Competing and Pitching Reinforcements

Today is May 5th, and the Milwaukee Brewers are over .500 at 15-14. That’s a bit crazy to fathom, isn’t it? As fans, we have been conditioned to accept losing over the past few seasons while our favorite team rebuilds. After all, Milwaukee spent a total of ZERO days over the .500 mark during the 2015 and 2016 seasons while shedding both talent and payroll like it was going out of style. Fangraphs, Bovada, and even BP’s own PECOTA projections all figured that the Brewers would struggle to pile victories together this year. Yet here we are, more than a month into the 2017 regular season, following a winning baseball team that’s currently sitting in second in the National League Central Division.

There were many who thought coming into the season that the Brewers had a chance to score an abundance of runs and to this point in the year, Milwaukee’s offense has indeed shouldered most of the responsibility for the team’s winning record. The lineup ranks tied for third in the MLB (with the Yankees) with 148 runs scored, and their 49 combined home runs is currently pacing the league. Milwaukee’s collection of hitters ranks seventh overall by TAv with a .273 mark, and by wRC+ they are tied with the Cubs for ninth in the league at 102. A team will certainly win its fair share of ballgames if it’s averaging 5.1 runs per game, as the Brewers are so far this year.

The pitching staff, as most seemed to expect, has however been quite suspect for the Milwaukee Nine. The Crew ranks 20th overall with a 4.35 ERA and 21st with a 4.32 FIP, but by DRA the pitching staff is seen as the league’s worst with a 5.60 mark. Just five pitching staffs are walking batters at a rate higher than Milwaukee’s collective 3.76 BB/9, and only the Tigers have a higher WHIP allowed than the Brewers’ cumulative total of 1.46.

David Stearns made a few significant moves to address his lineup over the winter, adding everyday players in Eric Thames and Travis Shaw to bring some more left-handed balance and offensive firepower to his cast of hitters. As I discussed in the latest BP Milwaukee podcast, however, fortifying the pitching staff was an opportunity that Stearns missed the boat on. The arms he brought in – Neftali Feliz, Jared Hughes, and the now-departed Tommy Milone – can best be described as “middling” at this point in the season. Veterans like Jason Hammel (4.91 DRA so far in 2017), Drew Storen (2.42 DRA), and Santiago Casilla (3.68 DRA) lingered on the open market late into the winter and wound up signing inexpensive one or two-year deals, but Stearns was apparently content to open the season with a volatile, mostly unproven pitching staff and a meager payroll that barely surpassed $63 mil, according to Cot’s Contracts.

The Brewers look like they could have the lineup to remain a competitive team this year. But if they hope to end the season with a winning record then it’s unlikely that arms like Jimmy Nelson (7.36 DRA), Wily Peralta (5.86 DRA), Carlos Torres (5.29 DRA), and Hughes (4.92 DRA), among others, will last the entire season on the major league roster. Barring an unforeseen trade or (more likely) waiver claim, that means that any upgrades to the staff will have to come internally. Thankfully, the Brewers have a bevy of both talented and intriguing hurlers down in the minor leagues to call upon when they decide they are ready to pull the plug on one or more of the struggling pitchers currently holding down a spot in Milwaukee.

Immediate Starting Pitcher Depth

RHP Jorge Lopez

Lopez endured a brutal season last year and saw his prospect stock tumble significantly. He was assigned to AA Biloxi to begin this year and appears to have gotten things back on track away from the harsh altitude of Colorado Springs. Through his first five starts Lopez has worked 26.0 innings with a 1.73 ERA and 1.14 FIP, boasting a 30:4 K/BB ratio and 0.81 WHIP. He’s still throwing in the mid-90s and putting hitters away with his plus hammer-curve, and GM David Stearns said he “wouldn’t hesitate” to recall the 24 year old from AA if there’s a need at the big league level.

RHP Paolo Espino

I profiled Espino back in March, identifying him as a candidate to make the big leagues this season based on his outstanding peripherals going back several years at the upper levels of the minors. The 30 year old has done nothing to discredit my prediction so far, anchoring the staff at AAA Colorado Springs with a 3.03 ERA and 3.66 FIP across 29.7 IP. He’s worked an outstanding 29:2 K/BB ratio, and his already terrific 1.08 WHIP is no doubt bloated due to an elevated .325 BABIP that sort of comes with the territory when pitching at Security Service Field. If Espino continues to put up eye-popping numbers, especially at such high altitude, it will be hard to ignore the 30 year old when considering options for the starting rotation.

RHP Aaron Wilkerson

Part of the return from the Red Sox last summer in the Aaron Hill deal, a numbers game forced Wilkerson to AA Biloxi to begin the 2017 season. The 28 year old has performed quite well there, however, posting a 3.26 ERA but 1.33 FIP across 19.3 innings in his first four starts. He’s been hurt by a .396 BABIP, but has yet to allow a home run this season and is sporting a nifty 25:6 K/BB ratio. Wilkerson briefly missed some time due to the birth of his first child, but he’ll be back in the fold with the Shuckers quite soon.

Don’t Expect These Guys Until At Least June

LHP Josh Hader

Hader is the Brewers’ top prospect and by now, most folks know about the high-octane fastball, devastating slider, and side-winding arm slot that he brings to the table. His work at AAA Colorado Springs this year has left a bit to be desired, however, as he’s authored only a 4.40 ERA and 7.24 FIP while pitching 30.7 innings. His strikeout rate is much lower than it’s been in previous seasons, and paired with an elevated walk rate gives him a rather poor 24:19 K/BB ratio. Super Two considerations are certainly at play with Hader, and given his command issues the organization may determine that it’d be better to get his feet wet in the big league bullpen first before inserting him into the starting rotation.

RHP Brandon Woodruff

Woodruff was a pop-up guy last year, posting a cumulative 2.68 ERA and notching a minor league leading 173 strikeouts across 158.0 innings between high-A Brevard County and AA Biloxi. So far he’s carried over that success to AAA Colorado Springs in 2017, working to a stellar 2.22 ERA across 28.3 innings pitched. His FIP (3.81) isn’t quite as shiny, but he does have a solid 23:6 K/BB ratio going and is holding opponents to just a .210 TAv. As with Hader, don’t expect to see Woodruff before we’re comfortably past the typical Super Two deadline.

Bullpen Help

RHP Michael Blazek

Blazek enjoyed a standout season in 2015 as a member of the Brewers’ bullpen, but a rough year last year lead to his outright off of the 40 man roster this spring. He’s been solid for the Sky Sox out of the bullpen so far this year, however, posting a 1.93 ERA through his first 9.3 innings pitched. One would like to see improvement on his 9:5 K/BB ratio, though.

RHP Tyler Cravy

No, the organization isn’t mad at Tyler Cravy. The outspoken righty is doing his part to earn his way back to the big leagues, but is still waiting for a call-up in spite of the 2.45 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, and 11:5 K/BB ratio that he’s produced through 11.0 innings in Colorado Springs.

LHP Brent Suter

Suter has already been up and down a couple of times this season thanks to the flexibility of his minor league option. The soft-tossing lefty is biding his time well in Colorado, though, allowing just two earned runs through 5.3 innings pitched for the Sky Sox.

LHP Wei-Chung Wang

Milwaukee’s starting pitching depth has forced the one-time Rule 5 selection into a bullpen role to start 2017, but he is doing just fine thus far in relief. Wang has worked 8.2 innings while allowing just three earned runs, though two did come on long balls. His 5:4 K/BB ratio could use a bit of improvement before he makes his long awaited return to the big leagues, however.

RHP Taylor Williams

Williams has technically been working as a starter for AA Biloxi after missing the last two seasons with Tommy John surgery, taking the ball at the beginning of four of the five games he’s appeared in this season. He has worked only 11.2 innings though and will probably be eased back slowly towards a larger workload. He has already registered 15 punchouts (though he has seven walks, as well) and is still popping the glove at 96 MPH+.

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