Although fans have been clamoring for the team to add a rotation-topping starter to the mix (joining most fans of every team, everywhere), the Brewers have a rich seam of advanced arms surging towards Miller Park. Craig Counsell has singled out names like Corbin Burnes, Freddy Peralta, and Adrian Houser this spring as prospects with a good chance of tossing major league innings this year. Beyond that trio, Josh Hader and Brandon Woodruff will play a prominent role in the 2018 run, while Jorge López will be waiting for a phone call in Colorado Springs. That’s six names already, and it’s not hard to imagine two or three of them settling in as mid-rotation starters or solid relievers as soon as 2019; each pitcher has at least a chance of becoming a something more.
There’s one more impact prospect on the cusp of this wave, buried behind more steady performers but well ahead of the next tier of arms: Luis Ortiz, the last man standing from the blockbuster 2016 return for Jonathan Lucroy and Jeremy Jeffress. If things go right for Ortiz, he has a chance to outshine all the rest.
Thus far in Ortiz’s brief tenure as a Brewers farmhand, though, things have not gone right. He posted impressive baseball-card-stats upon joining the organization late in 2016, but the 1.93 ERA he ran across six starts in Biloxi belied a plummeting K-rate and a 6.51 DRA. Still, it was only six starts, and Ortiz entered the 2017 season solidly in the middle of most top-100 prospect lists. You won’t find him on any of those lists now. Ortiz battled injury and stretches of ineffectiveness throughout last season. A balky hamstring forced him out of the rotation twice and contributed to some shaky mechanics and 3.5 walks per nine innings. At season’s end, Ortiz was sitting on a 4.01 ERA, 4.84 DRA, and 94.3 innings across 20 starts. He’s fallen short of 100 innings pitched in each of his professional seasons.
It’s tempting to see a body like Ortiz’s and forecast continued struggles with health and conditioning. Listed at 6’3” and 230 pounds, Ortiz will always be a big guy, and it’s fair to wonder whether last year’s hamstring injury could have been avoided with better conditioning. Ortiz may have wondered that himself, actually. He showed up to spring camp this year in better shape than he left last fall, and worked over the offseason to improve his flexibility and stamina. If he’s able to stay on the mound, the organization sees big things in Ortiz’s future.
When Ortiz is on, he’ll show three average-or-better offerings, plus a slow curve that he’ll sprinkle in his second and third time through a lineup. Used in that way, the curveball plays up a bit; it’s good for puzzled caught-lookings and flummoxed half-swings. He’s predominantly a fastball-slider pitcher, though, and both of those pitches easily grade out as plus. They’re ready to retire major league hitters right now, and Ortiz is still just 22 years old. The fastball runs in the 93–96 mph range, and Ortiz manipulates it well, adding sink and swerve as needed to keep hitters off balance. He knows how to locate his mid-80s, biting slider, giving him an effective out pitch. His changeup is an average pitch with glimmers of more, and he commands it well. Put all the pieces together and cross your fingers for health, and that’s the profile of a #2 or #3 starter. It’s just that the results haven’t quite backed that up yet.
Ortiz is determined to change that in 2018, where he’ll likely settle in for a third tour at Biloxi (it bears repeating: he’s still just 22), this time with a clean bill of health atop his priority list. He’ll need to be added to the 40-man roster next offseason to avoid being exposed in the Rule 5 draft, a fact that he’sand using for motivation. With age on his side and something to prove, Ortiz is poised to shoot back up prospect lists and into the Brewers’ near-term rotation plans. His is a volatile profile: one should never assume health for a starting pitcher, and Ortiz’s frame makes it even harder. But all the tools are there. And the Brewers need only a few of their prized arms to pan out to have the makings of an excellent 2019 or 2020 starting rotation. Ortiz has as good a chance as any of them to slot in towards the top of that staff.