We’ve started our annual Depth Chart Discussions, re-branded as Playing Time Battles for 2016. You can catch up on every team we’ve covered in the Playing Time Battles Summary post or following along using the Depth Chart Discussions tag.
Fresh off of the Hank controversy, the Milwaukee Brewers find themselves starting down another tough story to spin: A second consecutive season under .500. The Brew Crew haven’t gone back-to-back on the losing side of the ledger since 2009-2010, and even those teams flirted with an even record. To find the last time the Brewers won 68 games and had little reason for optimism, you’d have to go back to a Ben Sheets-led 2004 squad, and that team had Sheets, who was awesome. That might not seem like an eternity ago, but this is a team that’s grown accustomed to being decent, if not good.
Projections don’t like their chances for a rebound in 2016, and the pitching staff is a big reason why. A year after landing in the middle of the pack for wins above replacement from pitchers despite their rotation ERA jumping more than a run, nobody seems to think the Brewers will be able to prevent opponents from scoring. Out a Mike Fiers and a Kyle Lohse without a big acquisition or marquee prospect banging at the door, that’s understandable.
It doesn’t mean there aren’t a few fantasy arms worth keeping an eye on throughout the spring. It just means Hank II might not be the only one having an accident or two at Miller Park.
OK, so there’s Nelson, and…
Well, maybe this is worse than we thought. Consider this: The Brewers lone starter ranked inside the top 100 is Jimmy Nelson, who is still an arm’s length outside the top 50 and saw his 2015 campaign ended prematurely when he took a scary comebacker off the head. He’s back pitching in spring training and is apparently no worse for the wear, and that’s great, because he’s Milwaukee’s lone chance at being able to throw something resembling a No. 1 out there. He’s probably more of a No. 3 in a better environment, as lefties feast off of him, at least when he’s not throwing his new curveball. If he can better leverage that weapon to neutralize southpaws moving forward, he could push beyond league-average, flirting with a sub-4.00 ERA and eight strikeouts per-nine.
Chaseing a sleeper
The Brewers landed Chase Anderson in the five-player deal that sent out Jean Segura, and he’s a gamble I really liked for them. Anderson’s hardly flashy and doesn’t come with a great deal of pedigree, but the 28-year-old has shown roughly league-average stuff the last two years. He’s got a terrific changeup that helps his middling fastballs a little bit, and a late-season uptick in velocity is encouraging. He’s been a little homer-prone, a bad look in Milwaukee, but his sinker also showed improvement and could help him keep the ball on the ground more. He could push the top 100, which isn’t a big deal but also isn’t nothing.
He’s flanked by two names a little less likely to reach that perch in Matt Garza and Wily Peralta, both of who just barely sneak inside the top 150 at the position. At that ranking, they basically just exist.
Garza’s coming off of a downright disastrous season and will need quite the correction if he’s to resume his perpetual position on the trading block. He was rocked for a 5.63 ERA, and a 4.94 FIP behind it doesn’t suggest he was quietly still the pitcher who posted an ERA under 4.00 in eight consecutive seasons before that. His swinging-strike rate was down, his strikeouts were down, and his earlier issues with the long-ball resurfaced. There’s a chance he rebounds, to be sure, and he’ll be worth keeping an eye on for streaming, but given how limited the upside is – he hasn’t struck out even per-nine innings since 2013 – he’s not worth much of a draft-day investment.
Peralta produced a better surface line in 108.2 innings over 20 starts, but there’s perhaps even less to be excited about after his strikeout rate fell to 12.6 percent. The fact that lefties all hit like Anthony Rizzo when they see Peralta is troubling, and he rarely dusts off a changeup to try to neutralize them. Not even his ground-ball profile is saving him, because fly balls leave the park so often. Yes, he dealt with an oblique issue early and late and had a 3.53 ERA the season prior, but even in that career year he struck out fewer than seven per-nine. There are better fliers.
There’s no need to feel down
Taylor Jungmann is a place you can go if you want a little bit of upside in the same range as Garza and Peralta. The 26-year-old came on hot in 2015, and owners may fondly remember selling high or not-so-fondly remember holding on too long. He’s a tough name to project given how extreme the parts of his season were, and his time at Triple-A wasn’t exactly encouraging. If he switches out his straight fastball for more of his two-seamer, which stays on the ground far more often (important in Milwaukee), there’s potential here for Jungmann to emerge as a guy who can miss enough bats to matter for fantasy purposes. There’s certainly more strikeout juice here than with the other two, and he’s not going to cost you anything.
When and if the three names rounding out the rotation struggle, Jorge Lopez could find himself getting the call. He made two starts as a 22-year-old rookie a season ago and fared well enough, and while projection systems aren’t ecstatic bout his 2016 potential, this is one of the better prospects in the Brewers’ organization. Yet to pitch at Triple-A, he could probably use some additional seasoning, especially if he’s going to iron out the free passes. There’s sold strikeout potential here, as his 94 MPH fastball has great sink and his curveball could develop into an above-average pitch. Plus, his delivery is cool, so you’ll enjoy watching him if you stream.
