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Spring Training Position Battles: Starting Rotation

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The Brewers are in a better place with the starting rotation than they have been in a long time. Even though the starting five appears set, there's still plenty to play for in spring training this year.

Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

The starting rotation is always a position of competition in spring training. While the main competition may be in making the rotation, opportunities are always available throughout the season. Pitchers get injured, deal with slumps, and replacements are needed. For the Brewers this year, there's no lack of choices for the rotation. There are at least 15 different pitchers who could make a case for starts this year. Though the starting five may be a near lock, it doesn't mean that there's plenty to play for in camp this year.

The Predicted Rotation

Jimmy Nelson*
Taylor Jungmann*
Wily Peralta
Chase Anderson*
Matt Garza

There are the five pitchers expected to be in the rotation for the Brewers entering camp this year. While the order still has to be decided, as long as they have decent springs and don't get injured, they will be the five pitchers in the rotation to start the season. The order I have listed above is the rotation as I would put it to start the season.

Jimmy Nelson was the best pitcher in the rotation last year, and deserves the opportunity to lead the rotation in 2016. His 2.1 fWAR led the pitching staff last season. The results weren't great (4.11 ERA, 4.10 FIP), but it was a step forward for him. He's the pitcher that the Brewers are building around right now, and it would make sense to feature him as the Opening Day starter.

While Nelson was the best pitcher, if you focused on just the second half of the season, the best pitcher would be Taylor Jungmann. He came up in June to help fill the rotation, and was a pleasant surprise. He posted a 3.77 ERA and 3.92 FIP in his partial season with a 1.6 fWAR. The results were even better to start, but September hit him hard (7.85 ERA, 6.87 FIP). He said recently that he just tired out at the end of the season, so there's the hope that the negative results were just a result of being tired.

While the first two had good seasons, the rest of the projected rotation would like to leave 2015 behind. First up is Wily Peralta, who declined in 2015 after putting together a good 2014. His stats jumped (4.72 ERA, 4.84 FIP), while some of his peripherals drops (4.97 K/9, 3.06 BB/9). His pitches had a noticeable drop in velocity, with his fastball dropping to 94.3 MPH, a dip of 1.5 MPH. It's possible that the drop was injury-related, so hopefully it was just a temporary dip.

The newest pitcher in the rotation in 2016 will be Chase Anderson. Acquired in the Jean Segura trade, Anderson should be in the rotation to start the season. His numbers jumped a little (4.30 ERA, 4.14 FIP), the strikeout rate dropped (6.54 K/9) but he was still a valuable pitcher (1.6 fWAR). There's hope that it was just a bad year, as his fastball actually increased a half MPH last year. He does have an option available if he needs to spend time in the minors, but that shouldn't happen unless he has a bad spring.

Finally, we finish up with Matt Garza. It's probably a long shot that he starts in the #5 spot in the rotation, but after how he finished last season, he needs to rebuild his reputation a little bit. His numbers jumped (5.63 ERA, 4.94 FIP), and finished the season even worse (6.75 ERA, 5.41 FIP). What makes a lot of fans mad is that he seemed to give up on the team in September after being removed from the rotation. However, the Brewers have at least two more years with him, and the possibilities of a trade are low. The best they can hope for is a bounce-back year from Garza, and potentially make him a trade chip later on in the season.

The Minor League Depth

Zach Davies*
Jorge Lopez*
Adrian Houser*
Josh Hader*
Hiram Burgos^

While the five pitchers in the starting rotation is basically set to start the year, it doesn't mean that there's no space for other starting pitchers this season. There's no chance that the Brewers will only use five starting pitchers this season. Last season, the Brewers used eleven starting pitchers over the course of the season. The original five starting pitchers from last season took 118 of the 162 starts, with another 44 starts available for other starters. In fact, not one of the original five starters from last year's rotation finished the year in the rotation. Opportunities will be available this season, the only question is when they will come.

First up is Zach Davies, acquired from the Orioles last season. Of the minor-league options available for the Brewers, Davies is the one that is the most major-league ready. In fact, he got his first taste of the majors last year and did well, posting a 3.71 ERA and 3.87 FIP. The walk rate was a bit high (3.97 BB/9), but that should hopefully correct with more experience in the minors. He should be the top pitcher at Colorado Springs this year and the first to get the call if anything goes wrong.

While Davies may be the first pitcher called, he's not the top pitcher prospect for the Brewers. That honor goes to Jorge Lopez, who came in at #57 on MLB's top 100 rankings, #59 at Baseball America, and #71 at Baseball Prospectus. Lopez also got a taste of the majors last year, making two starts for the Brewers. The results don't look impressive, but he turned a lot of heads with his performance. He also excelled in the minors, posting a 2.26 ERA in Biloxi (only bested by former teammate Tyler Wagner's 2.25 ERA). The one knock against Lopez right now is that he's not as major-league ready as Davies is, with the two MLB starts from last year his only experience above Double-A. He should start the year at Colorado Springs, but should also get a call to the majors at some point in 2016.

Next up is a pair of pitchers acquired in the Carlos Gomez/Mike Fiers trade from last season. The first of the two is Adrian Houser, who impressed in his short time in the organization last year. In seven starts with the Shuckers, he posted a 2.92 ERA and 3.35 FIP. The highlight came in Biloxi's playoff run, when he pitched a three-hit shutout with ten strikeouts in one of his starts. That was enough to earn him a call-up at the end of the year, and he had two scoreless relief appearances for the Brewers. Like Lopez, he needs some time in Colorado Springs for additional experience, but could get a few starts for the Brewers this year.

The second pitcher acquired in that trade was Josh Hader, one of the few left-handed starting prospects that the Brewers have. Between Houser and him, he is the higher rated of the two players. His performance in the Arizona Fall League (0.56 ERA, 2.71 FIP in 16 innings) got him on a lot of people's radars, and earned him a #61 ranking in MLB.com's top prospects list. Unlike the previous three pitchers, he is not on the 40-man roster yet, which is why he is lower on the list than some of the other prospects. He also needs some time in Colorado Springs this year, but in a pinch, he could get added to the roster and brought up to make some starts in 2016.

The last of the minor-league pitchers is Hiram Burgos, who was re-signed this offseason to a minor-league contract and in camp as a non-roster invitee. At one point, Burgos was a name to watch on Brewers prospect lists, and even made six starts for the Brewers in 2013. However, shoulder injuries in 2013 and 2014 have really hurt his chances. His numbers in Colorado Springs were good (3.35 ERA, 4.06 FIP), but he's buried on the depth chart now. He can't be counted out though, because when a pitcher is needed quick, there's always a chance to make an impact. He will have to prove himself at Colorado Springs for now.

The Bullpen-or-Bust Pitchers

Tyler Cravy*
Junior Guerra*
Sean Nolin
Ariel Pena

These are the players who may have a shot at the rotation, but it's minimal at best. With all of the depth the Brewers already have for the rotation, there's just no space for them. However, they still have a good shot at the bullpen, and could see a few spots starts if they are kept in long relief.

First up is Tyler Cravy. He spent time with the Brewers last season, getting a few starts and pitching from the bullpen as well. The results weren't good for him in the first year, as he posted a 5.70 ERA and 4.70 FIP in 42.2 innings pitched. He should get a shot at making the bullpen, and could also start the year in Colorado Springs for depth. However, beyond a spot start or two, there's too many other options for him to get an extended chance.

I may get a hard time from Kyle on this one, but I included Junior Guerra in this section. Here's what it came down to. As it stands right now, Guerra is probably around the 10th or 11th option for the rotation. He's also 31, and the prospects ahead of him are younger and have a higher ceiling. If Guerra wants to start, he's going to have to prove it in Spring Training, and then probably in Colorado Springs. I don't doubt that Guerra could make an appearance with the Brewers this year, I just think he's buried behind too many people right now. His future is in the bullpen, at least for now.

The last two players on this list don't have options, so they would have to be kept on the team out of spring training in the bullpen. The newest of the two is Sean Nolin, who the Brewers claimed off of waivers from the Athletics as Spring Training began. Nolin was drafted by the Blue Jays in 2010 and spent five years with them before going to the Athletics in 2015. The minor-league numbers have always been good for him, but his major-league numbers (career 6.89 ERA, 5.91 FIP) have just not been there yet. Though he has been a starter in the past, his best chance of making the team will be in the bullpen. However, if he makes the team, his starting experience could earn him a start or two in an emergency.

The other player who is out of options is Ariel Pena. He finally broke into the majors last year, making five starts in six appearances and posting a 4.28 ERA and 3.87 FIP. The strikeout numbers are good (8.89 K/9) but the walk rate was very high (4.61 BB/9). Pena's biggest challenge right now is that he's buried beneath a lot of other starting-level talent now. In a rebuilding year, the Brewers probably aren't ready to give up on him yet and, assuming he has a good spring, should end up in the bullpen. He is another candidate who could get a start or two if the right situation emerges this year.

The Long Shots

Chris Capuano^

Last up is an old fan favorite, Chris Capuano. He had a rough year last year as a member of the Yankees, where he was being yanked between the minors and the majors several times, and also spent a lot of time in limbo. This year, he's in camp trying to make the team as a NRI. With all of the depth the team has already built up, it's hard to see him making the team as anything other than a long shot. With a good spring, he might be able to sneak into the bullpen, or if he's willing, start the year in Colorado Springs. He would have the standard opt-out option for veterans if he doesn't want to go to the minors, though. He has a lot of work to do if he wants to contribute this year. I'm not saying he can't do it, he just has a long uphill battle ahead of him.

Conclusion

The starting rotation is in a much better position than they have been for several years. While they don't have the same level of talent they have had some years, the depth is much better than we have seen in a long time. Finding a starting pitcher won't be an issue this year. However, there's also a lot of development here. Only Garza and Peralta have over three years of experience in the majors, meaning we could see a lot of growing pains. Paitience will need to be a key component to evaluating this year's rotation. With a good year, this could be the first step towards building a dominant rotation once again.

^ - NRI on minor-league contract
* - Player has options left
Stats from Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs.