As seems to be the case every spring, there’s a fair bit of uncertainty surrounding the Brewers’ rotation. Milwaukee eschewed a splashy trade or a potentially cumbersome long-term pact in free agencu, instead opting for lower-cost deals with righty Josh Lindblom (three years, $9.125MM) and Brett Anderson (one year, $5MM) As things currently stand, that duo will likely join holdovers Brandon Woodruff and Adrian Houser in comprising four of the top five spots.
As for the fifth spot in the rotation, Brewers manager Craig Counsell told reporters yesterday that the competition will likely boil down to left-hander Eric Lauer and right-hander Freddy Peralta (Twitter link via Adam McCalvy of MLB.com). Righty Corbin Burnes isn’t entirely out of the race, but Counsell did indicate that veteran right-hander Shelby Miller won’t be considered just yet. While Miller was invited to MLB camp and will presumably get some innings there, he’s working to reestablish himself after several lost seasons.
The competition between Lauer and Peralta will be a key one for Brewers fans to follow this spring. The former, a 24-year-old lefty picked up alongside Luis Urias in the trade that sent Zach Davies and Trent Grisham to San Diego, already has nearly two full seasons of MLB experience under his belt despite his relative youth. Lauer started 29 games for the Padres last season, pitching to a 4.45 ERA with 8.3 K/9, 3.1 BB/9, 1.20 HR/9 and a 39.9 percent ground-ball rate in 149 2/3 innings.
Lauer pitched into the seventh and eighth inning on a few occasions but ultimately averaged about five frames per start — a concept that should be plenty familiar to Brewers fans at this point. Milwaukee regularly limited the aforementioned Davies and right-hander Chase Anderson to two trips through the opponents’ batting order, leveraging a deep bullpen thereafter. If he wins the fifth spot in the rotation, Lauer could be deployed in similar fashion.
Peralta, meanwhile, is still just 23 year of age. Like Lauer, he’s racked up a fair bit of big league experience in his early 20s, pitching to a combined 4.79 ERA in 163 1/3 Major League innings to this point. Peralta spent most of the 2019 season in a multi-inning relief role — showing better in that capacity than he did as a starting pitcher. But Peralta has added a new pitch to his repertoire this winter, as Tom Haudricourt and Todd Rosiak of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel recently highlighted, which could change his fortunes. A chat with former big league righty and current Brewers special assistant Carlos Villanueva led to Peralta trying out a slider in the Dominican Winter League, and he responded with a 34-to-3 K/BB ratio in 20 innings with los Toros del Este.
The 25-year-old Burnes could be something of a wild card as camp progresses. A consensus top 100 prospect heading into 2018, Burnes debuted in dominant fashion with the ’18 club when he tossed 38 innings of 2.61 ERA ball with a 35-to-11 K/BB ratio. He made 30 total relief appearances, allowing just 27 hits (four homers); of his 11 walks, two were of the intentional variety. Burnes posted elite spin rates on his curve and heater while flashing high-end velocity. He looked like a potential cornerstone for the pitching staff.
The 2019 season was an unmitigated disaster for Burnes, however. The hitter-friendly nature of the 2019 ball likely didn’t help matters, nor did a sky-high .414 average on balls in play. But Burnes’ poor showing can’t be solely blamed on a juiced ball or poor luck; he was absolutely torched for 48 runs in 49 innings of work — yielding a stunning 17 home runs in that time. The right-hander showed a clear knack for missing bats (12.9 K/9, 17.2 percent swinging-strike rate) but struggled with location both in and out of the zone far. Burnes’ walk rate increased, and his inability to command the ball within the zone contributed to that barrage of long balls.
Regardless of how it shakes out, the Milwaukee rotation will enter the season facing its share of scrutiny. That’s been the case in both of the past two seasons, however, and the team reached the postseason in both instances. A year ago. The 2019 season saw Jhoulys Chacin, Chase Anderson, Woodruff, Davies, Houser and Gio Gonzalez make the majority of its starts. A year prior, the Brewers entered the season with Chacin, Anderson, Davies, Junior Guerra, Brent Suter and Wade Miley (then on a minor league reclamation deal) heading up its rotation mix.
There may not be a surefire ace among Milwaukee’s starting staff, but both Woodruff and Houser posted sub-4.00 ERAs with strong peripheral marks in more than 100 innings in 2019. Lindblom is an undeniably interesting flier coming off a dominant run in the Korea Baseball Organization, thanks in part to a new splitter. Brett Anderson has a 4.07 ERA and a 55 percent ground-ball rate over the past two seasons (256 1/3 innings). It’s not the most outwardly impressive group of arms, but the Brewers have begun to make a habit of compiling serviceable staffs that are light on name value. They’ll be looking for more of the same in 2020.