The Brewers have a decision to make, soon. In the next week or two, Matt Garza is expected to come off the disabled list and will require a spot in the starting rotation. The current Brewers rotation consists of Yovani Gallardo, Kyle Lohse, Wily Peralta, Mike Fiers and Jimmy Nelson. The first three are guaranteed to remain. The final two, not so much.
Basically, the Brewers have three realistic options:
- Remove Mike Fiers from rotation, keep Jimmy Nelson in rotation
- Remove Jimmy Nelson from rotation, keep Mike Fiers in rotation
- Go to a six-man staff down the stretch while clinging to a slight divisional lead
Nelson didn't do himself any grand favors last night. He wasn't terrible -- five hits and two walks over five innings, leading to four runs just two of which were earned. Seven strikeouts in that timeframe certainly looks nice. But his control wasn't all there and Mike Fiers has come on like gangbusters. At this point, it seems like the best short-term decision the Brewers could make is to keep Fiers in the rotation with Nelson to the bullpen or as a sixth starter.
It's not an easy decision to make, certainly. However, one thing that can make the Brewers' choice a little easier is Nelson's innings pitched. Thus far in 2014, he has tossed 163.2 innings between Triple-A and the majors, more than he ever has in the past. Saying that is slightly misleading, though: He pitched just under 163 innings last year.
Still, if Nelson were to make another six starts in 2014 (around where he'd be if he stays in a five-man rotation), he'll be pushing 200 innings. He can probably handle it -- he's 25 and has always put a fair amount of work on his arm. But there's a risk there that the Brewers need not take when it's not necessary.
The Brewers, though, have not showed a great propensity to shut down their younger pitchers early. Last year, for example, the team let Wily Peralta toss 183 innings in his first full season. In 2012, Peralta threw 175 innings. In 2011, 150. Nelson is in a pretty similar situation to that.
Before Peralta, it was Fiers himself who was a young starter up for the first time in 2012. That season, he ended up pitching over 180 innings. After joining the Brewers in late-May, he pitched amazingly well before tailing off at the end of the season. Prior to that year he had pitched 128, 125 and 41 innings in his first three big league seasons. After ramping his innings up in 2012, he spent much of 2013 hurt (mostly from a broken forearm) and was mostly ineffective when he did pitch.
After Fiers, you have to go back to Yovani Gallardo's first few years for a young homegrown Brewers pitcher. Gallardo split 2007 between the minors and big leagues, making 17 starts for the Brewers overall. He ended up throwing almost 180 innings that year in total having had a previous career high of 155. A freak injury caused him to miss most of the 2008 season, but he came back with another 185 innings in 2009.
None of Peralta, Fiers or Gallardo have showed any injury concerns that have anything to do with pitching. Both Gallardo and Fiers had long-term injuries, but those were broken bones and torn ACLs. Nothing that would stem from being overworked.
Teams have been criticized in the past for shutting down young pitchers in a pennant race. The Nationals are a wonderful example as they prematurely ended Stephen Strasburg's great 2012 season while chasing a potental championship. However, Washington's playoffs ended early with a three-games-to-two defeat at the hands of the Cardinals in the NLDS.
The Brewers have, in the past, seemed against that model. When the Nationals shut down Strasburg, Ron Roenicke made a point to say he does not want to find himself in a situation where he is shutting down a young player at an important time just because of an innings limit.
So while the Brewers are soon to find themselves making a difficult choice as to who will stay in the rotation, it seems unlikely that the number of innings Jimmy Nelson has pitched will come into play. Instead, the team will go with the option that they feel will lead to the most success if recent history is any indication. Which option that will be is anyone's guess, but I think most fans would prefer the Brewers not worry about innings limits with the playoffs on the line.