad the last two seasons (DRAs of 5.48 and 5.22) that it is unlikely that anyone would want to trade for him without seeing a sustained run of success. To help him build trade value, then, the Brewers need to give him starts.
But doing so would come at a cost. First, as Garza is 33 years old, is coming off the two worst seasons of his career, and has a history of injury issues. He may in fact be over the hill and unable to regain his previous form. He may simply not be capable of pitching at a desirable level anymore. And second, if the Brewers give Garza 15 starts to try and build some value, they would be preventing one of their younger starters from taking the mound.
That is the real rub here, as both trying to win and trying to rebuild Garza’s trade value are in tension with allowing young pitchers to have the chance to prove themselves and learn at the big league level. A team that is trying to win almost never hands a rookie a sizable number of starts simply because major league baseball is very hard and requires an adjustment time. If the Brewers let Lopez and Hader make 25 starts each, the club probably wouldn’t fare very well.
However, the Brewers also don’t want to just let young pitchers rot in the minor leagues. None of the younger options are particularly appealing early in the season, whether it be because of performance issues (Jungmann, Lopez) or contract ones (the Super Two deadline). Thus, the club will have to strike a balance.
I expect Garza to break camp in the rotation just because it is the only irreversible decision. If the Brewers release him or send him to the bullpen, then he will have no chance to rebuild his value. If they send any of the other four to the bullpen or minors, though, they can just be recalled in a month if Garza proves he has nothing left.
Beyond that remains a question. Nelson, Anderson, and Peralta were all indistinguishably bad for the Brewers last year, and Milone has made a career of being a fringe fifth starter. None of them will inspire anyone with a ton of confidence (beyond maybe Peralta, who finished the season strong), but that leaves the question open as to who gets dropped when someone else is ready. Lopez spent most of the 2016 season in Class-AAA, so one would imagine that he does get a call-up at some point. Hader has shot up prospect lists (he ranks 19th on BP’s Top 101) and also was in Class-AAA last year, so he too should be expected to see big league time. Suter, Jungmann, and Tyler Cravy all started games for the Brewers last year as well, so they will also be in the mix.
Among those pitchers, Hader’s development is probably the most important for the club, so he should be prioritized. If Hader demonstrates that he cannot learn anything else in Class-AAA, then he will probably be called up by midseason so that he can continue to learn. But after that? Realistically, it’s anyone’s guess. This is a massive list of pitchers with wide ranges of possible outcomes. There are five established big leaguers (Nelson, Garza, Anderson, Peralta, Milone) and at least three minor leaguers (Suter, Jungmann, Cravy) who have potential claims to the starting spot. I would anticipate that the Opening Day roster spots will be decided by a combination of seniority and spring performance, but I have no idea how to predict who will win those jobs. I also have no idea how long they will be able to hold on to them.
The Brewers will have to balance these competing interests throughout the season, and how exactly they do that will be dependent on each pitcher’s performance. If the big leaguers pitch well, then they will remain in the rotation because the team will have the best shot at winning (and, except for Garza, none of them are all that old). But if they don’t and any of the minor leaguers do, then the Brewers will have to decide at what point in the season they want to start handing out developmental starts.