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Expect the Milwaukee Brewers to continue to be innovative with their pitchers in 2019

They’re on the cutting edge.

League Championship Series - Milwaukee Brewers v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Five Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

It’s no longer a secret that the Milwaukee Brewers are doing some creative things with their pitching staff. This year’s “run prevention unit” finished fifth in baseball in earned run average and was successful largely by using early hooks for the “initial out-getter,” deploying several multi-inning options out of the bullpen, and relying on one of the league’s top defensive units to turn balls in play into outs.

Craig Counsell was even more aggressive with this strategy in the postseason, leaning on guys like Brandon Woodruff and Gio Gonzalez more as “openers” than true starters (though Woodruff did have a 5.1 inning relief appearance after The Wade Miley Gambit) before turning things over to the bullpen. The philosophy brought Milwaukee to game seven of the NLCS and on the brink of a pennant, and it was the offense that ultimately let the team down most in their quest for a World Series.

The Brewers will likely bid farewell to Miley and Gonzalez this winter as both lefties are expected to depart via free agency, but outside of that the pitching staff could remain relatively intact heading into 2019. That leaves the team with a plethora of arms that possess starting experience and could lead to even more aggressive and innovative usage next year.

Counsell was asked about the possibilities at his end-of-year press conference:

Adam McCalvy: “Craig, on the pitching, is there a way to do some form of what you did in the postseason, with relievers who were really starters, maybe almost like a tandem situation. Because you have so many numbers of starting pitchers, is there a way do you think to go into the season with maybe eight or nine guys, who are starters, and kind of cover innings that way, and sort of be creative, or do you think once you get into the regular season, it is going to be a more traditional idea of initial out-getters and then the bullpen guys?”

Counsell: “I think, the first answer to that is that you need eight or nine starters to make it through a 162 game season. So if you just look at it from a very traditional standpoint, you need that many pitchers, and starters, to make it through a season. That’s what we used this year, probably a little more than that. We certainly will talk about and think about the best ways to utilize our guys. But when you say eight or nine, say you’ve got a lot, I think that’s like the lowest we can start with, what we’re going to need. We’re going to need a whole bunch of innings from a lot of those guys, and it’s a big puzzle to put together. I think we have a very good foundation with it, a very good start with it, that puts us in a position of strength going into the winter. But I know supplementing it is still something I would be interested in.”

Counsell continues to refer to the “puzzle of 27 outs” as he did throughout the year in 2018, when he repeatedly said that the team was blurring the lines between starters and relievers. It sounds like Craig and the front office are quite pleased with the way their philosophy developed and thrived this past season, and that they’ll continue to explore the “best ways to utilize our guys” within the system that already has a strong foundation of success against MLB hitters.

As of right now, the Brewers have 22 pitchers on their 40 man roster that they have the option of controlling for next season. Of those, only eight players will be out of options next season, meaning that the other 14 can be sent back and forth freely from the majors to the minors.

The status of a few of those ‘out of options’ guys is up in their air (Soria and Lyles options, Cedeno and Jennings non-tender possibilities, Albers outright release candidate), which would open some spots to acquire pitching from the outside - which Counsell alluded to as something he’s interested in - or add some more optionable talent from within the system to the 40 man mix. That would only increase the flexibility with which Milwaukee could deploy their out-getters next season.

Let’s say the Brewers pick up the $3.5 mil Lyles option, but let go of Albers, Soria, Cedeno, and Jennings. Assuming no outside additions or injuries, that could allow the team to open up next season with a pitching staff that looks something like this:

Long-Range out-getters: Anderson, Burnes, Chacin, Davies, Guerra, Houser, Lyles, Peralta, Woodruff, Nelson

Short-Range out-getters: Hader, Knebel, Jeffress

Keeping up to 10 pitchers on the roster with the stamina to start games means that Counsell can get even more aggressive in removing his initial out-getter before he runs into trouble or has to face an order for the third time, because another “long-range” out-getter could come in right behind him to bridge the gap to the late innings. It would also give him an endless amount of ways to approach choose who starts based on matchups, rest, hot-hand, etc. And in this scenario, having only three pitchers on the roster who cannot be optioned to the minors means that it would be easy for the team to rotate in fresh arms from the farm system almost at will, which comes in handy in the case of few blow-up outings or a lengthy extra-inning contest.

It doesn’t seem likely that the Brewers will be in the market for the highest priced starting pitchers on the free agent market this winter based on Counsell’s comments, but it would make sense for the team to take a look at pitchers on the market who could thrive in the system they’ve established. Imagine adding someone like Nathan Eovaldi to the fold and letting him work with Derek Johnson with the expectation that he simply goes out and “lets it eat” for 3-4 innings every few days? What could Joe Kelly do as a multi-inning weapon in this system? How about a buy-low trade for Sonny Gray, who the Yankees plan to shop this winter?

The Milwaukee Brewers have developed and deployed a successful system for preventing runs and will be able to return most of the pitchers who thrived within that scheme last year. Perhaps the next step for David Stearns and company this winter will be identifying and acquiring more high-upside arms to take their pitching staff a truly elite level.

Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs