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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Saturday, Aug. 23, 2014

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In Sports

Marco Estrada had a very successful run as a starter in 2012. (PHOTO: David Bernacchi )

Brewers hitch their wagon to young pitchers


The slow thaw of winter begins, especially in the hearts of baseball fans, with the phrase "pitchers and catchers report." The pair of cardinals settling on an icicle chandelier outside the window seems less out of place than it did the day before, the order of iced coffee results in a less awkward glance.

That truth begins today for the Milwaukee Brewers, as pitchers and catchers with less than three years of major league experience set up their lockers at Maryvale Baseball Park in Phoenix. It's a group that includes starters Mike Fiers, Mark Rogers, Wily Peralta and Tyler Thornburg.

Hope may forever spring eternal in the breasts of men, but perhaps no hope is greater than that placed upon the relatively unproven arms of this group of starting pitchers. The Brewers, now two seasons removed from a National League Central crown, have a lineup of hitters in their prime and ready to win now.

The hope is that several of these starters – along with Marco Estrada and Chris Narveson – are ready to win now as well.

"Like I said since last August, they played well enough to give us some confidence," Brewers general manager Doug Melvin said.

The Brewers flirted with 35-year-old free agent Ryan Dempster, but the veteran right-hander chose to head to Boston. After that, no other starting pitcher on the open market jumped out to Brewers management as much as the pitchers already on staff.

"To add one more veteran, good veteran pitcher there would've been huge," manager Ron Roenicke conceded. "But also, when you don't have that guy, do I want at veteran that has just pitched in the big leagues and he's going to have a four and a half ERA or do I want to give a young guy who we think is going to be really good a chance? I'd rather have the young guy a chance."

"Young" is a relative word as well with this pitching staff, however.

Yovani Gallardo turns 27 later this month, making him the same age as Rogers. Fiers will be 28 in June and Estrada turns 30 in July. Narveson just turned 31. Even the two "youngest" of the Brewers starting pitching options are not really that young anymore. Peralta turns 24 in May and Thornburg turns 25 in September.

They may not have the major league track record of Greinke and Marcum, but that doesn't concern many inside the clubhouse.

"Look at what Oakland did," Gallardo said, referencing the 2012 American League West champions which won 94 games behind a largely unproven starting rotation. "It's one of those things where they did it with a bunch of young pitchers. And we've seen what the guys did last year for us. They stepped up whenever they had to step up and they're aggressive. They go out there and attack whoever is up there hitting, which is good. They go out there and pitch their game and can pretty much compete with anybody."

That performance when the pressure was greatest – the stretch run of a playoff chase – was the biggest reason general manager Doug Melvin decided to roll the dice with this group.

"Our guys did it when it mattered," Roenicke said. "We got close enough that those games were really important and they pitched well and I think that is very important."

Estrada struck out 9.3 batters per nine innings and posted a 3.64 earned run average and 1.4 wins above replacement. Fiers had a 9.5 K/9 rate, 3.74 ERA and a 1.7 WAR. Rogers also struck out 9.5 batters per nine innings in his limited time with the Brewers, along with a 3.92 ERA. Peralta struck out 7.1 batters per nine with a 2.48 ERA.

That production is what gives the rest of the team confidence in the group at the start of camp, too.

"You've seen them succeed at the highest level," Ryan Braun said. "It's one thing to be a prospect. It's one thing to have success in the minor leagues. But to see those guys come up – Rogers and Peralta and Fiers – to see what he did all year. Marco to have another good year. To see those guys come up and succeed at this level I think it gives me that much more confidence and I think as a team it gives everybody that much more confidence that not only can they produce but they can really succeed and a thrive at this level."

Catcher Jonathan Lucroy agreed: "Look, we had guys go down last year toward the end of the season and we went on that big run with young guys – I don't see why we can't do it again."

Owner Mark Attanasio found another way to gauge how ready this group was to start the season, outside of the eye test or the stat sheet.

"One of the things we can measure is how many of these guys are getting asked about in trades and the answer is all of them," Attanasio said. "So, if other teams – including winning teams – want these guys, why not us use them?"


Talkbacks

Photodavie | Feb. 12, 2013 at 1:00 p.m. (report)

Kyle Lohse is still on the market. Brewers could kill 2 birds with one Stone. We get a veteran pitcher, the Cardinals don't. Should cost more than 12mil/year. Still keeps payroll down. COME ON BREWERS!!!! You cannot put too much pressure on these young arms. Last year they had nothing to lose. This year, it's all on their shoulders. Sign Lohse, start 2 of the new guys, with 2 as back-up. Safer plan, less pressure. and provides a back-up later in the season with innings pitched.

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