Starters: Tyler Thornburg, Will Smith, Tom Gorzelanny,
Replacement Depth: Zach Duke
AAA Depth: Mike Fiers, Hiram Burgos, Jimmy Nelson, Johnny Hellweg, Alfredo Figaro
The Future: Taylor Jungmann, Ariel Pena, Jorge Lopez
As much attention as we give to the 25 players that break camp with the major league team, injuries, demotions, and trades always ensure that large amounts of shuffling happen to the roster over the course of a season. One particular battle that is under scrutiny during spring training is the five pitchers that make up the starting rotation, but it would be irrational to expect only those five starters to start games during the season. That’s what makes rotation depth critical in building and sustaining a contender.
Categorizing rotation depth within the terms of “starters” and “replacement depth” can be tricky–the main point of rotation depth is that it’s meant to be made of players to be used as safety valves. So that starters are more like replacement depth. Replacement depth is more like replacement depth to the replacement depth. The AAA depth list is all players to open the season in AAA, however.
The primary purpose of the players listed isn’t to be at the top of the rotation, or even at the bottom of the rotation. Thornburg, Smith, Gorzelanny, and Duke are all bullpen arms that have the ability to spot start. Each of the minor leaguers listed started games for the Brewers in 2013, are next in the pecking order and would be called on to fill a void at the back of the rotation, most likely due to injury.
Thornburg, 25, was the most impressive of all Brewers’ pitchers to be given a late-season audition last season. After struggling heavily with the home run ball in his initial season in 2012, Thornburg dropped his HR/9 from 3.27 to 0.14. He was much more effective with his fastball and also features a sharp curve and changeup that bode him well both in the bullpen and as a starter. His run totals against improved significantly (2.03 ERA in 66.2 innings) despite a spike in walks and a decrease in strikeout rate, which is the primary concern going forward. If his home run numbers regress to their 2012 totals (or even to league average) with a BB% of 9.6, run totals would then rise.
In 43 innings as a starter last season, Thornburg posted a 2.65 FIP and held hitters to a .560 OPS. In 23.2 bullpen innings, he wasn’t quite as dominant, yet still posted a strong 3.94 FIP and .600 OPS against. Long term, it’s unknown where Thornburg fits in, but you can expect to see him in both roles this season.
Both Gorzelanny and Smith will be primarily left-handed arms in the bullpen, but with no lefties in the rotation and both having past starting experience, they provide depth for the Brewers. Gorzelanny, who started ten games for Milwaukee last season, was one of the few pitchers last season with three above-average pitches. Like Thornburg, this bodes well as a hybrid pitcher. Smith features a filthy cutter that led to a K/9 of 11.61 last season with Kansas City. Before that, he had been only a starter, starting 16 games for the Royals in 2012.
Beyond that comes Zach Duke, who, with the DFA of Juan Francisco in order to keep Wei-Chung Wang, is now in competition with Wang, Thornburg, and Rob Wooten for the final three bullpen jobs. Whether opening the season in AAA or in the bullpen, Duke provides additional rotation depth, having started 169 career games. Over the past two seasons, however, he has only started one game with declining velocity, decreased strikeout numbers, and a flurry of below-average secondary pitches as causes for this switch.
With the many roster moves now being made a week before the season opens, the plethora of fringe MLB starters that we knew would be in AAA are…now in AAA. We’ve made it everyone!
This list includes, but is not limited to, Hiram Burgos, Mike Fiers, Jimmy Nelson, Alfredo Figaro, and Johnny Hellweg.
Of the five on that list, Nelson stands out as the one with the best chances of reaching the top of the rotation eventually. Commonly listed as the Brewers’ top prospect and lone representative from the organization on MLB.com’s top 100 prospects list, Nelson’s potential is there. For now, however, the burly right-hander will develop in AAA and, with where he is now at, is part of the rotation depth.
Hellweg is also a fascinating case. He was the PCL Pitcher of the Year with the Nashville Sounds last season, but couldn’t find the strike zone while with Milwaukee. At 25, there’s still time with with 6-foot-9 Hellweg, but his 18.00 ERA this spring hasn’t helped his case at all.
In the near future, Taylor Jungmann, Jorge Lopez, and Ariel Pena may be rotational depth for the Brewers. Expect Nelson to make his way into the majors as a starter. The same may happen for Thornburg. It’s a certainty that some of the names from the replacement depth and AAA depth categories will no longer be in the picture next season. Because of this, Jungmann, Lopez, and Pena will get their chances as rotation depth in the relatively near future.
Best Case Scenario: The Brewers are able to rely on their five best starters–Gallardo, Garza, Lohse, Peralta, Estrada–as much as possible. The rotation depth is there and comes through when relied upon, but it’s never more than a few starts at a time. In AAA, each pitcher develops and Jimmy Nelson is in Milwaukee by the end of the season, whether in relief or as a starter.
Worst Case Scenario: Just as in 2013, injuries plague the starting rotation. The Brewers have to rely on those “fringe” major league pitchers stored in AAA at the moment. That also thins out the bullpen, and the middle relief is weaker without Smith and Thornburg and company.
Most Likely Scenario: The Brewers use seven-to-nine starting pitchers this season. Either Smith or Thornburg is most likely to fill a long-term void due to injury, if the situation arises. The top of the rotation depth for the Brewers is above average, which bodes well for them, considering how it’s incredibly unlikely that only five pitchers will start games this season.
Thornburg ZIPS Projection: 127 IP, 4.82 ERA, 4.93 FIP
Thornburg PECOTA Projection: 124 IP, 3.95 ERA, 4.19 FIP
Smith ZiPS: 137.2 IP, 4.25 ERA, 4.10 FIP
Smith PECOTA: 117 IP, 4.49 ERA, 4.43 FIP
Gorzelanny ZiPS: 80.2 IP, 4.13 ERA, 4.14 FIP
Gorzelanny PECOTA: 71 IP, 3.92 ERA, 3.91 FIP
The series so far:
3/10: Ryan previewed the catcher position
3/11: Curt previewed first base
3/12: Jonathan previewed second base
3/13: Steve previewed third base
3/14: Vineet previewed short stop
3/17: Adam previewed left field
3/18: Alex previewed center field
3/19: Ryan previewed right field
3/20: Jaymes previewed the top of the rotation
3/21: Nicholas previewed the back of the rotation