Last year, a lot of us “analytically realistic homers” were looking at the Crew’s pitching staff with a mix of hope and worry. Well, probably at least a bit more worry than hope. Basically, we had Yo in the rotation, plus about five young prospects to fill the other four slots. During Spring Training the Crew signed Kyle Lohse, which improved the odds markedly. Good thing, too. Can you even imagine the Crew’s staff without him in 2013? With the notable exception of Marco Estrada and Willy Peralta, all of the other “prospect – candidates” for the rotation flamed out for one reason or another. However, by the second half of the season, the starting rotation had jelled, and actually become top quartile material by the final 60 +/- games.
As we head into 2014, I for one feel lots more “hope” than “worry” as we survey a somewhat similar situation conceptually. It still has a lot of question marks but with potentially many more and better answers for the questions. First of all, the decision to snag another front of the rotation starter in Matt Garza was a great move. Because of this, and with Lohse and Yo still solidly in the picture for this season, instead of having to find occupants for 60% of the rotation, the Brewers will only need to fill 40% (two) of the slots. Also, the prospects list is better, more experienced, and seemingly healthy.
The possible 4 and 5 starters will come from (1) Peralta – who has another year of experience and age maturity and who looked to become the dominant starter he has the tools to be, (2) Estrada, who pitched solidly when healthy last year, and actually made the list (#20) of the top thirty starters in 2013 with the best strikeouts to walk statistic in MLB, (3) Thornburg, who pitched well in the latter part of last season (4) Hiram Burgos, who was the top pitcher in the Puerto Rican league this winter, (5) Hellweg, who definitely has the tools and will use them very effectively if the mechanics and head can be straightened out, (6) Mike Fiers, who was rather impressive in 2012 but dealt with a family tragedy and injuries in 2013, (7) Jimmy Nelson, who looks like the real deal and potentially could be ready this year if needed, and (8) Will Smith, recently arrived from KC in the Nori Aoki trade, and who is apparently having a “lights out” camp. Being a prob & stats focused kind of fan, I like the odds of getting 2 out of 8 a lot better than getting 3 out of 5 like last year!
The way the starting rotation plays out will also impact the bullpen. It looks like Henderson is the closer to start the year, with K-Rod ready to step in if needed and the set up meanwhile. Kinzler and Gorzelanny are solid if not spectacular set up men and almost certainly will lock down spots. That leaves three bullpen slots open, and potentially one or more of the eight listed above may find himself in the “pen” instead of the rotation. Will Smith seems the most likely to end up here, principally because of the success he had in KC prior to the move. There is also a young pitcher picked up in the Rule-5 draft. If he works out, and this is of course a long shot, he would take another bullpen roster spot. It will be interesting to watch how RR and the brain trust solve this Rubik’s cube. What happens in the starting rotation will undoubtedly affect the makeup of the bullpen staff. It will be fun to watch the decisions unfold and to watch the team in action this season. It sure seems like this is a nice problem to have.
As I write, I do so with a big smile on my face, since we were notified by the Brewers that our names were selected to buy four opening day tickets. In only 38 days, Kit and I will be at Miller Park watching what should be the first of 88 – 92 wins in the 2014 regular season enroute to a playoff appearance in October. With the kind of solid pitching staff the Brewers should be able to assemble from the ample supply of good pieces, and considering the kind of run support they’ll undoubtedly get from the Brewers offense, I feel very confident of this projection. Like many Brewers fans, we are looking forward to being part of it.