Tom Oates: Brewers make right move going with talent over experience in starting rotation

April 1, 2019

Some sports debates never change.

Like this one: When is the right time for a team to move on from a reliable veteran and go all-in on a young player with considerably greater upside?

Fans tend to fall on the side of force-feeding talented prospects into the lineup and living with their inevitable ups and downs while managers and coaches, who must worry about job security, are often more comfortable with the dependability that comes with experience.

The debate was rekindled last week when Milwaukee Brewers manager Craig Counsell made the surprising announcement that three young starting pitchers — Freddy Peralta (22), Corbin Burnes (24) and Brandon Woodruff (26) — would line up behind No. 1 starter Jhoulys Chacin in the rotation to start the season. In the process, 30-something veterans Chase Anderson and Junior Guerra were banished to the bullpen and Zach Davies, a relatively young veteran at 26, was pushed down to the fifth and final spot in the rotation.

There is no denying such a decision carries an element of risk, but two things make the Brewers’ decision to ride with their young arms riskier than most. First, the team is in a win-now posture with five of its nine Opening Day starters in their 30s. Second, the Brewers aren’t easing Peralta, Burnes and Woodruff into the lineup one at a time, they’re doing it all at once.

As risky as it may be to add three pitchers who have a combined 26 major-league starts to the rotation, however, the Brewers made the right move. With the bullpen in a chaotic state due to injuries, adding three power arms to the rotation could be the difference between Milwaukee returning to the playoffs or falling back into the pack after winning 96 games last season.

The performance of the trio during spring training was the tipping point in the decision. After pitching solidly in various roles with the Brewers during the regular season and, in the case of Woodruff and Burnes, throwing brilliantly during the playoffs, these three are as ready as they’ll ever be. When they showed even more improvement this spring, the Brewers were convinced.

“We felt like it was their time and we feel like it is their time,” general manager David Stearns said. “These are three young but very mature individuals who have already performed at a very high level on very big stages. We take risks all over our roster, we take risks in our game strategy; it’s how we believe we have to compete. We believe they’re intelligent risks, calculated risks. And we have confidence that these guys are going to continue to develop and be very solid major-league starters.”

Truth be told, the Brewers probably would be thrilled if two of the three successfully make the jump. And since former ace Jimmy Nelson, who hasn’t pitched since 2017, isn’t ready to return from shoulder surgery quite yet, the youngsters should get plenty of time to prove themselves.

Peralta, who had a rough first start against St. Louis on Friday, has the most starts of the three but the least amount of experience in high-leverage situations after pitching only once during the playoffs. He caught everyone’s attention with a stunning, 13-strikeout debut last season and finished with a 6-4 record and 4.25 ERA in 14 starts. The Brewers want him to gain consistency by reducing his walks, but his velocity was up during the spring, important because he relies so heavily on his fastball.

Burnes was used strictly in relief after getting a midseason call-up and performed well, going 7-0 with a 2.61 ERA in 30 appearances. However, he has been a starter throughout his minor-league career and, with a five-pitch repertoire, projects as a starter in the majors.

Woodruff actually began last season in the rotation after making eight starts in 2017. He didn’t stay there, bouncing between the Brewers and Class AAA Colorado Springs six times, and went 3-0 with a 3.61 ERA in 19 games, four of them starts. Woodruff emerged as a bullpen mainstay in September and October, but he, too, has starter’s stuff.

“The exciting thing about this team is our starting pitching,” Counsell said. “The three young starters, to me, were the story of spring training, how they performed. They all, in our eyes, took steps forward in spring training and that’s hard to do after what we saw in September and October from them. I’m really excited to see them pitch. They are young starters and that does mean there is going to be some ups and downs, but it’s an important part of our future. It can be now and part of our future at the same time. That’s what’s cool about it. They’re good enough to be part of a team like this right now and that’s really cool.”

Like Stearns, Counsell doesn’t see this decision as a risk, pointing to the number of starts Peralta (14) and Woodruff (12) already have and the potential all three possess.

“As much as anything, we’ve got upside there, really,” Counsell said. “That’s what I’m looking forward to.”

Many baseball people think the Brewers need to acquire an ace, but they declined to do so for the second consecutive offseason in part because they liked what they had. Peralta, Woodruff and Burnes definitely have the talent to elevate Milwaukee’s rotation. Now we’ll see if they have the experience.