The Brewers’ star rotation trio of Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff and Freddy Peralta has drawn plenty of well-deserved attention. Burnes won the NL Cy Young Award for his excellence in 2021. Woodruff and Peralta were well-deserved All-Star selections, with the former also receiving a solid amount of Cy Young support.
Essentially no one else around the league can match that kind of firepower at the top of the rotation. But Burnes, Woodruff and Peralta weren’t the only Milwaukee starters to have strong showings in 2021. Fourth and fifth starters Adrian Houser and Eric Lauer may not have been as electric as their rotation mates, but they’re both overqualified for back-end roles.
Houser pitched to a 3.22 ERA over a career-high 142 1/3 innings last season. The righty’s 17.5% strikeout rate wasn’t impressive, but Houser’s a ground-ball machine who’s had a decent amount of success despite mediocre whiff rates throughout his career. He owns a solid 3.78 ERA since the start of 2019, showing a knack for suppressing opponents’ exit velocities and keeping the ball in the yard.
Lauer came over from the Padres as part of the Trent Grisham – Luis Urías swap over the 2019-20 offseason. He barely pitched in the majors during his first season in Milwaukee, but the southpaw held down a rotation spot for most of last year. Across 118 2/3 frames, Lauer posted a 3.19 ERA that was far and away the best mark of his career. His strikeout and walk rates — 23.9% and 8.4%, respectively — were right around the respective league averages.
Unlike Houser, Lauer doesn’t excel at keeping the ball on the ground. A 4.24 SIERA suggests he’s probably closer to a league average rotation arm than his ERA — which befits a #2/3 type starter — might suggest. Even still, league average production would be a notable upgrade for many clubs’ starting staffs around the league. There are quite a few hopeful contenders expected to look for back-of-the-rotation help coming out of the lockout, and there’s not much reliability with the remaining free agent starters. Teams like the Reds and A’s might make notable starters available, but clubs looking for back-end help could also view the Brewers as a plausible trade partner.
Milwaukee’s squarely in win-now mode, and there’s a case to be made for them to hold onto their rotation depth. Each of Burnes, Woodruff, Peralta, Houser and Lauer made 20+ starts last year, and the injury risk associated with any pitcher could make banking on a repeat of that kind of rotation durability risky. On the other hand, Milwaukee also has another promising young arm who could step into a permanent rotation role.
Aaron Ashby has been one of the top prospects in the Brewers system for the past few seasons. Public prospect evaluators have raised some questions about his spotty control, but Ashby has the kind of stuff to succeed against MLB hitters already. He debuted last season and flashed special ability. His 4.55 ERA over 31 2/3 innings isn’t eye-catching, but Ashby struck out 29.3% of opponents and racked up ground-balls at a massive 61.3% clip that even slightly exceeded Houser’s mark. Only White Sox setup man Aaron Bummer matched Ashby’s combination of strikeouts and grounders.
That alone doesn’t guarantee Ashby will be an impact starter. There’d be risk in moving one of Houser or Lauer to entrust him with a full-time rotation spot. But the Brewers at least have to be encouraged by the promise Ashby showed, and a Houser or Lauer trade could enable the front office to creatively address the offense. Milwaukee’s lineup was a touch below-average last season, and they’ve since lost Avisaíl García to free agency. The Brewers acquired Hunter Renfroe to replace García in right field, but the overall lineup could stand to pick up another bat, particularly if the new collective bargaining agreement adds the designated hitter to the National League.
Houser and Lauer are each entering their first season of arbitration eligibility. Assuming there aren’t any changes to the service time structure in the next CBA, they’d remain controllable through 2024. Both pitchers are projected by MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz for modest salaries between $2MM and $3MM next season. With Burnes, Woodruff, Peralta and Ashby all controllable for at least three more years themselves, the Brewers could contemplate dealing from their enviable rotation depth to bolster the offense after the transactions freeze.