Going into last season, there was a belief that one of the strengths of the Milwaukee Brewers could be their pitching rotation. With Matt Garza on the mend, Taylor Jungmann and Jimmy Nelson coming off solid seasons, the addition of Chase Anderson, and a hopeful bounceback from Wily Peralta, Tony Blengino of ESPN felt the rotation could be “better than expected” and buy time for the prized young arms to finish their development in the upper levels of the minor leagues. The rotation did ultimately work out to be a strength, but it certainly didn’t look that way to start out the season.
Matt Garza hit the disabled list before the season even started and missed the first two months of action. Anderson, Peralta, and Jungmann all got off to dreadful starts. Jungmann was banished to the minors in the beginning of May after an ERA over 9.00 through his first five starts, and Peralta followed suit in June after a 6.68 ERA in his first 13 starts. Zach Davies was tabbed to replace Garza in the rotation and struggled mightily while taking losses in his first three starts. But the tide began to turn on May 3rd, when a (mostly) unexpected savior arrived to steady Milwaukee’s pitching staff and help drive a 3.62 second-half ERA (2nd in the National League).
When Jungmann lost his spot in the starting rotation, he was replaced by 31 year old journeyman right-hander Junior Guerra. The Brewers had claimed Guerra off waivers from the Chicago White Sox, with whom he had made his MLB debut the year before after 15 years of toiling in the minors and foreign and independent leagues. The #2016BrewersAce wound up taking the ball for 20 starts in his inaugural season with Milwaukee, working 121.2 innings while posting a 2.81 ERA that was lowest of any Brewers’ starter (min 100 IP) since CC Sabathia in 2008. Run estimators like FIP (3.71) and DRA (3.87) saw him as more of a sturdy middle-of-the-rotation starter than a true ‘ace,’ but his body of work last year has earned him a guaranteed spot in the Opening Day rotation according to manager Craig Counsell. As an even further vote of confidence for the late-blooming hurler, his manager tabbed Guerra as Milwaukee’s Opening Day starter on April 3rd against Colorado.
The other pitcher who has been guaranteed a spot in the rotation is sophomore starter Zach Davies. As alluded to above, Davies didn’t begin the year in the big leagues but was called up mid-April when the team required a 5th starter for the first time. Zach was hit hard through his first three starts, 14 runs during his first 13.1 innings covering three starts. Zach righted the ship after that and wound up posting a sturdy 3.97 ERA across 163.1 innings covering 28 starts. Davies doesn’t throw hard, but has a diverse arsenal that includes and outstanding changeup. He generates an above-average amount of ground balls and uses his elite command to get the most out of low-velocity pitching cache. FIP (3.89) and DRA (3.91) were in near perfect agreement with Davies’ level of run prevention last season, and the 24 year old will look to stake his claim to a long-term spot in the starting rotation with another strong season in 2017.
There’s a relatively wide-open competition for the three available spots in the starting rotation after that, with four holdovers and one new addition in the running this spring:
Nelson has made 62 starts for the Brewers in the last two seasons, but he failed to build off a solid, league-average performance in 2015 and regressed badly last season. A strong first-half ERA of 3.62 hid some batted-ball luck and a step back in both walk and strikeout rate, and things caught up to Jimmy in the 2nd half. He could muster only a 6.10 ERA across his final 14 starts and closed out the year with a 4.62 ERA, 5.12 FIP, and 5.64 DRA across 179.1 innings pitched. He lead the league in losses (16), walks (86), and hit batsmen (17), and also unleashed 8 wild pitches for good measure. Nelson’s release point fluctuated throughout the season and no doubt contributed to his inability to consistently command the baseball. He’ll need to overcome those mechanical issues this spring in order to regain his once promising career outlook, and is tinkering with a new split-change after getting away from his curveball a bit last season.
Anderson was the other Milwaukee arm to make 30 starts last season, though he wasn’t much of an innings-eater while tossing a mere 151.2 innings. He got off to a poor start during the first half last year, but finished the season with a flourish, perhaps not coincidentally after abandoning the use of his cut-fastball. Anderson posted a 3.02 ERA in 65.2 innings during the second half last year to bring his season-long totals to a 4.39 ERA, 7.12 K/9 and 3.15 BB/9. Neither FIP (5.09) nor DRA (5.50) were big fans of Anderson’s work, but 2016 marked his third consecutive season with an ERA within 5% of the league average. Anderson is pretty well established as a fifth-starter type of arm in the big leagues, but his lack of ceiling could be what pushes him to the bullpen. Interestingly, he’s experiencing a velocity spike this spring, having hit as high as 95 MPH after sitting mostly in the 90-92 range last season.
Once upon a time Peralta won 17 games for the Brewers while posting a 3.53 ERA across 198.2 innings, but that feels like so long ago even though it was only 2014. Wily was one of the league’s worst starters in 2015 while battling an oblique injury, and after posting a 6.68 ERA in 13 starts to begin the 2016 season he was sent to Colorado Springs as a bit of a wake-up call. The demotion worked, as Peralta returned with a vengeance when he was recalled in August and posted a 2.92 ERA over 61.2 innings to finish out the season. Some mechanical tweaks helped his improve his fastball velocity and tighten the break on his slider, leading to a significant increase in strikeouts and swinging strikes. Even if Peralta can sustain those improvements, however, his two-pitch profile may play up better in a bullpen role over the long-term. Wily is making over $4 mil this season in his second run through arbitration, and if he isn’t able to secure a role with the team this year he stands out as a non-tender candidate next fall.
Now entering the final season of the 4-year, $50 mil deal he signed back in 2013, Garza is attempting to transition from a fastball-dominant pitcher to more reliant on his offspeed stuff as he looks to continue his career. He was downright awful in 2015 but wasn’t that bad last year, posting a 4.51 ERA and 4.33 FIP across 101.2 innings covering 19 starts. Matt’s $12.5 mil salary will no doubt play into Milwaukee’s decision regarding whether or not he makes the rotation, and if he can pitch like the roughly league-average starter that he was last year the club may be able to salvage some value in a deal at the trade deadline. Garza has also reportedly been a surprisingly good mentor to the young arms in the clubhouse this spring.
The 30 year old lefty is the new face in Milwaukee’s rotation battle after signing a non-guaranteed free agent deal this past winter. Milone has a solid track record as a back-end starter, working to a 4.14 ERA across 688.1 MLB innings in parts of six seasons. He struggled with the Twins last year, however, managing only a 5.71 ERA in 69.1 innings, spending time relegated to both the bullpen and AAA at various points of the season. He’s thrown the ball well this spring but hasn’t been talked about much in the rotation discussion. He could also serve as the left-hander in the bullpen (though he doesn’t carry much of a platoon split) or Milwaukee could simply cut him without suffering any major financial loss.
On the Farm
Josh Hader is the club’s top pitching prospect and considered by MLB.com to be the best left-handed pitching prospect in baseball...Paolo Espino and Aaron Wilkerson are older prospects with compelling statistical profiles who could earn a look this year...Brandon Woodruff has improved his stock tremendously after leading the minors in strikeouts last year...Jorge Lopez, Jon Perrin, and Wei-Chung Wang are other advanced arms who could earn a shot this year...Luis Ortiz, Marcos Diplan, Cody Ponce, Kodi Medeiros, and Freddy Peralta are leading the next charge of prospects in the mid-minors...Nathan Kirby, Adrian Houser, and Taylor Williams are all looking to get back on track following Tommy John surgery.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs, Baseball Prospectus, and Baseball-Reference