Going into the 2014-15 offseason, the Milwaukee Brewers pitching depth was a clear position of strength. The Brewers ended the season with a rotation of Kyle Lohse, Matt Garza, Wily Peralta, Mike Fiers, and Yovani Gallardo, with Marco Estrada and Jimmy Nelson as reserves ready for a spot start at any time. The Brewers used their pitching rotation to address other needs this offseason, trading Estrada for first baseman Adam Lind and sending Yovani to Texas for three prospects, saving the team $9 mil in payroll and allowing Jimmy Nelson to slot into the rotation.
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The Brewers have yet to add another established swingman to their team, leaving them woefully short on experienced backup rotation options. Beyond the starting five, there is Taylor Jungmann (0 MLB appearances), Michael Blazek (18 MLB appearances, 0 starts), and Brooks Hall (has yet to pitch above AA). While the team is still on the lookout for another arm to add from outside the club, it appears as though someone within the organization will soon become a viable option in that role, if needed.
Brewers’ pitcher Tyler Thornburg, coming off a mostly lost season due to injury, was interviewed last night on 105.7 FM The Fan in Milwaukee. When asked about the state of his health coming off a UCL injury last year, Thornburg informed us that he has pitched 12 bullpen sessions already without any issue, an extremely encouraging sign. He will not be under any restrictions in Spring Training this year. The guys also asked Tyler if he thought he might get stretched out to help a thin rotation, and Thornburg said that it was likely that he would. It seems as though Tyler would like to be given a role and be able to stay with it, and after being used as a starter, a long man, and a setup guy in the last two seasons, I’m sure some stability would be welcome.
This morning, Tom Haudricourt informed us that Brewers’ manager Ron Roenicke did indeed ask Thornburg to begin stretching his arm when the two met:
The team’s plan is to stretch Thornburg out as a starter and determine where he will be needed later in camp, depending on possible injuries and how other player perform. The move to stretch Thornburg out as a starter does a lot to strengthen the team’s depth: Tyler posted a sterling 1.47 ERA (with an excellent 2.65 FIP) across seven starts for the Brewers in 2013, and would have been the team’s fifth starter last season if not for the late signing of Matt Garza.
Though it’s by no means a large sample size, Thornburg at least provides some experience (53 games, 10 starts) to the Brewers stable of rotation depth. He has a very strong track record in the minor leagues, ranking as high as the team’s number two prospect following the 2012 season. Thornburg posted a 4.25 ERA (3.81 FIP) last season in 27 appearances strictly in relief, though his ERA is skewed a bit by a poor final outing before being shut down for the season. Still, Thornburg walked a troubling 6.1 batters per nine innings last year, a huge increase from his 3.5 BB/9 mark in his strong 2013 season in Milwaukee.
I still believe that Tyler’s future for the Brewers lies in the rotation, and he could be the top in-house candidate to replace free-agent-to-be Kyle Lohse if he can post a solid season. For his career, Thornburg has posted an ERA over a run lower as a starter than in relief (2.37 ERA in 57.0 IP vs. 3.67 ERA in 61.1 IP), and he’s posted much better walk rates (3.16 BB/9 vs. 4.99 BB/9) and WHIP (1.23 vs. 1.39) marks as a starter.
By deciding to stretch Thornburg out this early in camp, the Brewers can still scale him back later should they add another pitcher or decide that Thornburg isn’t needed as a long-man. However, given the Brewers stable of late-inning options in the bullpen (Jim Henderson coming back off injury, Jeremy Jeffress, Will Smith, Jonathan Broxton, rumored K-Rod reunion) and their lack of current rotation depth, I would think that the Brewers would be best served by keeping Thornburg ready for spot-starting duty. Matt Garza hasn’t started 30 games since 2011 and Kyle Lohse missed a couple starts last season as well. Keeping Thornburg in a potential long-relief role should help ease his arm into game action better than being thrown into high leverage situations would, as well as allowing him to be ready to step in for the inevitable spot-starts the Brewers will need this season.