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Aaron Ashby is the wild card in the Brewers' rotation mix

Ashby had the arsenal to be a top-tier starter before shoulder surgery, and the Brewers still view him as a rotation option

MLB: San Diego Padres at Milwaukee Brewers Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

The outlook of the Brewers’ rotation has come into focus as the offseason has progressed. Corbin Burnes appears unlikely to be traded, Freddy Peralta is in the midst of his current contract, and Colin Rea and Wade Miley returned on new one-year deals.

That leaves a competition for the fifth (and potentially sixth) rotation spot. Veteran Joe Ross was already a confirmed candidate, and prospect Robert Gasser figured to be in the mix as well.

In an appearance on MLB Network Radio on Sunday, General Manager Matt Arnold confirmed that the Brewers are also looking at Aaron Ashby as a starting pitcher.

Ashby did not appear in the big leagues in 2023 after undergoing shoulder surgery in April. Before that, he worked to a 4.47 ERA, 3.41 SIERA, and 3.92 DRA in 139 innings across the 2021 and 2022 seasons. That includes 23 starts in which Ashby produced a 4.79 ERA and 3.77 SIERA.

Those results are not exceptional, particularly when Ashby has functioned as a starter. That didn’t stop the Brewers from inking him to a five-year extension in 2022. Ashby’s underlying metrics have been solid, and he possesses one of the best arsenals in baseball for a left-handed pitcher.

Ashby’s bread and butter is his breaking stuff. Both his slider and curveball have plus movement. He complements those pitches with an above-average changeup and a sinker that can touch the upper 90s.

That arsenal gives Ashby a rare skill set for a starter.

In his brief career as a starter, Ashby posted a 25.2% strikeout rate and 55.9% ground ball rate. The averages for starting pitchers during those seasons were 22% and 42.6%, respectively.

Ashby was one of just three starters to make at least 20 starts across those two seasons while posting a strikeout rate of at least 25% and a ground ball rate of at least 50%. The others were Lance McCullers Jr. and Luis Castillo.

Despite his uninspiring results, there was no question that Ashby possessed the stuff to become one of the best starters in the game. It enables him to generate both swings and misses and ground balls at impressive rates. Most starters can do one or the other, but not both.

The question is whether he still has that stuff post-surgery.

Shoulder injuries can compromise a pitcher’s velocity and command. Jimmy Nelson is an example of a pitcher who returned as an entirely different pitcher after surgery, and the Brewers’ decision to non-tender Brandon Woodruff speaks to the uncertainty surrounding such injuries.

The fact that Ashby underwent a major shoulder procedure as a 24-year-old is a double-edged sword of sorts. He could be more likely to make a complete recovery than the 30-year-old Woodruff, but it could also foreshadow an inability to hold up under a starter’s workload.

Ashby was predictably rusty when he embarked on a rehab assignment in September. In seven innings, he issued 14 walks and allowed 12 earned runs. His sinker velocity was down to 92.1 mph from its 95.7 mph average in 2022.

Ashby’s future carries significant implications for the outlook of the Brewers’ rotation. If his stuff returns to pre-surgery levels, he could emerge as another ace in Milwaukee’s rotation and one of the best starters in baseball. If his stuff is diminished and his health remains a concern, he’ll be limited to relief work.

Arnold and the Brewers seem excited about Ashby’s progress and future outlook. He’s one of the top names to watch when pitchers and catchers report to Arizona in a couple of weeks.