The Brewers might have traded away Zack Greinke last summer and lost Shaun Marcum to free agency, but they're not without their intriguing arms despite these events. Brewers fans are aware of that much, even if the rest of the league isn't, as they've already seen what a rotation without that pair looks like given Marcum's injuries and Greinke not sticking for the whole year.
What's a little lesser-known, though, is just what can be expected from the group of five arms that the Brewers have assembled. The lone constant in the rotation is Yovani Gallardo, while everyone else is young, inexperienced, or both, with plenty of questions -- both good and bad -- surrounding them. It's a little frightening to enter the season with a rotation like that, but at the same time, there is legitimate upside here, and that fear could be very temporary if things go right.
Yovani Gallardo: While Gallardo has been overshadowed by the presence of Greinke and even the trade and subsequent pitching of Marcum, he's been the most consistent of the bunch. From 2009 through 2012, ages 23 through 26, Gallardo has compiled 782 innings and an ERA 10-percent better than average. That doesn't make him an ace, but it does put him in some pretty distinct company comparatively: just 17 other pitchers have posted at least an ERA+ of 110 in that span of time with a minimum of 750 innings pitched.
If Gallardo can pump out 200 well-above-average frames again, the top of the Brewers' rotation is going to be in a good place. He won't be able to give Milwaukee a chance on his own, but that's where the rest of the Brew Crew's starters come in.
Marco Estrada: He was second on the Brewers in starts last year, but made just 23 of them -- there was all kinds of turnover in Milwaukee's rotation in 2012. What's fascinating about Estrada is that his best season in the majors came last year, when he finally did commit to starting -- normally, the switch to relief is the path of least resistance for a pitcher.
Estrada kept his strikeouts up, though, improving on the 33 punch outs in 41 innings he posted as a starter in 2011 by whiffing over a batter per frame in 2012. Perhaps more importantly, Estrada managed a career-best walk rate, handing out free passes to just 29 batters in 138 frames, good for just under two per nine. While homers could be a bit of an issue, some of that, like with any Brewers' pitcher, has to do with his home park. For the right-handed Estrada, that's even more apparent, given Miller Park is one of the most homer-friendly stadiums in the game for left-handed sluggers.
Over the last two years, Estrada has thrown 231 innings between 30 starts and another 42 relief appearances. He's logged a 106 ERA+ in that time frame, with nearly four times as many whiffs as walks. That's probably a fair expectation going forward as a starter, and while there are concerns his lack of velocity could be problematic if his command wavers, there's definitely talent here.
Wily Peralta: He'll be all of 24 years old seasonally in 2013, but there's a lot to like about Peralta, rated by Baseball America as the #56 prospect overall heading into the 2012 season. His first long-term taste of Triple-A wasn't appealing thanks to a spike in his walk rate, but life in the Pacific Coast League can do that to you, as half of Nashville's division is comprised of parks built for the purpose of destroying a young pitcher's self-confidence. While it was just five big-league starts, he acquitted himself well in the time allotted him with the Brewers last season, striking out 23 batters in 29 innings, against just 11 walks.
Peralta is the Brewers best pitching prospect, but, like everyone else here, he's no ace in the making. He does, however, have the upside of a strong third starter, and if he could pitch himself into that ceiling as soon as 2013, Milwaukee's rotation will be all the better for it. In order for that to happen, his command is going to be need to be consistent. There are plenty of scouts who see him as a better fit as a power reliever, rather than as a starter, and if the command doesn't settle in at a comfortable consistency, they're going to be right.
For now, though, there's little reason for the Brewers to force that issue. Peralta has barely tasted life in the majors, and a starting gig and career is his to lose given the quality pitching that's brought him this far. There is a ton of value in an arm that could throw a full season of average ball, and Peralta is going to be given the chance to prove he can do just that.
Mike Fiers: It's a shame there were so many other storylines to cover in 2012, as the emergence of the 27-year-old Fiers was worthwhile subject matter. Fiers didn't join the pros until he was already 24 years old, and he spent every season up to 2012 bouncing between relief work and starting. His work at Triple-a Nashville last season wasn't anything special, though as with Peralta it did have the taint of the PCL on it. Once he reached the majors, however, Fiers started to pitch the best baseball of his life.
From May through August, Fiers was basically unstoppable. He posted a 2.85 ERA in 101 innings, limiting opponents to a 610 OPS, all with a league-average batting average on balls in play. He struck out just over a batter per inning, too, giving him nearly four-and-a-half times as many punch outs as free passes. It all seemed a bit too good to be true, given his age and non-prospectdom, and the wheels did come off the Fiers bandwagon a bit in September. Giving up over one-third of your total walks in the season in a month's time, while also allowing six of your 12 homers, will do that.
The season's final month doesn't mean Fiers is a broken pitcher, though. He's never been a starter for a full season before, not in the majors, not in the minors. The 127 frames he threw in the majors in 2012 would have been a career high for him by itself - the fact he also tossed 55 innings in the minors just adds to that. Some fatigue at season's end, resulting in poorer control and command, is expected at that point, regardless of his being well out of the injury nexus realm of younger arms. The 2013 season will be the real test of his ability, as he now has a reasonable innings expectation for a major-league starter under his belt thanks to last year's 180-plus. He might not have a sub-three ERA going forward, but if he can even approximate last year's sum total, then he's going to be a useful cog for Milwaukee.
Mark Rogers: The last of the five on the Brewers' depth chart is Rogers, who, back in the day, was quite the prospect. He qualifies as post-hype these days given he's heading into his age-27 season and has all of 49 major-league innings on his resume compared to well over 500 in the minors. Multiple shoulder surgeries delayed his development, but the fact he didn't pitch particularly well in the minors the last two years hasn't helped either.
In his seven major-league starts in 2012, Rogers struck out 41 in 39 innings, helping him approach a strikeout-to-walk ratio of three. Durability will be a concern for him going forward, as it has been forever, but if he can keep on the mound, he'll likely remain a starter. Whether or not his control can stick is also of import, but priority one is his ability to stay off of the disabled list and avoid major arm injuries.
Like the rest of this staff, Rogers has the potential to be an average or better starter if things go his way. If there are concerns about his health, or his control turns out to be consistently problematic, he could be banished to a life in the bullpen. For the guy at the back-end of the rotation, though, that's not exactly an uncommon fear, and the upside is still there for him to be a contributing member of a big-league rotation.
It's rare that everything works out for a rotation, and when you have as many questions as the Brewers do, it's likely that something is answered in an unsatisfying manner. That being said, despite the lack of a clear ace, the Brewers might have a rotation that, up-and-down, is going to give their offense more than a fair chance to win each night out. That in and of itself is important, and is likely the key to the Brewers' attempt to compete in 2013.