Despite a surprising late-season charge, the 2012 Milwaukee Brewers failed to reach the postseason in consecutive seasons since the ‘81-’82 seasons, and few would disagree that the main culprit was the pitching staff.
In particular, the bullpen imploded. John Axford experienced prolonged struggles for the first time in a Brewers uniform. Francisco Rodriguez had 14 meltdowns (as defined by FanGraphs), which tied for 11th-worst in all of baseball. Kameron Loe saw his ERA balloon to 4.61. The disappointing season for the bullpen obviously went beyond just those three. In fact, the bullpen’s 4.66 ERA ranked dead last in all of baseball. It’s no surprise the team only had a .429 winning percentage in one-run games. For comparison, the Baltimore Orioles significantly outperformed expectations and had a .763 winning percentage in one-run games.
Doug Melvin consequently deconstructed his bullpen early this winter. He and the Brewers parted ways with Kameron Loe, Manny Parra, Francisco Rodriguez, and Jose Veras which left more than half the bullpen to remake. The rebuild started with Burke Badenhop in an offseason trade, and it has continued with signing a pair of veteran lefties in Tom Gorzelanny and Michael Gonzalez. Not only that, but Melvin acquired Michael Olmsted, Miguel De Los Santos, and Arcenio Leon via both minor-league free agency and waivers.
They also have a slew of young pitchers who either made an impact on the big league team last year or are poised to do so this season. Those include Mike Fiers, Tyler Thornburg, Wily Peralta, Mark Rogers, and Hiram Burgos.
In short, the Brewers possess a slew of options to make up their 2013 pitching staff. In the end, though, only 12 or 13 guys get a chance on Opening Day, and the remainder will be either stowed away in Triple-A Nashville for future use or released. Much of this will be decided in spring training, so much is subject to change, but here is how I see the pitching staff shaking out at this point in the offseason:
Miguel De Los Santos
OUT OF OPTIONS
Fautino De Los Santos
The vast majority of the bullpen is already set. Axford, Gorzelanny, Gonzalez, and Henderson are virtual locks — barring something bizarre — while Badenhop is almost a lock due to his experience and track record of retiring right-handed batters. He held righties to only .232/.260/.350 last year. After those five, it leaves two spots left.
As most of you know, I’m a big believer in Brandon Kintzler. His 92-93 mph sinking fastball, mid-80s slider, and underrated changeup give him the necessary repertoire to be a solid middle reliever. He showcased his abilities in September, compiling a 3.78 ERA (3.45 FIP) along with five shutdowns and only one meltdown in 14 appearances. He can go multiple innings, as well, adding flexibility to the relief corps.
With the final spot in the bullpen, I would give the nod to right-hander Michael Olmsted. I’m fascinated by him as a middle reliever, and think he has the potential to be more if everything breaks correctly at the big league level. It feels like an understatement to say he utterly dominated in High-A (1.19 FIP) and Double-A (1.30 FIP) last year in 59.1 combined innings. Not to mention, he’s reportedly sitting at 97 mph with his fastball, according to this article by Peter Gammons. A mid-to-high 90s fastball with a wipe-out slider? Yes, please.
That completes the bullpen. It’s not the flashiest bullpen, but it’s a league-average bullpen if John Axford returns to form — and it includes a couple upside guys who are potential impact arms.
Turning to the starting rotation, we’re now left with up to eight starters to fill five spots. Gallardo, Estrada, and Fiers should be locks for the rotation on Opening Day. Narveson gets the nod at this point because he’s a veteran and the only lefty of the group, but much of his inclusion depends on his shoulder recovery and his performance this spring. If he’s throwing 85-86 mph like he was last spring, he probably doesn’t make the rotation and could be designated for assignment.
So, we have one spot between Rogers, Peralta, Thornburg, and Burgos. Though I believe Peralta will eventually be the best starter of the bunch, Rogers likely gets the final spot because he has no options remaining and has more experience in the majors. Rogers showed glimpses of dominance last summer, and the organization likely wants to see if he can build on it this season before being forced to potentially cut ties. Multiple teams would claim Rogers on waivers, too, so it’s not as if the organization could sneak him through waivers to Triple-A Nashville.
I wrote this a couple weeks ago regarding Rogers:
Rogers received an extended look in the rotation last season with the Brewers, and he showed some skills suggesting he could stick as a starter next year. He displayed a nice feel for his slider, throwing it for strikes and even relying on it when down in the count. Opposing hitters only hit .224 off his slider last year. It allows him to work differently the second and third times through the batting order, working off his fastball early in the outing and later working off his slider while flipping up an occasional curveball or changeup to keep hitters honest. He also threw strikes early in the count better than he has throughout his career. The right-hander threw first-pitch strikes 61.2% of the time last year, while the league average only sat at 60.5% for starting pitchers.
Don’t get me wrong, the command is still a legitimate issue. He walked 3.23 batters per nine innings last year and can run up a pitch count in a hurry. Still, he showed improvement last year and even flashed an ability to be a true mid-rotation starter if he continues to develop — which is weird to say about a 27-year-old pitcher.
Barring a meltdown or injury in spring training, it seems likely that Rogers has the inside track on a spot in the rotation. For Peralta to break camp with the big league club, I think he needs to beat out Narveson throughout the Cactus League season and show enough consistency on the mound to shoulder the load for 150-175 innings. If he cannot do that, Peralta likely heads to Nashville.
The good news for the Brewers is that Triple-A Nashville should be teeming with potential big-league arms. If any of the arms don’t pan out early in the year, they should be able to fill holes in the pitching staff internally and not be forced to scramble and surrender talent. Of course, depth doesn’t replace elite talent. For an organization that has coped with a dearth of organizational pitching depth, however, it certainly feels like a luxury.
In this projection, the only arm that Milwaukee could potentially lose is right-hander Fautino De Los Santos because he has no options remaining. He’s a guy who could potentially clear waivers due to serious command issues, but it seems unlikely that a guy with his power stuff would go unclaimed by teams such as the Astros, Rockies, and Marlins — that is, unless he has a dreadful spring.
As stated early, the Brewers are poised to enter spring training with an open competition for approximately four or five spots on the pitching staff. This is only a projection in early January. Much can change. Heck, the Brewers could even add another couple pieces to add to the competition.
But, what do you think? How do you see the pitching staff shaking out this spring?