There is an old saying in baseball that a team can never have too much pitching. Anyone who has followed any team for a year or two can readily attest that no matter how set one thinks a team’s rotation or bullpen is for an upcoming season, something always can and probably will go wrong. Brewer fans who have a memory that stretches back past 2011 know exactly what it means for a team to simply not have enough useful arms to make it through a season. Given that familiarity it may seem crazy to ask, but based on some recent conversations it seems like a question worth posing anyway: do the Brewers have too many potentially useful pitchers heading into 2012?
To properly examine that question, we need to start by looking at just who the Brewers have available on the mound for the coming season. Barring an injury in spring training, one can basically guarantee that nine pitchers will make the opening day roster. Starters Zack Greinke, Yovani Gallardo, Shaun Marcum, Randy Wolf, Chris Narveson and relievers John Axford, Francisco Rodriguez, Jose Veras and Kameron Loe all have either the track record or the contract to suggest that they’re not going anywhere without at least getting a significant chance in the regular season. Beyond those nine are three more pitchers that figure to be given at least a very long leash in spring training to win roster spots. Swing man Marco Estrada was so useful as a starter (3.70 ERA in seven 2011 starts) that the team will almost certainly want to keep him around for the first shot at any rotation spot that opens due to injury. Fans may be sick of hearing about former top prospect Manny Parra’s potential at this point, but the team wouldn’t have agreed to a 1.2 million dollar salary for 2012 if they didn’t have significant hopes for his ability to produce. Taken together with the fact that he’s out of option years, it’s hard to imagine him not at least opening with the Brewers. The final spot figures to go to lefty Zach Braddock, who has flashed enormous potential but failed so far to avoid walks and suffered through sleep disorder issues in 2011. The team’s ability to option him to AAA to open leaves some wiggle room for another reliever to make it, but they’ll probably have to dazzle while Braddock disappoints to pull it off.
Beyond those twelve, there are currently nine other active pitchers on the 40-man roster, each with varying degrees of likely usefulness for 2012 but none whom would seem completely out of place on a big league roster at some point. Turning first to pitchers currently slated for the AAA rotation, top prospect Wily Peralta had a breakout 2011 and is poised to earn a shot in the majors sometime in the near future. Though he does not have nearly as high of a ceiling as Peralta, righty Michael Fiers has produced at every level and figures to be somewhere on the list of pitchers the Brewers would turn to if injury ravaged the rotation. Beyond those two, both Amaury Rivas and Cody Scarpetta have the prospect pedigree that could put them into the mix for a late season call-up with good to outstanding performances, though in both cases any long-term big league career is likely to take place in the bullpen.
Of the players likely to open 2012 in the either the AA or AAA pen, Brandon Kintzler has real, long-term upside if he can move past the elbow injury that cut short what was starting to look like a breakout 2011. Tim Dillard flashed some potential as a right-handed specialist after changing deliveries, though he doesn’t figure to ever be much more than that. Both Mike McClendon and Frankie De La Cruz saw action in the big leagues in 2011, and while they don’t have huge long-term upside, either could pitch with some success in a limited role in 2012. Also on the 40 man, there is the meteor of the 2011 season, Santo Manzanillo. He hit triple digits on occasion last year, and if he maintains that after his off season car accident and lowers his walks, he could force his way into the big league pen in a hurry based on his upside. Complicating matters a bit here, though, is the fact that both Dillard and De La Cruz are out of options, so they can’t be sent down to AAA to open the year without first clearing waivers. Losing De La Cruz probably doesn’t concern the team too much, but they have stuck with Dillard quite a long time and if the team elects to not keep Braddock out of camp, there is a good chance it’s done to retain Dillard.
Looking over all 21 pitchers on the 40 man, it’s not hard to imagine plausible situations where just about any of them is able to pitch competently in the majors, at least for a time. It doesn’t end there, either, as a few players currently not on the 40 man could conceivably play a role in 2012. Most notably, if our #4 overall prospect Tyler Thornburg were switched to the bullpen, it’s very easy to envision a scenario where he plays his way to the majors this year. ESPN.com’s Keith Law listed him as an honorable mention is his piece about prospects who could impact 2012. Though much less likely, it’s also not inconceivable that either Kyle Heckathorn or Dan Merklinger could play their way into a late season bullpen call up. Going even further down the chain to high A, if one had suggested at this time last year that either of the Brewers two first round picks in 2011, Taylor Jungmann or Jed Bradley could be in the majors by late 2012, they wouldn’t have been laughed out of the room. Before it became clear the Brewers wanted to shut him down, there was even some talk that Jungmann could be called up to the big leagues in 2011. While it’s not all that likely that the Brewers would call a pick from last year’s draft so quickly, much stranger things have happened.
All in all, this is a pretty enviable position to be in. While the Brewers don’t have the top-of-the-line stud pitchers that some systems (like the Braves, Mariners or Diamondbacks) have, they’re in considerably better shape on the pitching side of things than they have been anytime in recent memory. Obviously, the overall success of the pitching staff will largely hinge on the big name guys like Greinke, Gallardo, Marcum, K-Rod and Axford, which is true of any pitching staff. Just as true, though, is the fact that pitchers get hurt and fail to live up to expectations. The trick then is always to find the guy best suited to fill whatever role opens up. Sometimes that can be pretty easy, like when a team loses a starter and plugs in their top prospect who is currently tearing up AAA. Other times, a team has to go through multiple players before finding the right guy, if they find him at all.
That brings us finally to the question posed in the title of the article: do the Brewers have too much pitching? More specifically, do the Brewers simply have too many plausible options for various positions that they’re likely to waste a good number of innings and potentially wins in an effort to sort it all out? For instance, say a starter gets hurt in camp and Estrada is given the first crack at starting, how long will the team stick with him if he’s performing at a mediocre level and Peralta is tearing up AAA? How long a leash does a contending team give a struggling Narveson or Wolf in the event a top prospect performs? The pen gets even more complex. If a spot opens up in middle relief, should the team do everything possible to take one of the already committed relievers first crack, or should they try out one of the top prospects knowing they have the stuff to potentially dominate short term? Is the team willing to risk moving Peralta to the pen to take advantage of his ability, knowing they could need a starter at some point? How quickly do you push a 2011 draft pick if he’s awesome and the team needs him?
The goal of any front office in “win now” mode is to best utilize talent on hand to win as many games as possible. Though both the Cardinals and Reds look like solid clubs on paper, neither is set up to just automatically run away with the division. The increased depth in the NL East is going to make it harder for a potential wild card to rack up wins against cupcakes in that division and the NL West features a number of interesting but deeply flawed teams after the Diamondbacks. In other words, the opportunity for another playoff appearance seems to be there. The Brewers appear have plenty of depth and options to play with in the coming season on the pitching side, but deployment of that depth is going to be critical. General manager Doug Melvin, manager Ron Roenicke, and the entire baseball operations staff will have to keep their finger very tightly on the pulse of what is going on throughout the organization this year to try and come up with as many correct answers as possible.