In making over their starting rotation this winter, the Milwaukee Brewers sought experience. Left-hander Brett Anderson has more than 10 years of big league service time to his credit. Right-hander Josh Lindblom may be lacking in MLB innings, but at 32, he has appeared in parts of five different seasons and spent most of the last five years as a largely dominant force in Korea. Even Eric Lauer can be considered something of a “young veteran”; he doesn’t turn 25 until June, but has already made 52 starts and posted 261.2 league-averagish innings at the game’s highest level.
According to Adam McCalvy, most of the slots in the rotation are already spoken for as Cactus League play begins. Barring any unforeseen injuries, some the initial out-getters at the outset of the regular season will be some order of Lindblom and Anderson joining holdovers Adrian Houser and Brandon Woodruff, both coming off breakout 2019 campaigns. That leaves one spot up for grabs, and per manager Craig Counsell, the left-handed Lauer is in competition with Freddy Peralta for the role of fifth starter.
Lauer, who arrived this winter from San Diego via trade, certainly has the safer track record of the pair. Scouted as a back-end starter with solid command of a pedestrian arsenal, Lauer has largely fulfilled that destiny, authoring a 107 ERA- and 103 FIP- along with marks of 8.19 K/9 against 3.34 BB/9. He hasn’t graded particularly well in terms of average exit velocity or hard contact rate allowed and has yielded 1.2 HR/9, but has missed enough bats to function as a perfectly capable innings-eater.
Peralta’s brief previous history is one marred by inconsistency, but he possesses the greater upside of the two. Fastball Freddy has looked dominant at times during the last two years with the Cream City Nine, fanning 211 hitters across 163.1 frames, including 10+ punchouts in three of his 22 career starts. But he’s also been prone to walking hitters (career 4.2 BB/9) and struggled with the long ball last year, coughing up 15 of them in 85.0 innings. Freddy’s results (112 ERA-) have yet to align with his peripherals (92 FIP-), with but tremendous extension on a fastball that averaged 94.1 MPH last season to go along with his curveball and a revived slider that he utilized heavily during a stellar winter ball campaign, 23 year old Peralta will continue to receive opportunities. If not the rotation, Peralta could earn himself a leading role in high-leverage relief for the ballclub.
McCalvy goes on to elaborate that behind Lauer and Peralta, Corbin Burnes sits next on the depth chart. 2019 was an unmitigated disaster for the 25 year old, with his head on a constant swivel as he allowed 17 balls to fly over the fence in 49.0 innings on the way to an 8.82 ERA. His results weren’t any better in the minors (8.46 ERA in 22.1 innings in Triple-A) but he did whiff a ton of batters at both stops, and he graded out towards the top of the league in terms of spin rates. After undergoing LASIK surgery, working with a sports psychologist, and logging plenty of hours at the vaunted “pitching lab” last season and over the winter, there are reasons to believe that Burnes can bounce back with a reportedly reworked arsenal revolving around his slider. But at this point he is likely to begin the year by starting games as depth in the minor leagues and attempting to rebuild the same level of confidence and optimism that the front office and fan base had in him following his 2018 debut.
Lastly, Shelby Miller lags a bit behind those three. Counsell stated that the veteran right-hander needs to re-establish a “foundation” before getting considered for big league time, which isn’t exactly surprising after he was limited to just 38.0 innings while working back from multiple injuries during 2017-18 ahead of serving up an 8.59 ERA in 44.0 innings for the Rangers last season. Miller spent a good chunk of time with Milwaukee last summer after inking a minors deal following his release from Texas, including a stint at the lab. The front office apparently felt strongly enough about the metrics that Miller showed them to reunite with him on another minor league deal before the start of Spring Training. He’s a deserving candidate for the “Best Shape of His Life” contingent after dropping 30 pounds over the offseason and seems to be amenable to beginning the year in the minor leagues, so no one should be surprised if he earns an opportunity to toe the slab in the Menomonee Valley at some point during 2020.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs