The Milwaukee Brewers’ starting rotation has been absolutely stellar so far. The group owns only the 8th best ERA in the National League (a modest 3.85 mark), but they’ve pitched better than that, posting the 4th best FIP (3.43) and WAR (8.0), as well as the 2nd best xFIP (3.31) in the league.
Shaun Marcum, Yovani Gallardo, Zack Greinke, Randy Wolf and Chris Narveson have pitched very well on the whole. As long as they stay healthy, they should continue to do so.
But what happens when one of them get hurt? And then another? How about a third?
It’s time to meet the backups.
The obvious choice for a sixth starter is Marco Estrada, who is currently backing up a hip-hobbled Marcum. Estrada has been a starter for his entire minor league career, and filled in for Greinke at the beginning of this season.
There is a problem with using Estrada as a starting pitcher right now. Estrada is currently stretched out for just 50-60 pitches. If a Brewers starter went down, plugging Estrada in to the rotation would, at best, tax the bullpen for his first few starts. He needs to build up arm strength.
Estrada’s case for being the sixth starter is ironically bolstered by the fact that he hasn’t been particularly effective in relief with the Brewers this year. He has -0.5 RAR coming out of the bullpen. There was a stretch in mid-May where Brewers skipper Ron Roenicke used him in late inning situations effectively, but a string of poor outings at the beginning of June put the kibosh on that role. Estrada has essentially become a long reliever and once Marcum is able to give the Brewers 100 pitches a start again, Estrada will be left without a necessary role in the bullpen.
That Estrada has been mediocre out of the pen does not mean he doesn’t have the stuff to get big league hitters out – he does. His fastball is strong enough and when his change-up and curve are working, he’s about as good as Chris Narveson.
If the Brewers view Estrada as their sixth starter, why not option him to AAA and have him start? Pitching every five days would get his arm stretched out and ready if and when the Brewers need him. The Brewers do not need Estrada in the big league bullpen. His long relief role could be filled effectively by one of two pitchers currently in AAA, Mike McClendon or Mark DiFelice. Tim Dillard, still a member of the Brewers’ bullpen until Takashi Saito returns, is stretched out for at least 50 pitches as well.
So who are the potential starters after Estrada? Let’s take a quick look at the current AAA starters in Nashville:
Josh Butler, Chase Wright and Sam Narron can be removed from consideration right away. Butler, a former top pitching prospect for the Brewers, hasn’t been effective since elbow and triceps injuries during 2010 spring training. To make matters worse, he was struck in the temple by a line drive two months ago, and is still trying to shake off the aftereffects of that incident.
Wright and Narron are both soft-tossing lefties without the stuff to get through a Major League lineup on a regular basis. (As an aside, I bet Narron could make an effective left-handed specialist, but that’s another blog entry.)
That leaves Rivas and de la Cruz. I posted my thoughts about Amaury Rivas’ last start on my Tumblr blog yesterday morning. The short of it is: Rivas, 25, has been quite inconsistent with his fastball, especially his 2-seamer, and his breaking stuff isn’t yet good enough to compensate for a badly located fastball. He has a good change-up that’s not quite a difference maker. While I don’t think he would totally implode if called up to start tomorrow, I do think he could use quite a bit more seasoning at AAA. The Brewers should look elsewhere first. Rivas is the Brewers’ eighth starter.
Which just leaves Eulogio “Frankie” de la Cruz. The 27-year-old Dominican native began his career with the Detroit Tigers organization in 2002 and reached the big leagues briefly with the Tigers in 2007, briefly again with the Marlins in 2008 and briefly again with the Padres in 2009, amassing 19 Major League innings over those three seasons. He spent 2010 in Japan pitching (a lot) for the Yakult Swallows. De la Cruz was mentioned as a potential replacement for an injured Zack Greinke at the outset of this year, so the Brewers see some potential in him. He has spent the entire season in Nashville.
De la Cruz throws more than hard enough, with a fastball in the 93-97 MPH range that has a lot more movement when he throws it on the lower end of that range. Like Rivas, he has a good change-up. Also like Rivas, he has inconsistent breaking stuff and wavering fastball command.
If they needed a seventh starter, the Brewers probably feel more comfortable with de la Cruz than RIvas. De la Cruz throws a little bit harder and his change-up is a little more refined. While he’s prone to command loss and high walk totals, de la Cruz has also shown the ability to string together quality starts with acceptable walk totals, something that Rivas has yet to do in AAA.
For what it’s worth, if any of the Brewers’ five starters go down for an extended period of time, I believe that the team will go out and find a veteran backup and not take a chance on handing de la Cruz the ball in the rotation. I also think that de la Cruz would be an interesting option as a short reliever, where he wouldn’t have to worry about throwing anything other than his fastball/change-up combination.
The Brewers have one of the best rotations in the league, but their backup plan is thin and speaks to the lack of depth in the farm system. That plan should be more robust next year as prospects like Cody Scarpetta, Wily Peralta and Tyler Thornburg push towards the cusp of the big leagues.
For now, though, let’s hope the Brewers’ rotation stays healthy.