All the prospect lists coming out before spring training got me thinking about how the cycle of young Brewer pitchers is starting to swing back toward the upper levels of the minors. Last year, at least, Taylor Green and Mat Gamel were really the only big names who had a good shot at coming up from AAA and producing in season. Sure, Michael Fiers got his 2 innings in September, but this year there's a handful of pitchers who could see some big league action in case of need in the bullpen or (and hopefully not) injury to the big league rotation. The last significant Brewer starting pitcher prospect to make it to the majors was Yovani Gallardo. Mark Rogers showed signs of hope 2 years ago before falling off most prospect lists this year. With this flood of solid, and some high-upside, arms approaching the top of the minors it's time to get excited again about possibly seeing some of these guys in action during the season. I'm sure many of us remember the day Gallardo was called up like it's yesterday, there's just something exciting about a new pitcher, and it's infinitely more exciting than the carousel of folks like Sean Green, Jorge Julio, Elmer Dessens, Julian Tavarez, and Claudio Vargas types we've been subjected to in the past couple of years. It's just so much more fun to have a neat prospect be the long man. I make no claims on being an expert on who actually might be at the top of the list for a callup in case of injury or ineffectiveness in the current bullpen, and it might well depend on performance this season, but I'll try my hand at a few options.
Wily Peralta, 6'2", 240, age 22, finished 2011 at AAA. He's the #1 prospect in our own community rankings and the Disciples of Uecker Prospect Rankings revealed this week. There's not much to not like with Peralta, who throws hard, gets strikeouts, and kept the BB/9 rate in the 3s last year. He did most of his work (120 innings) at AA in 2011, and pitched 31 stellar innings at AAA to close out the season. The knocks on Peralta coming through the system were his lack of stamina to go deep in games, raw secondary pitches, and lack of control. He's managed to drop his walk rate, develop his pitches, and go deep into games while maintaining velocity, and there aren't any knocks on him anymore. On a team with a pitching staff less strong than the Brewers (for example, every Brewers team before 2011-2012) he'd be a lock as a midseason callup if he throws well to start the year. I'd think he'd be option number 1 if a starter went down for a significant period of time (as you'd think Marco Estrada would be the short-term spot starter, if need be). Either way, I think Peralta will force his way on to the staff one way or another by the end of the season, even in the bullpen if that's the only spot available, if he pitches anything like he did in 2011. I sure hope he's not needed in the starting rotation, but his middle to high 90s fastball could be an asset out of the pen in August, September and October. I'd say the odds are he pitches a significant amount of innings for the Brewers in 2012.
Tyler Thornburg, 5'11", 185, age 23, finished 2011 at A+. He split 2011 between Wisconsin and Brevard County and had a great season, striking out over 11 per 9 innings and walking only 3.8. He's shot to the top of a couple of prospect lists, he's at 3 in the BCB ratings and 4 in the DoU list. Scouts have had issues with Thornburg's size and penciled him into the bullpen ever since he was drafted, but that's not fair to him yet because he has done nothing but produce. The problem with Thornburg right now is that his high 90s fastball tends to trail off later in games. He will most likely spend all of his age 23 season at AA but could be in line for a promotion to AAA if he pitches well in his first assignment. He's a college-drafted pitcher, so there's no reason to slow him down if he overmatches his competition. In the long run it makes sense to give Thornburg every chance to be a starter, in the short term he could certainly be an option out of the bullpen as a late-season callup if the need arises. I'd say the chances of Thornburg making his major league debut in 2011 aren't that great, but they aren't zero either. Hopefully, he won't need to.
Cody Scarpetta, 6'3", 244, age 23, finished 2011 at AA. Scarpetta had a solid season in 2011 but it wasn't the kind of season he needed to make a convincing case that he deserved a shot in the big leagues this season. He sits at 11 in the BCB community rankings and 10 in the DoU rankings. Scarpetta has a big fastball and a nice-looking curveball, but only managed 7.5 K to 4.4 BB per 9 innings last year at AA. He put up a 3.85 ERA, matching his 2010 total, but also has yet to top 128 innings in his career. 2012 is a big year for Scarpetta. He has to stay on the 40-man roster, so he's automatically going to be considered for a callup when a pitcher is needed. However, he needs to really establish that he deserves a shot at the big league level. I could certainly see Scarpetta spending some time in 2012 in the majors as a long man if a couple of guys in the bullpen go down mid-season.
Taylor Jungmann, 6'6", 220, age 22, didn't pitch in the minors in 2011. Jungmann has been projected by most to begin 2011 at A+, but that might well be a short stop for him if the competition is a bit too easy. Jungmann is a typical, workhorse, advanced college pitcher with a fastball that can get ground balls-- a kind of guy who should be able to dominate at high A at age 22. We will likely see him at AA at some point in 2012. When he was drafted, Jungmann was considered one of those guys who could play in the majors the year or year after he was drafted. Fortunately, the Brewers won't need a pitcher that badly this season to force the issue. In case of emergency, however, Jungmann isn't a bad guy to have stashed at AA late in the season-- if injury issues forced 2 starters out of the rotation at the same time, Jungmann might well be on the list of pitchers to consider to come up and fill in. The only clear-cuts I see ahead of him would be Marco Estrada and Wily Peralta, and likely Michael Fiers. I kind of heavily doubt that Jungmann makes his major league debut this season, but it's not as if it is out of the question.
Finally, I want to mention Michael Fiers, who made his major league debut with a couple of scoreless innings this past September. If everyone's healthy he's not going to make the opening day roster, but he's most likely the first guy to be called up if a pitcher is needed. There's plenty to be excited about with Fiers as well, but my point in this post is that instead of relying on some AAAA pitchers to come up and fill holes as the Brewers have had to do in the past (or even to fill out their roster out of spring training), there's going to be legitimate competition amongst prospects who are close to ready for the final spots on the major league roster. And if somebody goes down, it's not going to be Rick Helling coming up from AAA to make the next 3 starts, it's going to be a legitimate prospect. That's exciting and reassuring that the kind of depth is there to make a big run this year.