When Brewers GM David Stearns took over the reins of the club, his first move established a particular type of rebuilding approach: he traded reliever Francisco Rodriguez to Detroit for infield prospect Javier Betancourt and a player to be named later (catcher Manny Pina). This was a relatively solid trade for an established-but-not-necessarily-impact veteran reliever, where Stearns sought a potential high-floor defensive infielder and a catcher who had yet to receive an extended shot playing behind the dish. This type of value-based approach was echoed in his next big trade, which involved another established veteran in first baseman Adam Lind. Here, Stearns accomplished a brand of trade that many analysts have called for since: he flipped a serviceable contract for a trio of extremely low minors pitching prospects. When the Lind trade occurred, Carlos Herrera (age-19 for 2016), Freddy Peralta (age-20), and Daniel Missaki (age-20) were ready to exit their teenage years after early career development in the Seattle system. Each of these arms hardly had minor league track records established, let alone potential MLB ceilings or risk profiles; the risk was extreme in that each player was (at the time) expected to be years and years away from the MLB.
That ends today, when righty Freddy Peralta takes the mound in a spot start for the Brewers. Peralta is listed at 5’11”, 175 pounds, and quickly gained a reputation among the trio of Lind starters for a potential MLB role. In 2016, Peralta surged through Class-A Wisconsin, striking out 77 batters in 60 innings, while maintaining a relatively solid command profile. What is particularly interesting about Peralta is that the prospect allowed 35 percent ground ball rate in 2016, which ticked up to 51 percent when he was promoted to Advanced-A Brevard County before falling again in 2017. Thus far in 2018, Peralta made a strong transition to the difficult pitching confines of Triple-A Colorado Springs, bumping his ground ball rate up to 54 percent to go along with that big strike out rate (this time it’s 46 strike outs in 34.7 IP thus far). But now prospect analysts and fans can surmise Peralta’s groundball approach from his scouting profile: the righty is a moving fastball specialist, and one wonders if his repeated mechanical development and arsenal adjustments is allowing him to keep the ball on the ground at a more steady rate.
Freddy Peralta is a potential back-end rotation starter, but in Milwaukee that does not necessarily mean what it says, for two reasons. In the first case, one must emphasize that potential scouting roles, even those scouted in the advance minors, are not the be-all, end-all of player development; in fact, the David Stearns Brewers should demonstrate specifically how player development windows are much longer than the A-to-A+-to-AA-and-AAA progression. Zach Davies is a fantastic comparison for Peralta here, both in terms of advanced minors role (Davies was scouted as a high-floor back-end rotation arm prior to his debut), and diminutive arsenal development at the MLB level. Davies, the back-end sinker/change up pitcher, entered 2018 having prevented approximately 15 runs through 388.7 innings, which is quite strong at the back end. This does not necessarily mean that Peralta is a guaranteed rotational success (in fact, his scouting floor might ultimately place him in the bullpen, which is not necessarily a bad thing), but it is at the very least a hint that Milwaukee is a place where player development can extend to the MLB in an extremely positive manner.
Second, Freddy Peralta, along with Davies, Brent Suter, Junior Guerra, Jacob Barnes, Jeremy Jeffress, Oliver Drake, and even Chase Anderson, is one of the faces of the Brewers current pitching-first, depth-based strategy. The organization has been built around acquiring pitchers with very specific, and quite intriguing, profiles in the age of fireballing velocity around the MLB: the Brewers are a generally a slow-throwing bunch, and when they’re not a slow-throwing bunch, they are typically focused on change-up / curveball / cutter / splitter arsenals. Perhaps this is a feature that will become clearer over time with more player acquisitions, but thus far it seems unmistakable that Stearns and pitching coach Derek Johnson prefer a very particular type of profile to feed ground balls to the extremely efficient groundball defense.
This offseason, Freddy Peralta was featured as one of the Top 20 prospects in the system by Baseball Prospectus. Scott Delp wrote:
“One reason for the lack of hype is that Peralta has no show-stopping pitches. The fastball tops out at just 92, but he cuts it, runs it, sinks it, and can move it all around the zone. The changes in speed and movement allow him to keep hitters off balance. He is especially good at locating up in the zone to put hitters away. He also has a potentially plus slider with good late bite that he throws 84-86. He is looking for a reliable third pitch and can flash average with both a curve and change, but neither pitch has any consistency right now.”
Delp also added an essay to the end of the list, arguing that Peralta should be in the Top Ten, writing “Then there is profile bias. Certain players can get less notice because they are lacking the profile that we feel is necessary for true success.” Peralta fits this mold, as Delp noted:
“The conventional wisdom says that guys without a big fastball and without the classic pitcher’s body can only have success by either having a lot of deception in their deliveries or by having elite command. Peralta’s command is just a bit above average and, while he throws slightly across his body which gives him some deception, his results mostly come from his ability to change speeds and looks with his fastball and to mix his other pitches to keep hitters off balance.”
Peralta’s size and profile, in this sense, scream relief risk, and maybe a potential impact relief role or impact swingman role (like a righty Suter), for the future. But there’s a glimpse in a moving fastball arsenal that perhaps Peralta could stick in a back-end rotational role should his command continue to develop at the MLB (and, I’d add, that he continues his positive ground ball rate progression). Suddenly, though, Milwaukee is also becoming such a good pitching environment that one can squint at guys like Peralta and sense that maybe this is the best system in which for Peralta to work.
For Brewers fans wondering why the club did not acquire a pitcher such as Lance Lynn, Alex Cobb, Jeremy Hellickson, or Jake Arrieta during the offseason, and instead opted to work with Wade Miley and Jhoulys Chacin as the major rotational acquisitions, the Freddy Peralta promotion should serve as one particular answer. The Brewers are already exercising their depth, with Wade Miley injured, Brent Suter and Brandon Woodruff as swingmen, and Junior Guerra excelling. Moreover, though, the Brewers have correctly assessed a league filled with pitching attrition, and today the club will become the fourth National League team to work with eight starting pitchers thus far. Through roughly a quarter of the season, only one NL team (Colorado) has used five starters, and overall teams have used 102 pitchers to fill their rotation spots.
Milwaukee has designed their rotation to work with their advanced minors depth, and if fans are exciting about Freddy Peralta working, they should think about Corbin Burnes potentially taking the next rotational availability when needed. But that’s just one of many possibilities, as even newly-recalled Alec Asher fits the Stearns-Johnson Pitcher Factory profile as a relatively low velocity, sinker / cutter / change / curve hurler. Before too long, Milwaukee will probably have ten starting pitchers in the mix at the MLB level in 2018, and that’s before one even considers Jimmy Nelson’s position with the club. The rotation is quite serviceable with this approach (approximately -6 runs prevented thus far), and the mix-and-match rotational profile is basically serving as early innings damage mitigation prior to handing the ball off to an elite bullpen (24 runs prevented!). So, Peralta enters a successful pitching staff and an organization that seems perfectly suited for his continued development: here the hope is that the righty gets to showcase his best stuff today, and make the next decision regarding a spot start or an extended call-up a little tougher amidst all the future competition from Miley, Guerra, Nelson, and Burnes.