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Milwaukee Brewers 2018 Preview by Position: Starting Rotation

Will the rotation be strength once again?

MLB: Milwaukee Brewers-Media Day Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

As the offense floundered in the second half for the Milwaukee Brewers last season, the pitching staff led the way as the club finished with an 86-76 record, just one game out of a Wild Card. At the end of the season, Milwaukee’s starters finished with a cumulative 4.10 ERA (10th overall in MLB) and 13.3 fWAR (eighth overall). That’s including the combined 283.1 innings at a roughly replacement-level output that the staff received from Matt Garza, Junior Guerra, Wily Peralta, Paolo Espino, Tommy Milone, Brandon Woodruff, and Michael Blazek.

The staff was powered by a couple of breakout performances from a couple of experienced arms in Jimmy Nelson and Chase Anderson. Nelson was a top prospect coming up through Milwaukee’s system but just could never seem to get things to click during his first three seasons in 2014-2016. Last year, though, things finally came together under the tutelage of Derek Johnson. The pitching coach helped Big Jimmy adjust his mechanics and shift his pitching arsenal to become less reliant on his fastball and incorporate more offspeed pitches. The results were undeniable - Nelson set a career-high in strikeout rate (10.2 K/9) and swinging strike rate (11.4%), slashed his walk rate (2.46 BB/9), while tossing 175.1 innings with a 3.49 ERA and 76 DRA-. He earned a ninth-place finish in NL Cy Young Award voting even though he wound up missing his final three or four starts after tearing his labrum while running the bases in early September. The injury required a major surgical procedure and Nelson isn’t expected back until June at the earliest, although the specific timeline has yet to be made clear.

Like Nelson, Chase Anderson same some meaningful adjustments that led to his success in 2017. Chase had spent the first three seasons of his career - two in Arizona, one in Milwaukee - as more of a back-end type starter, posting ERAs in the 4.00-4.40 range. During the 2016-17 offseason, however, Anderson added several pounds of muscle and boosted his average fastball from the 90-92 MPH range to an average of 93+ MPH (touching as high as 96) last season. That, along with the incorporation of a cutter with his plus changeup and curveball, helped Anderson to achieve a 2.74 ERA across 141.1 innings. He’s only the sixth Brewers’ starter since the start of the millennium who has posted an ERA below 3.00 while pitching 100+ innings in a single season. His K-rate was a career-best (8.47 K/9) and he sliced his home run rate nearly in half from 2016 (0.82 HR/9 last season). DRA- (86) and FIP- (81) didn’t exactly line up with his ERA- of 62, but any way you slice it, Anderson was a well-above average starting pitcher when he was able to take the mound last season (he missed seven weeks with an oblique injury suffered while at the plate). Anderson’s performance was enough to convince Milwaukee to sign him to a two-year extension with two club options after the end of the season, which could potentially keep him in Milwaukee through 2021.

With Nelson on the shelf for an undetermined amount of time this season, most of the offseason chatter surrounding the Brewers linked them to the available starters out there. Though names like Arrieta, Darvish, Lynn, Cobb, Archer, and others were thrown around throughout the winter, Milwaukee’s most significant addition to the rotation was Jhoulys Chacin on a two-year deal. The long-time Rockie has had some health issues over the years, but he’s proven to be a solid mid-rotation cog throughout his parts of nine seasons in the big leagues. He owns a career 3.93 ERA across 1023.0 MLB innings, including a 3.93 mark and 88 DRA- in 180.1 innings last year with San Diego. The 30 year old right-hander works mostly off his sinker and slider (which graded out among the top sliders in the game in 2017), but DJ is working this spring to help Chacin utilize his changeup more often to help mitigate some of his issues facing left-handed hitters.

So with Nelson out for the foreseeable future, the front of Milwaukee’s rotation with stack up with some order of Anderson, Chacin, and Zach Davies - a soft-tossing command specialist who led the team with 191.1 innings last year at age 24 and posted his third consecutive MLB campaign with a sub-4.00 ERA. That leaves six pitchers in camp battling for the #4 and #5 slots in the on the starting staff - Junior Guerra, Brent Suter, rookies Brandon Woodruff and Aaron Wilkerson, and veteran free agent signees Yovani Gallardo (non-guaranteed deal) and Wade Miley (minor league contract).

There are positives and negatives to each one of the pitchers duking it out to make the Opening Day roster. Four of the hurlers - Suter, Guerra, Woodruff, and Wilkerson - have minor league options and can begin the season in the minor leagues. Suter has been nothing but successful since debuting in the big leagues in 2016, compiling 103.1 innings with a 3.42 ERA over the last two season. He’s also pitched very well this spring. But DRA hasn’t bought in to the southpaw, perhaps because he’s a junkballer that works in the mid-80s range with the fastball and has struggled mightily with facing a lineup for the third time. Guerra was last year’s Opening Day starter after tossing 121.2 innings of 2.81 ERA baseball in 2016, but got injured three innings into that start while trying to drop down a bunt. He spent two stints on the DL last season and was generally awful when he was on the mound, but after a strong winter ball performance that helped him recover his lost velocity, Guerra has positioned himself well to make the rotation. Woodruff is a top-100 prospect who made eight starts last season and Wilkerson was outstanding in AA and a brief big-league stint in September, but being optionable rookies may work against them in this case. Gallardo hasn’t put up decent MLB numbers since 2015, but he had a noticeable bounce back in velocity last year with Seattle. He hasn’t been particularly effective this spring, but the org is trying to have him work on pitching more up in the zone and increase his curveball usage, so he’s still getting used to that idea. Finally, lefty Wade Miley led baseball in walks last season and hasn’t posted a sub-5.00 ERA since 2015, but he also made some notable adjustments over the winter. Miley has been clocked as high as 94 MPH this spring while posting a 1.38 ERA in 13.0 innings.

Lynn and Arrieta have both signed in the last week, but Alex Cobb is still lingering out on the market. At this point, though, it seems exceedingly probable that David Stearns and company will elect to move forward with their current slate of in-house arms. It’s tough to imagine Nelson matching last year’s production after his return from major surgery, so as things stand currently it is safe to say that the starting rotation is the club’s biggest question mark as Opening Day approaches. On the surface, the starting five should have a decent floor and enough depth to get them through 162 games, but appears to be lacking for the type of top-end upside that one typically sees from a playoff-bound team. Stearns and Johnson have developed a strong track record for mining as much value as they can from under-the-radar arms, however, which hopefully is indicative of the org having developed an analytic and scouting strategy for the types of arms they can help to become successful. So perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to write off the cache of hurlers assembled by Stearns and company:

“Because we don’t have a lot of names in our rotation, I think it’s easy to forget that our starting rotation was the strength of our team last year. One of the main reasons we got where we got was because of how good our starting rotation was, especially the second half, and all those guys are still here.”

In the Minors

Woodruff and Wilkerson can both fit into this category as rookies, and top pitching prospects Corbin Burnes and Freddy Peralta have been mentioned by manager Craig Counsell as guys who could come up as soon as midseason, if the need arises. Jon Perrin, Angel Ventura, Bubba Derby, Luis Ortiz, Adrian Houser, and Cody Ponce are also hanging around as upper-level depth. Further away arms to keep an eye on include Marcos Diplan, Thomas Jankins, Kodi Medeiros, Trey Supak, Zack Brown, Josh Pennington, and Devin Williams (returning from Tommy John).

Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs, Baseball-Reference, and Baseball Prospectus


Will Milwaukee’s starting rotation be as good - or better - than it was last season?

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