How Many Starters Do the Brewers Need? | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

We'd like to go to the Playoffs, that would be cool.

Throughout the 2012 season, National League clubs used more than 160 distinct starting pitching roles. These roles included regular starting pitchers, swingmen, replacement starters, and “emergency” pitchers that made one start. It’s an understatement to say that the five man rotation was non-existent; just 1/4 of NL rotations used eight or fewer pitchers, and a rotation full of average, 100+ IP full-time starters would still require extra starts from replacement pitchers in 2012.

Heading into 2013, Brewers GM Doug Melvin provides the best slogan about the potential for an all-young Brewers rotation: as reported by Adam McCalvy, “Do all of us have the nerve to do that? Do we have the patience to do that?” Melvin captures the spirit of MLB front offices, implying that the standard order of business for building a rotation includes the acquisition of veteran arms. Yet, without worrying about the audacity or patience of the Brewers’ front office, one can pose the problem of a young Brewers rotation in another light: following Melvin, do we have the innings to do that?

The Brewers used eleven starting pitchers in 2012, including six regular starters, four replacements, and an emergency start by Josh Stinson. Those starters included the very first MLB rotation roles for Fastballer Mike Fiers, Wily Peralta, Tyler Thornburg, and Mark Rogers. Swingman Marco Estrada also worked his first stint as a regular starter, moving from the bullpen to grab a rotation spot. Together, these starters averaged approximately 154.7 IP workloads between the MLB and minors, which falls approximately two-to-three starts short of an average workload for a 2012 NL regular starting pitcher. However, those workloads were not evenly distributed, as Rogers, Thornburg, and Estrada worked fewer than 150 innings, whereas Fiers and Peralta pitched full season workloads.

This discrepancy between workloads is even greater when one considers the workload development of Rogers and Thornburg. Not only did Thornburg and Rogers work fewer than 150 innings in 2012, but they also pitched workloads that were small enough to place them beneath a regular starting workload in 2013, if one uses a typical 20 IP-to-30 IP increase between 2012 and 2013. One of the real issues with these workloads of approximately 135 IP for Rogers and Thornburg is whether they can be counted on to pitch an entire season without running out of gas or hitting an innings ceiling. This is a real issue, of course, because the extent to which youngsters can work full seasons will definitely inform the number of rotation spots that Melvin and the front office need to fill from the free agency market.

Yet, one might ask, “Does the Brewers front office adhere to standard IP workload increases?” In 2012, there is evidence that the Brewers’ front office will allow pitchers to increase their workloads significantly, if the circumstances are right. Rogers is a tough case because of his injury-plagued seasons, and his IP workload would have been capped around 80 IP if it was based on the previous season; compared to 2010, however, Rogers only increased his workload by approximately 18 IP in 2012. Meanwhile, Fastballer Fiers, Estrada, shooting star Hiram Burgos, and Greinke-loot Johnny Hellweg all increased their workload by 50 or more IP between 2011 and 2012. These increases are especially interesting in the cases of Burgos and Hellweg, which perhaps shows some value to having an unexpected season as a fringe prospect; perhaps Hellweg and Burgos were allowed to continue to pitch simply due to their effective performances. These innings workloads set them up well for fringe replacement options in 2013. Estrada and Fiers continued working throughout 2012 out of necessity, as other innings caps, trades, and transactions thinned out the Brewers’ rotation somewhat as the season progressed.

Judging the Brewers’ 2013 replacement options and young starter options for their rotation, here are how their 2011-2012 workload increases look:

Rogers 2012: 39 IP MLB; 95.3 IP AAA (134.3 IP, +90 IP over 2011; +18.3 IP over 2010)
Fiers 2012: 127.7 IP MLB; 55 IP AAA (182.7 IP, +56.7 IP over 2011)
Estrada 2012: 138.3 IP MLB; 8 IP AAA (146.3 IP, +53.7 IP over 2011; +3 IP over 2009)
Burgos 2012: 171 IP MiLB (+51.3 IP over 2011)
Hellweg 2012: 139.7 IP MiLB (+50.3 IP over 2011)
Stinson 2012: 9.3 IP MLB; 145.3 IP AA (154.7 IP, +32.7 IP over 2011)
Peralta 2012: 29 IP MLB; 146.7 IP AAA (175.7 IP, +25 IP over 2011)
Heckathorn 2012: 119.3 IP MiLB (+3 IP over 2011)
Thornburg 2012: 22 IP MLB; 112.7 IP MiLB (134.7 IP, -2 IP over 2011)
Nelson 2012: 127.3 IP MiLB (-18.7 IP over 2011)
Rivas 2012: 67 IP AAA (-83.7 IP over 2011)

