Despite a very sloppy 5-1 loss to the Clayton Kershaw led Dodgers on Sunday, the Brewers still managed to take two out of three from the Dodgers. Couple that with another two wins over the Giants earlier in the week, and the Brewers had a pretty successful six game homestand, all things considered. Perhaps the biggest bright spot was the outstanding performance of fill-in starter Mike Fiers on Saturday night.
Fiers, who has dealt with more than his share of rough times since his brilliant first couple of months in the big leagues in 2012, held the Dodgers to just one run over eight strong innings on Saturday. It was a pleasant reminder of what once was, but it obviously begs the question whether or not we should expect it to be that way on a regular basis once again. Of course, this is a question that is fundamentally impossible for anyone to answer accurately, but there was a rather intriguing angle on the question that came up on Twitter on Sunday:
@RDTopp Thoughts on Nelson to shore up pen after Garza comes back?
— Jim in California (@SoCalBruCruFan) August 10, 2014
Since Twitter is not only a medium that begs for major overreactions to events of limited meaning, but also a place for people to overreact to the overreactions, I was all set to clumsily bat this one back in the face of Jim in California when I realized he really might be onto something here. Allow me to explain.
This isn’t about Mike Fiers being “back” for good. It’s also not about Jimmy Nelson or anyone else failing to live up to expectations or not earning the right to stay in the rotation. It also is definitely not the sort of move that one makes in a panic because things aren’t going right. No, if the Brewers were to make this sort of a switch it would be because things were going well enough at the time that Garza returned that the team could afford to start looking ahead to the postseason and trying to put the best team on the field at that time.
There is little doubt that the performances of Kyle Lohse, Yovani Gallardo, and Wily Peralta have earned them the right to stay in the starting rotation as long as they may be healthy and able to answer the bell. That means that when Garza hopefully returns from an injury that appears likely to linger longer than originally hoped, either Fiers or Nelson will have to move to the pen or AAA, unless the team plans on going to some sort of a six man rotation. While I’m fairly convinced that Nelson is both the better bet to start games now, and also in the future, a scenario may develop where it could make more sense to move him to the bullpen and allow Fiers to continue starting for the rest of the regular season.
Due to all the extra off days that teams receive in the postseason, clubs generally start four and sometimes even only three different starters in October. That generally leaves the man who was serving as the fifth starer either being converted to long relief or left off the roster entirely if the team feels like they have enough pitching otherwise. So if the Brewers do make the postseason tournament, someone is getting left out of the rotation. Barring a collapse or injury, that odd man out was very likely to be Nelson anyway.
That doesn’t mean that there wouldn’t be a place for the rookie right hander on the postseason roster, though. His combination of mid 90’s sinker and hard breaking slider is a pretty deadly one, and it could definitely prove useful to the currently struggling bullpen. Don’t be mistaken, it’s more useful in the rotation and any move definitely wouldn’t be long term, but sometimes circumstances call for moves like this.
Ultimately, here’s what needs to happen for this sort of move to make sense. First, the team needs to expand on their current two game lead in the NL Central and give themselves a little breathing room. As long as the race is tight, it’s going to be hard to justify moving Nelson to the pen, unless Mike Fiers is absolutely lights out as a starter and the bullpen continues to be a problem. If all these things are true, then it will be pretty easy to justify making the move in an effort to get ready for the postseason.
There could be some extra side benefits to making a move like this as well.
For one, it would allow the Brewers to keep Nelson’s inning count under control. He’s never thrown more than 162 1/3 innings in a season and is already within a couple of starts of reaching that point. Considering teams generally don’t like to drastically jump from one season to the next, going to the pen would surely eliminate any possibility of him needing to be shut down in the postseason due to innings, should they get that far.
Making a move like this before the postseason instead of right at the time also would give Nelson a chance to adjust to pitching out of the pen, something he has very little experience with in pro ball. If he can learn what works for him in terms of routine before the bright lights of October shine, that can only help him.
It should be interesting to see what the Brewers decide to do if both Nelson and Fiers pitch successfully between now and the time Garza comes back. Of course this would be a really nice “problem” to have, and we can only hope to be so lucky to have to find out what they end up deciding in that situation.