Closer to a call might be Zachary Davies, who made six starts after being acquired from Baltimore, acquitting himself well. He had some command issues and isn’t likely to be anything more than an average strikeout arm, but he’s an extreme ground-ball pitcher who’s never struggled with home runs at any level. He doesn’t have a ton left to prove at Triple-A, and the Brewers may opt to have him fill a de facto sixth-starter role if he proves capable in spring.
Adrian Houser’s another 23-year-old stretching out as a starter in spring, and he worked across four levels as a swingman a season ago. Acquired from Houston mid-season, he saw two innings of relief with the Brewers and then had a decent Arizona Fall League performance. He has a 95 MPH fastball with good movement, and that pitch might be the key to him seeing success in 2016…out of the bullpen? He’s perhaps too young – and hasn’t even thrown at Triple-A – to deem him a reliever, but he’ll need to show progression in his secondary stuff in spring to push his way up the starter depth chart.
If Milwaukee wants to buy the kids more time, Ariel Pena and Tyler Cravy figure to factor in somewhere. Either could fill a bullpen role, be kept stretched out for Triple-A depth, or do a bit of both. Only Pena would have fantasy utility thanks to his ability to miss bats, but a strong platoon split and the absence of a third pitch are such that he probably finds his way to the bullpen instead. Chris Capuano’s in camp on a minor-league deal, too, but you can pretty safely look away. Ditto for “Please, Blake, stop pronouncing it as hamburgers” Hiram Burgos, who saw time in the majors in 2013 and then resumed a fairly pedestrian life as a journeyman depth arm.
Who takes K-Rod’s role?
The most interesting battle in camp for Milwaukee is the fight to see who takes over Francisco Rodriguez’s role as closer. K-Rod was sent to Detroit in the offseason, and even with the Brewers proving mediocre a year ago, Rodriguez managed 38 saves. It’s entirely unclear who the presumed favorite might be, because Craig Counsell used Rodriguez exclusively outside of two Lohse saves, one of them of the long-relief variety and the other in extra innings.
The early favorite appears to be Will Smith despite his standing as the bullpen’s only lefty before Sean Nolin got claimed in February. Maybe the Nolin addition was made with having Smith close in mind, or maybe the converting starter just signals Counsell’s desire to have a second lefty around. Smith has one of the best sliders in baseball, throwing it more than 40 percent of the time and getting batters to swing at it 51 percent of…times it’s outside of the zone. August Fagerstrom graded it as one of the hardest pitches in baseball to lay off, and August is a very smart guy. It’s been a big factor in Smith providing three consecutive seasons of reliable production out of the pen, and if you’re a fan of the wisdom of crowds, he’s the first Brewers reliever going off draft boards.
Jeremy Jeffress is the presumptive right-handed candidate. The 28-year-old built on a pair of fine partial seasons to deliver a solid all-around 2015, posting a 2.65 ERA with nearly a strikeout per-inning. He has the typical fastball you’d expect in the role with mid-to-high 90s heat, and he’s an extreme ground-ball pitcher, which limits the potential for him to get blown up. Given the 10-to-15 spots of difference right now, Jeffress might be the better value play, especially in leagues that count holds.
Right there with Jeffress is Corey Knebel, a 24-year-old in the Craig Kimbrel mold with a heavy curveball and a fastball sitting around 95. He’s a better strikeout bet than Jeffress, kept the walks down in 2015, and is cheaper than both Jeffress and Smith. Could Counsell vault the youngster over two more established names? It’s certainly possible, especially with the Brewers in a spot where they can think ahead (though that might dictate a potential trade asset take the job). Maybe Knebel and Counsell can discuss it over Knebel’s home brew?
Other candidates to get a touch in the role, if it’s split or fluid, include Tyler Thornburg, Michael Blazek, and Zack Jones, who likely make up the remainder of the bullpen. Thornburg boasts a terrific changeup that makes up for a mediocre fastball, but he gave up a ton of hard contact last year. Blatzek had his season cut short by a hand injury, ending a pretty solid run, albeit one that didn’t leave a ton of enthusiasm for potential strikeouts in a closer role. He’s also struggled with walks throughout the minors, only remedying that issue at Triple-A in 2014. Jones is a Rule 5 pickup with solid minor-league strikeout rates but also some pretty unsightly control issues.
Don’t buy into Yhonathan Barrios‘ seven strikeouts in 6.2 innings last year, as he’s never really owned quality strikeout rates. Junior Guerra has, and he projects to do so if promoted. Yes, he’s a 31-year-old with four innings at the majors, but he’s always been solid. He’s probably on the deep starter radar, too, depending on how April assignments shake out. David Goforth is around as unsexy bullpen depth.
Blake Murphy is a freelance sportswriter based out of Toronto. Formerly of the Score, he's the managing editor at Raptors Republic and frequently pops up at Sportsnet, Vice, and around here. Follow him on Twitter @BlakeMurphyODC.