Brewer backup plan needs work
The question on the minds of many Milwaukee Brewers fans as spring training approaches is: What happens if one of the starting pitchers gets hurt?
The Brewers are taking only five starters to camp, leaving no leeway should an injury occur. And it’s extremely rare for a club to make it through an entire season without needing a sixth starter, and quite often a seventh, eighth and so on.
As it stands, the Brewers’ rotation consists of Yovani Gallardo, Manny Parra, Jeff Suppan, Dave Bush and Seth McClung, with Parra being the lone left-hander. If a major casualty occurs, general manager Doug Melvin might have to go out and find a replacement in the outside world.
Left-hander Chris Capuano, an 18-game winner in 2005 who missed all of last season after undergoing “Tommy John” elbow surgery, might be ready to pitch in the majors again in May or June, if all goes well. But the Brewers can’t count on the return of Capuano because that sets them up for heartbreak if it doesn’t happen.
In the interim, let’s look at those who comprise Plan B -- the pool of pitchers from whom a substitute starter might be found (alphabetical order):
RHP Mark DiFelice
Major-league experience: 15 games/0 starts (1-0, 2.84 ERA).
After 11 seasons in the minors, DiFelice finally made his big-league debut last year with the Brewers, accumulating 15 relief outings over two separate stints. In the interim, he was 5-1 with a 3.22 ERA in 13 games (12 starts) with Class AAA Nashville. Not a hard thrower, DiFelice has not projected as a starting pitcher in the majors because of problems getting out left-handed hitters.
RHP Matt Ginter
Major-league experience: 96 games/19 starts (5-7, 5.43).
Ginter, 31, has bounced around, pitching for the White Sox, Mets, Tigers and Indians. He made four starts for Cleveland last season, going 1-3 with a 5.14 ERA as a fill-in after CC Sabathia was traded to the Brewers. Ginter is not invited to the big-league camp but was signed to provide some depth at Nashville.
LHP Lindsay Gulin
Major-league experience: None.
Gulin, 32, has pitched for 12 seasons in the minors without seeing a day in the big leagues. Last season at Nashville, he went 7-7 with a 3.54 ERA in 26 outings (23 starts). He sat out two years before returning to action in independent-league ball in 2006. Gulin, who has a 111-57 record in the minors, is a non-roster invitee to camp.
LHP Sam Narron
Major-league experience: 1 game (0-0, 13.50).
Claimed off waivers from Texas after the 2004 season, Narron sat out the entire ’05 season after undergoing “Tommy John” surgery. Now 27, Narron is 6-7 and 225 pounds but is not a hard thrower. He went 6-1 with a 2.77 ERA at Class AA Huntsville last season and 9-4 with a 4.80 ERA in 20 games (18 starts) at Nashville, making him the biggest winner in the system. He is invited to camp as a non-roster player.
LHP Chris Narveson
Major-league experience: 5 games/1 start (0-0, 4.82).
Narveson pitched well in the Brewers’ camp last spring and was considered a logical call-up if needed early in the season. He did not fare as well in Nashville, however, going 6-13 with a 5.43 ERA in 28 games (22 starts). Narveson, 27, is back in camp for a second year as a non-roster player.
LHP Chase Wright
Major-league experience: 3 games (2-0, 7.20).
The Brewers acquired Wright from the New York Yankees after he was designated for assignment to clear a roster spot for Andy Pettitte. Wright, 26, doesn’t throw hard and is at his best when inducing grounders with his sinker. In his only stint with the Yankees in 2007, he allowed four consecutive homers in a game in Boston. His style of pitching is similar to Capuano’s.
Now you see why there is cause for nervousness about the Brewers’ thin rotation. The second line of starters basically comes from “Journeymen ’R’ Us.”
The top-ranked starter in the farm system is Jeremy Jeffress, the Brewers’ first-round draft pick in 2006. But the hard-throwing right-hander has pitched only four games above the Class A level and had his stint in the Arizona Fall League cut short in ’08 by shoulder fatigue.
Fish or cut bait
Brewers fans are forever asking what the club’s plans are for centerfielder Tony Gwynn Jr., a second-round pick in 2003 who has seen action in the majors in parts of the past three seasons. Gwynn’s fate should be determined this spring because he is out of minor-league options, meaning the Brewers must keep him, trade him or place him on waivers at the end of camp.
With Mike Cameron serving a 25-game suspension at the start of last season, Gwynn had his chance to prove himself in center. Unfortunately, he suffered a hamstring strain after a couple of games, went on the disabled list and missed his big opportunity.
Gwynn spent most of the season at Nashville, batting .275 in 93 games with two homers, 26 RBI, a .328 on-base percentage and .331 slugging percentage. In 130 games in the majors, Gwynn has batted .248 with a .300 on-base percentage, low numbers for a leadoff-type hitter.
“It’s a big spring for Tony,” said Melvin. “We’re all interested in seeing what he does. He’ll have his chance to make the club.”
Chris Duffy, a non-roster invitee to camp, is a player very similar to Gwynn in skills. And veteran outfielder Trot Nixon will get his shot to prove he has something left in his tank.
Gwynn, Duffy and Nixon are all left-handed hitters, so no one has an advantage there. At the most, only two can make the 25-man roster.
Another longtime prospect out of options is first baseman/outfielder Brad Nelson, who finally got a taste of the majors in ’08 as a September call-up. As possible coverage in Nashville for losing Nelson in a roster move, the Brewers signed first baseman Scott Thorman to a minor-league deal.
Caught in a draft
Entering the winter, the Brewers figured there was a very good chance they would lose both Sabathia and Ben Sheets to free agency. But they figured those losses would be tempered somewhat by receiving two high draft picks as compensation for both pitchers when they signed elsewhere.
Let’s just say things haven’t worked out as planned.
Instead of getting the New York Yankees’ first-round pick for signing Sabathia, the Brewers will get a second-rounder in addition to a supplemental pick between the first and second rounds. Because Mark Teixeira was rated higher as a Class A free agent when he signed with the Yankees, their first-round pick went to the Los Angeles Angels.
Now, with Sheets planning to have elbow surgery and not play until the second half of the 2009 season, if then, it is highly unlikely he will sign with another club before the June draft. In that event, the Brewers would get no draft-pick compensation for losing Sheets after employing him for eight seasons.
The Brewers did get a supplemental pick when Class B free agent Brian Shouse signed with Tampa Bay.
There are still some Class A and B free agents on the market, so extra draft picks will be awarded to teams losing those players. But, as it stands, the Brewers have five of the first 71 picks.
The Brewers have their first-round pick at No. 27, supplemental picks Nos. 38 (Sabathia) and 44 (Shouse), the Yankees’ second-round pick at No. 70 and their own second-round pick at No. 71. As noted, future free-agent signings will push down some of those selections.
Though the Brewers aren’t getting the overall haul they expected, new scouting director Bruce Seid is determined to make the best of it.
“We’ll do what’s good for the Milwaukee Brewers,” said Seid. “If there’s a guy or two out there that can help expedite this team to a world championship, we’ll look at it.
”But you can’t walk away from guys who might take a little more development that you feel real strong about that can help the team win two or three years down the road. This is a good draft. There’s depth.“