I am not really going to break any new ground here, but it's an issue and it's about the only issue I have any legitimate reason to write about, and it's time to write about baseball. Everybody's got an opinion on who should get the final two spots in the rotation. Gallardo, Wolf, and Davis are a given, and then there's this mess of Bush, Suppan, Parra, and Narveson. Working backwards through the bullpen, Hoffman, Hawkins, Coffey, Stetter, and Vargas look to be locks for spots. So, to simplify, it comes down to Bush, Suppan, Parra, Narveson, and Villanueva for two starting spots and two relief spots.
Villanueva is the only player who can realistically be sent down to AAA, and I tend to think that the likely scenario is that he goes down to start the season, with Narveson and Bush working out of the bullpen for the first part of the season. It's possible that the decision will be made for the Brewers if Hawkins needs to start the season on the DL or if some other complication develops. My understanding is that Villanueva would need to be put on optional waivers similar to what Dave Bush went through when he was sent down to AAA for a start in 2008. It's a near certainty that he could get through.
Now that I've established what I think will happen, I'll lay out what I think would be best to happen. The first move should be to give Parra the fourth slot in the rotation. I've made plenty of arguments and posts about why I have confidence in Parra, and I'll try presenting it this way (and even disregarding my extreme dislike for ERA): in his rookie year of 2008, Manny Parra threw 166 innings with a 4.39 ERA and 4.16 FIP, a 8: 4 K/9 to BB/9 ratio, and 51.6% ground balls. Last year, the ratios fell to 7.5: 5 and 48%. Given that information, one would probably conclude that his ERA would have seen his ERA rise to about 5. In fact his FIP did jump to 4.88, and the obscene ERA of 6.36.
Parra seems to project similarly to Bush and ahead of Suppan and Narveson. He also easily has the highest upside. There's a risk of course. But there's a risk with any of these pitchers.
Bush is next on my hypothetical depth chart. I really think his arm injury was the biggest factor in his struggles last year, and though he's declined, I'd think he'll be about the 4.8-5 pitcher in terms of skill that he has been the past two seasons. I'd also feel alright about him missing a turn or two through the rotation due to off days, something he's done before.
Suppan slides into the long-man spot in the bullpen. Call it the Elmer Dessens role. He pitches only in the lowest-leverage situations, and soaks up as many innings as he possibly can in blowouts. The decision the Brewers need to make is if hiding Suppan in the pen as a fill-in for an injured starter is worth keeping Villanueva out of the majors to start the year. I see both sides of the argument, and I think it's more realistic to keep him on board just due to the enormous salary obligation. It's not difficult to find a replacement for Suppan's production-- actually, Villanueva is a pretty decent bet to provide it even as a starter. So I'll stick Suppan in this spot. He probably won't get much work at all, especially with Bush needing a few innings before his first start.
Narveson goes into a bit of a middle relief role. Being lefthanded already gives him an ability to get some higher-leverage innings as a lefty specialist behind Stetter, with the ability to be trusted in most situations because he can get right-handers out. In my plan, Narveson could be moved into the rotation in the event of an injury or kept in his bullpen role with Suppan getting the bump. I think this role gives Narveson the best chance to succeed. He pitched very well in his limited opportunity in the majors last year and was effective at AAA. But remember, this is a guy who put up a 5.21 FIP in a full season at AAA in 2008. I'd like to see him worked into the majors in a relief role before throwing him into a starting role. If he starts the season in the rotation and throws a few poor starts, he would probably be DFA'd and lost.
Villanueva gets to continue his years and years of being unappreciated. He's a quality middle reliever and will probably have to wait for someone to get injured to be brought back to the majors. I think his days of starting are finished, but hopefully he keeps up what he does so well-- striking batters out, limiting the walks-- and comes in strong when he's first needed. I'm guessing it will be in April.
Rotation depth is critical, and the Brewers have created a nice problem here. All seven of these starters will probably see time as a starter. It's likely that they'll keep all of the depth, and I can't complain about that decision if that's the direction they go.
Side Notes: First, the projection wrap-up post will go up next week. Second, I have a bit of a Twitter situation going on and you're invited to follow along, and if you're a BCB commenter or writer, I'll probably follow you right back. Be warned that I'm going to be a slow starter (there's two right now, one's a joke about Soulja Boy and one's a Drake line). However, I'm really thinking that the BCB Twitter network is going to be a big deal once we get into the season. I'm planning a lot of quick observations that I'm not going to write posts about. Live-time during games. It's a big deal.