In order to frame the Brewers’ offseason, one must ask whether it is prudent to allow Rogers and Thornburg the type of free-wheeling IP increases experienced by Fiers, Estrada, Hellweg, and Burgos. On the one hand, one could design a categorical imperative for Rogers that reads, “PITCH WHEN HEALTHY,” whereas Thornburg might deserve more protection for his future (given his age and potential ceiling). However, these pitchers’ potential as strong bullpen arms also complicates this IP workload equation. Now that Melvin is emptying the bullpen, he has a great opportunity to fill the ‘pen with high impact, young arms that lose rotation roles. In that regard, both Thornburg and Rogers provide excellent depth options as swingmen or middle relievers for the Brewers, perhaps splitting the season as combination set-up men and starters-when-needed. This option not only presents the Brewers with prudent opportunities to steadily increase these pitchers’ workloads, but they also give the Brewers hard-throwing options out of the bullpen.

Meanwhile, Peralta, Estrada, and Fiers are ready for full-season workloads. In this regard, limiting their roles as starting pitchers is more a question of performance and less a question of prudence. Is Estrada’s value still suited for a swingman role? Does his improvement as a regular starter in 2012 warrant a regular role in 2013? Or does he yet again serve the Brewers as one of the best depth options in the NL? One might ask similar questions about Peralta and Fiers, focusing on potential control issues for the former and potential stuff or stamina issues (based on that sputtering-to-the-finish-line performance in late 2012) for the latter.

89.5% Workload Projection: 2013 Rotation and Replacements
1. Fiers (197 IP maximum, assuming .895 of 30 IP-50 IP increase)
2. Peralta (184 IP maximum, assuming .895 of 30 IP increase)
3. Burgos (180 IP maximum, assuming .895 of 30 IP increase)
4. Estrada (166 IP maximum, assuming .895 of 30 IP-50 IP increase)
5. Stinson (165 IP maximum, assuming .895 of 30 IP increase)
6. Nelson (159 IP maximum, assuming .895 of 50 IP increase)
7. Rogers (156 IP maximum, assuming .895 of 30 IP-50 IP increase)
8. Hellweg (152 IP maximum, assuming .895 of 30 IP increase)
9. Thornburg (147 IP maximum, assuming .895 of 30 IP increase)
10. Heckathorn (143 IP maximum, assuming .895 of 30-50 IP increase)

Working from the 2012 workload reduction that resulted in regular NL starters accumulating only 89.5% of the full rotation spots of a 5-man rotation (approx. 29 GS vs. 32.4 GS), the Brewers have few full-season workloads to choose from in this gang of starters. Pitchers such as Estrada, Fiers, and Peralta provide the best opportunities to meet the demand of full-rotation spot needs at the MLB level. Burgos and Stinson have strong IP workload foundations, but are not likely to pitch the entire season in the Brewers’ rotation for a variety of reasons. Nelson, Rogers, and Hellweg begin the descent into likely swingman roles, or less-than-full-time starting workloads. Judging these pitchers against (a) averages of potential IP workload increases, and (b) prorated workloads due to typical season wear-and-tear, effectiveness issues, and replacement needs gives us a more realistic picture of these pitchers’ IP potential than basic models that max out their potential workload increases.

Prorating their IP increases against the year-long workings of an MLB rotation, the Brewers’ top IP pitchers on that list (Fiers, Peralta, Estrada) grab the Brewers approximately 96 starts for the 2013 season. Keeping franchise starter Yovani Gallardo‘s rotation spot warm, the organization still needs at least 30 starts to complete their 2013 rotation. It is certainly likely that the Brewers could fill those remaining starters with a combination of swingmen starts from Rogers and Thornburg. However, with that number of available starts conveniently matching the number of turns made by a veteran rotation hurler, as well as potential arguments for keeping any combination of Estrada, Fiers, and Peralta as swingmen, it is more than likely that the Brewers will land at least one starting pitcher this off-season.

In fact, countering against their gang of eleven starters in 2012, and the National League trend for using boatloads of hurlers, there are good arguments to be made that the Brewers should sign two veteran starters.

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