Brewers: Two spots locked down, three undecided in starting rotation

March 5, 2017

PHOENIX — For the Milwaukee Brewers, the math is simple: seven starting pitcher candidates for five spots so at least two pitchers will begin the season, at the very least, watching from the bullpen when the Milwaukee Brewers open their season April 3.

With more than a month remaining before Opening Day, this much is certain: right-handers Zach Davies and Junior Guerra will, one way or another, fill the top two spots in the rotation. Behind them: Jimmy Nelson, Wily Peralta, Chase Anderson, Matt Garza and Tommy Milone.

“We’ll have to make some decisions at the end of the spring,” manager Craig Counsell said.

The only locks at this point are Davies and Guerra, who both are coming off breakout seasons, despite not being on the Opening Day roster a year ago.

The rest of the returnees, however, have something to prove.

Nelson spent the winter working on his conditioning as well as a new off-speed pitch — a split-finger changeup — in the hopes of eliminating the problems that led to a difficult second-half.

He’d gone 5-3 with a 2.88 ERA over his first 11 starts but lost his next three decisions and went 3-13 with a 5.79 ERA over his final 21 outings. He allowed 86 walks and hit 17 batters, leading the majors in both categories.

“He’s got to throw more strikes,” Counsell said. “He’s never been Zach (Davies) in the strike zone; he didn’t go from the best to the worst by any means ... but he declined. He struggled toward the end of the season, for the last half of the season, and maybe more, really. That is certainly something he knows has to improve. It’s simple: (fewer) baserunners is going to equal more success.”

Peralta was Milwaukee’s Opening Day starter in 2016 but was shelled in that outing and didn’t recover until after a demotion. After going 4-7 with a 6.68 ERA through 13 starts, he was sent down to Class AAA Colorado Springs.

When he returned, Peralta showed the form that made him one of the Brewers’ top young prospects. He closed out the season with a 2.92 ERA in 10 starts .

“Wily got to the place where he made the adjustment, and he got some velocity back,” Counsell said. “And he was throwing his slider a little bit harder; did his slider improve, or did the velocity help the slider? That’s a hard question to answer.”

Peralta is optimistic pitching for the Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic will help him set a tone for the season.

“It’s a big season for me,” Peralta said. “My last two have been a little bit rough. My goal this year is to go into the start of the season really good.

“That’s one of the reasons I want to be in the Classic. It will be good competition early, and I think that’s going to help me out.”

Garza is the veteran of the staff, entering the final season of a four-year, $50 million contract. His season was marked by injuries and inconsistency but he reported to camp feeling healthy for the first time in several years.

“I’ve had a rough five years,” Garza said after making his Cactus League debut last week. “It was mentally draining. Every offseason, asking, ‘What can we do to get this better?’ It was a constant puzzle but finally, this offseason, it was all put back together again. We did the work, pushing everything to the limit and I came in feeling great. I feel like my body’s advanced. I’m real confident with the work I’ve put in.”

A good start by Garza could make him an attractive option for a contender looking for help at the trade deadline. He’s due to earn $12.5 million this season — all guaranteed money.

Anderson figures to be the odd man out when the season starts. Acquired from Arizona in the Jean Segura deal last winter, he went 9-11 with a 4.39 ERA in 31 appearances in 2016 but might begin the season in a long-relief role.

Finally, there’s Milone, the lone left-hander of the group. He signed a non-guaranteed major league contract worth $1.25 million plus incentives last December after going 3-5 in 19 appearances (12 starts) for Minnesota last season.

Counsell expects the situation to sort itself out by Opening Day. Rarely, if ever, does a team go through a season — or spring training — without injuries.

“Depth is the place you want to be sitting at this time of spring,” Counsell said.