The Milwaukee Brewers have made no secret out of their non-traditional pitching strategies in recent seasons. Club officials often talk about “blurring the lines” between starting and relief roles, referring to their pitchers as “out-getters” who piece together a 27-out puzzle during the course of a ballgame. Those operating procedures figure to be even more prominent in 2021 as teams experience the jump from a disjointed 60-game schedule back to a 162-game regular season, and lead executive David Stearns has already said as much:
“I would be surprised if we have someone who is making your traditional 30-32 starts, we’re not going to say never, but it would take someone feeling really good throughout the entirety of the season. The most likely outcome is we employ six-man starters at times, we give guys breaks during the season, we skip a start here or there, and we kind of spread the load out among a greater number of starters so that everyone is fresh and ready to go in September and October. If we have a pitcher or two who is just feeling so good through the entirety of the season that we can just them go, that’s great, but that’s not really what we’re planning on.”
Last year, each staff handled somewhere in the vicinity of 500 innings pitched. In a standard season, that number is typically between 1,400-1,500 innings pitched. That’s almost 1,000 more innings that need to be filled, some 3,000 more outs to be gotten. With no pitcher in baseball making more than 13 starts or logging greater than 84 frames in 2020, it would be unreasonable to expect everyone to suddenly be able to return to handling 2-3 times the workload that they shouldered last season. So, at least in 2021, fans will need to start thinking outside the traditional five-man starting rotation and worry less about “who won the #5 starter job” or “which pitcher will be in the bullpen.” Things figure to be highly fluid throughout the course of the season.
So, when previewing the starting pitching for the Menomonee Valley Nine this year, it is necessary to discuss an array of options rather than simply who the five men in the rotation to open the year are. Of course, the dynamic duo of Brandon Woodruff and Corbin Burnes would begin the conversation no matter what. Woodruff seems to secured his seat among the game’s best pitchers even when it comes to the national conversation; a year after making his first All-Star team, Woody led the Brewers with 73.2 innings last year and posted a 3.05 ERA and career-best 150 ERA+. On April 1st, he’ll become the first Milwaukee pitcher to start consecutive Opening Days since Yovani Gallardo’s streak of five straight. Burnes, who was arguably the worst pitcher in baseball in 2019, turned things around in dramatic fashion last summer. He figured out his gopher ball issues and got things right between the ears on the way to posting a sterling 2.11 ERA in 59.2 innings pitched, finishing 6th in Cy Young award balloting.
After those two, the other three pitchers who will make starts within the first five games of the season are Adrian Houser, Brett Anderson, and Freddy Peralta. Houser is coming off a disappointing 2020 but was quite impressive as a rookie during the 2019 season. Anderson, when healthy, can be a steady left-handed presence who relies on pounding the strike zone and inducing groundballs to succeed. That recipe has generally worked well the past few years, as Brett has authored a 4.09 ERA (104 ERA+) in 58 starts over the last three seasons, including a 10 useful starts for the Brewers last summer. Peralta isn’t just “Fastball Freddy” anymore as he’s cut down on his heater usage while adding a new slider to his repertoire in the past two seasons, but his track record still shows that he’s been much more successful as a reliever than a starter in the big leagues. He’s been a swingman for the Brewers the last couple of years and though he’ll begin the year as an initial out-getter he figures to once again bounce back and forth a little bit — especially considering that he only tallied 29.1 innings last year (with a 3.99 ERA).
The first line of defense for those five will be Josh Lindblom, who was a regular member of the rotation last summer after returning to the big leagues from Korea. He struggled with inconsistency as he posted a 5.16 ERA in 45.1 innings, but after revealing that he would begin the year in the bullpen, manager Craig Counsell said that Lindblom would start games for the Brewers this year, possibly even by the end of April. Relievers Brent Suter and Drew Rasmussen are stretched out enough to cover one time through the batting order and could function as spot starters in a pinch, if necessary.
Beyond the Opening Day group is a relatively deep cache or arms that features a combination of big league experience and success as well as potential upside from top pitching prospects. Jordan Zimmermann and Zack Godley have 15+ years of MLB experience between the two of them. Eric Lauer was a regular in San Diego’s rotation for two years before coming to Milwaukee, though he is still searching for the same form he displayed as a Padre. Alec Bettinger, Zack Brown, Dylan File (once he’s healthy), and Thomas Jankins are essentially fully-developed, MLB-ready depth arms who should be able to hold their own if/when they are called upon to fill innings this year. Top pitching prospect Aaron Ashby also opened some eyes during camp this spring and seems to have some helium as a prospect heading into this season.
The last time there was a full MLB season in 2019, the Brewers used 12 different starting pitchers. In 2018, it was 11. In 2017, 13 different men served as initial out-getters for Craig Counsell. So it’s safe to say that fans should expect at least a dozen different starters to toe the slab over the course of the next 162 games, and very likely even a greater number than that as the front office and management determine the best way to “spread the load out.”
In the Minors
The Brewers have proven to be adept at developing pitching during the current David Stearns regime, and beyond the advanced-level depth listed above, the next crop of pitching prospect appears to have quite a bit of potential. Ethan Small could be a fast riser, and Bowden Francis has quietly posted some strong results in the minor leagues. Funky lefty Leo Crawford was the return from Los Angeles in the Corey Knebel trade. Noah Zavolas and Max Lazar present non-traditional profiles but have been very good in the lower levels. Antoine Kelly, Alexis Ramirez, Lun Zhao, and Abner Uribe, among others, have started to gain some notoriety for their stuff.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference