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Staffing Strategy for the Sky Sox

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What do recent signings mean for the future?

MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at Pittsburgh Pirates
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Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Brewers’ GM David Stearns’ first move for Milwaukee last year was claiming Junior Guerra off of waivers from the Chicago White Sox. (Wouldn’t the Sox like to have Juni G back now that Chris Sale is gone?). It was fantastically successful, and set the bar pretty darn high for future moves.

This offseason, the Brewers have signed five career minor league/fringe major league pitchers that give them depth and perhaps indicate some philosophical changes to how they are going to develop their young pitchers. Steve Geltz (who elected free agency after being claimed off waiver and then outrighted, rather than pitch in Colorado Springs) Forrest Snow, Andrew Barbosa, Luke Barker and Blake Parker all share a common pitch: the splitter. Coincidence? I think not.

At first glance, it might seem that the Brewers might be simply trying to repeat the success of Guerra. That would be reason enough, but Stearns, assistant GM Matt Arnold, and pitching coach Derek Johnson may have some more specific things in mind. The Brewers may have made the Guerra selection because they were looking for pitchers that threw the splitter, putting the horse before the cart, as it were. Then the signings this year become more of a plan and less of a reaction.

It is possible that Johnson has a plan to help pitchers that have the splitter in their arsenal refine and control it. It generally leads to more ground balls, but so do sinkers and sliders. The difference is that the splitter is a swing and miss pitch, and since teams don’t generally give up on guys that throw 98 mph, this would be the next best thing.

This would all be reason enough to add the five pitchers. If just one of them successfully makes strides anywhere near what Guerra did it will be a very good off season for the Brewers. But even if they don’t, they can help the Brewers in another way.

Last year, Wily Peralta struggled mightily starting games for the Brewers in the first half of the season. The Brewers finally decided to send him down to AAA to work on things. Unfortunately, that meant he was going to Colorado Springs. While there, he pitched to a WHIP of 1.74, allowing 1.1 homers per nine innings. His ERA was 6.31, and he could only manage 41.1 innings in 10 starts. The Brewers brought him back to Milwaukee anyways, and Wily put up a 2.92 ERA with a WHIP of 1.15 (although he still gave up a homer per nine innings).

The Brewers also had several of their young prospect pitchers work at the Springs last year, as well as some that had pitched at the major league level. Taylor Jungmann worked to a 2.39 WHIP with an ERA of 9.89 after being demoted early in the season. He was subsequently sent to AA Biloxi. Jungmann ended up with a 2.51 ERA over 75.1 innings, with a WHIP of 1.17. Wei-Chung Wang put in 26 innings for the Sky Sox with an ERA of 4.85 and a somewhat respectable WHIP of 1.31. At Biloxi, Wang came in at a 3.52 ERA and a 1.26 WHIP. Jorge Lopez struggled mightily at Colorado Springs, with a 6.81 ERA and a WHIP of 1.97. For the Shuckers, Jorge came in at a 3.97 ERA and a 1.35 WHIP. Lefty Josh Hader had a 0.95 ERA and 1.00 WHIP at Biloxi and saw his numbers skyrocket to 5.89 (ERA) and 1.43 (WHIP). These differences seem to uphold the idea that Colorado Springs is not a good place to instill confidence in the organization’s young pitchers.

The Brewers are going to be in Colorado Springs for at least through 2018 after signing another two year PDC this fall. It is conceivable that the Brewers are going to staff the Sky Sox predominantly with these veteran minor leaguers, if they can’t crack the big club. That will free the ‘real’ prospects up to throw at Biloxi. It is true that AA offers a lesser level of competition, but pitching in the minors is more about developing command and control of a prospect’s pitches. If those pitches don’t move the same way at altitude, you can’t gauge how they are developing. So the move makes total sense. Many players already make the jump from AA to the majors, with AAA being the holding ground for emergency players with some major league experience. It isn’t a ground-breaking strategy, but to fill the system with this many career minor leaguers, most with a splitter in their arsenal, can’t be a coincidence. And the strategy seems to make a ton of sense, both is searching for viable major league pitchers and for the development of young pitchers.

Not every one of these signings will stick with the organization, but there is considerably more depth now that can fill in without rushing a prospect. True prospects might avoid pitching in Colorado Springs entirely, and who knows, the next Juni G might be on the roster.

Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs