The Milwaukee Brewers have long struggled to develop starting pitchers. In terms of fWAR, Ben Sheets is the franchise’s all-time with 31.9 wins above replacement accumulated during his eight seasons in Milwaukee, but by the time you get to number 10 on that list, you are all the way down to the 11.6 fWAR generated by Lary Sorenson during his four-year tenure in the late 1970’s. Only two of the club’s top-10 pitchers by fWAR — Sheets and Yovani Gallardo — have appeared in a game for Milwaukee this century.
But the tide appears to finally be turning on the team’s pitching development, with a youth movement in the starting rotation in 2019 beginning to inspire optimism regarding the newest generation of Brewer hurlers. Last season’s rotational stalwart Jhoulys Chacin will once again sit atop the starting rotation, with the 10-year MLB veteran lined up to make his third career Opening Day start and first for Milwaukee. But in the four games after Chacin’s opening salvo, the Brewers will parade out a quartet of starters who are all age-26 or younger and have made their MLB debuts with the team since the start of the rebuild in 2015.
The youngest of the trio, Freddy Peralta, will get the ball in game two. The 22 year old made an unforgettable debut on the road in Colorado on Mother’s Day last season, striking out 13 batters while allowing only one hit in 5.2 innings. Peralta wound up making 16 appearances for the Brewers last season (14 starts) but with volatile results at times; command has never been his strong suit as he issued 4.60 BB/9, and he relies very heavily on his fastball (77.6% usage rate) while only occasionally mixing in a curveball (19.5%) and changeup (2.8%). The diminutive Peralta gets by with a deceptive delivery and some of the best extension in the league, giving his fastball an even greater perceived velocity than the 91.4 MPH he averaged on the radar gun last season. Peralta’s fastball was up a few ticks during the spring, and if he can find a bit more consistency with his delivery while perhaps mixing in a few more curveballs, he ought to be able to improve upon the 4.25 ERA he finished the year with in 2018.
After Fastball Freddy comes 26 year old Brandon Woodruff, who has been going up and down between the big leagues and Triple-A since the 2017 season. So far he owns a modest 4.22 ERA in 85.1 MLB innings covering 27 appearances (12 starts) but he shined on the bright stage of the playoffs last fall. Woodruff struck out 20 batters in 12.1 innings while yielding only three runs. He opened up even more eyes this spring with a strong performance in the Cactus League, leading to this review of his talents by a scout for Baseball America:
Woodruff has adjusted his delivery to be more balanced and more on-line, and that helps his fastball velocity get into the 96-98 mph range, while sitting 95-96 mph with plus arm-side run and sink. He also has much more deception than in years past due to his ability to stay closed at landing. His slider is tighter and sharper with true break at 86-89 mph. His circle changeup continues to play from 85-89 mph, and although it can be a little too hard at times, it still has quality movement. He caps off his four-pitch mix with a power, three-quarter breaking ball that’s both tight and deceptive. With three offspeed pitches that grade as 60s, an elite fastball and solid command—he’s easily an above-average starter right now. If he improves the command of his offspeed pitches—and I think he can—there is potential for Woodruff to be a 70-grade starter at his peak.
24 year old Corbin Burnes will make his first big league start in game four after an electrifying debut as a reliever last season. He was routinely pitching in the upper-90s with his fastball out of the bullpen last season while generating swings and misses with his plus slider, but he actually rounds out his arsenal with three more offerings as a starter — a heavy sinker, a knee-buckling curveball and a split-finger changeup. All five of Burnes’ offerings rank among the league’s best in terms of spin rate, which helped him generate a whopping 15.2% swinging-strike rate in 2018. As promising as both Peralta and Woodruff are, scouts have typically held Burnes in an even higher regard and think he’ll be the best of the bunch when things are all said and done.
Rounding out the rotation is someone who feels like the forgotten man, 26 year old Zach Davies. The wiry ground-ball and soft-contact specialist arrived in the org as a minor leaguer in 2015 and made his MLB debut with Milwaukee that September, and already has parts of four seasons under his belt. He pitched with terrific success during his first three years for the Brewers, logging a 3.91 ERA across 388.2 innings from 2015-17. Shoulder troubles and back issues led to a mostly lost season in 2018 as Davies spent more than half the year on the injured list, limiting him to a total of 13 starts with a disappointing 4.77 ERA. But once he returned to the rotation fully healthy in September he appeared to be back to his old self — 23.0 innings with a 3.91 ERA 2.68 FIP, and 18 strikeouts against four walks. Davies toes a fine line with his less-than-intimidating arsenal, pitching mostly in the upper-80s with his sinker while relying on elite command of the corners of the strike zone. It works for him when he’s right, and to this point in his career he’s already the 25th-most valuable pitcher in franchise history with 6.2 fWAR for his career.
Craig Counsell’s liberal usage of his bullpen garnered the most attention in September and October, but in reality the skipper was “bullpenning” in his own manner all year long. He would regularly pull his starters after getting 15-17 outs or facing 20-22 batters, leaving fans scratching their heads and shouting into the void “why are you taking this guy out?!” But it was that philosophy of not over-exposing his initial out-getters that helped Counsell coax a 3.92 ERA out of his group of no-name starters, 11th-best in baseball. Now with Corey Knebel and Jeremy Jeffress on the shelf, though, it remains to be seen how heavily CC will be able to rely on his vaunted bullpen.
Still, though, the promise of the young arms combined with the useful depth behind them should help the Brewers put out a starting pitching staff that is no worse than league-average in terms of results. Chase Anderson and Junior Guerra both made 25+ starts for the team last year and will begin the year in the bullpen, but could easily stretch back out if need be. The highly anticipated return of Jimmy Nelson from his shoulder surgery figures to happen sometime in the season’s first half, perhaps even as early as late April or the beginning of May. There is a chance that Brent Suter could come back from his Tommy John surgery before the end of the season, too.
In the Minors
Zack Brown won the org’s minor league pitcher of the year last season after posting a 2.44 ERA in Double-A Biloxi and continued to impress this spring. The top pitching prospect figures to make his debut at some point this year, although like Woodruff and Burnes before him, it could come out of the bullpen. He’ll be joined in the rotation at Triple-A San Antonio by 40 man roster member Aaron Wilkerson and Adrian Houser, who will surely see the big leagues this year. Other near-term depth includes Burch Smith, Trey Supak, Braden Webb, Thomas Jankins, and Marcos Diplan, with intriguing arms like Bowden Francis, Dylan File, Aaron Ashby, Adam Hill, and other a little further on down the ladder.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs