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2006 Team Previews: Milwaukee Brewers, Pitchers

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Here is guest piece written by SB Nation's own Jeff Sackmann, author of Brew Crew Ball. Considering the fact that I am currently wearing an old style Brewers hat as I type this, I enjoy Jeff's site greatly. He knows his stuff, so make sure to read this preview. This is the first of a series of guest articles we will have in the next week, as we try to get all the team previews completed. Enjoy!

Quick: which Brewers pitcher was among the top five N.L. strikeout leaders last year? I'll give you a hint. He was also in the top ten in innings pitched and batting average against. He only managed a record of 11-11, despite being one of the seven N.L. pitchers to make a league-leading 35 starts.

Yep, Doug Davis. Barely three years removed from the waiver wire, Davis was arguably the best non-Astro #2 starter in baseball, and says a lot about the Milwaukee Brewers staff of 2006. Lots of talent, plenty of potential, and more depth than Milwaukee has had in years. Even adjusting for my fanboy-ish spring optimism, this group--especially the starting five--has the capability of being one of the top few pitching staffs in all of baseball, yet most casual fans outside of Wisconsin probably couldn't name five Brewers hurlers. Let's take a closer look at these anonymous contributors.

1. Ben Sheets. At this time last year, he was coming off a 2004 in which he threw 237 innings, had an ERA of 2.70, and maintained a stunning K/BB ratio of 8.25. He was frequently mentioned as a dark horse Cy Young candidate despite his career losing record, and if anyone was going to lead the Brewers to their first winning season in recent memory, it was going to be Ben. Of course, he wasn't the horse the Brewers had come to rely on, making only 22 starts. They were ace-quality starts, but Davis and the suddenly durable Chris Capuano emerged as more reliable options to pitch every fifth day. Ben hasn't done much to regain confidence in his health this spring: after showing little confidence in his speed or breaking pitches in a few spring starts, he has had to rehab yet another injury. Recent reports from camp suggest he's finally as strong and confident as ever, but I'm not getting too excited until I see a quality big-league start from him. The upside here is tremendous: it could be 2004 redux. The catastrophic downside is 30+ starts from some combination of Rick Helling and Jared Fernandez. That pair inspires more confidence than Ruben Quevedo or Wes Obermueller ever did, but clearly, if the Crew is going to make a run for the playoffs, they'll have to get at least 25 healthy starts from their ace.

2. Doug Davis. While the pundits talked up Ben Sheets for a Cy Young last spring, many of them weren't quite sure who Doug Davis was. There are still plenty of fans who might draw a blank, despite his rock-solid '05. He was a solid middle-of-the-rotation guy in '04, but whatever he did to up his strikeout level--8 K/9 last year--made him a passable substitute ace when Sheets was on the DL. His peripherals are somewhat contradictory: in the last two years, his K rate increased, his walk and hit rates stayed about the same, and his HR rate nearly doubled. I like to think the K rate shows a real improvement and the HR rate was a fluke, but that's the Brewer fan in me talking. More realistically, the Brewers can expect another year of 30+ starts, 200+ IP, and a sub-4 ERA, but I don't seriously expect to see Doug ranking 5th in strikeouts for a second consecutive year.

3. Chris Capuano. Now that Lyle Overbay is a Blue Jay, Capuano is the main remnant of the Richie Sexson trade that sent the D-Backs an unlucky first baseman and the Brewers most of their 2004 Opening Day roster. At the time of the trade, Cappy was a big question mark: the high-ceiling, very high-risk pitcher who you can find in just about any organization. In 2004, the Brewers got the high-risk; only last year did we see the high ceiling. Capuano led the team in wins with 18, but that was the only important department in which he outperformed Doug Davis. He coughed up 31 dingers in 219 IP--about par for the course for Chris, I'm sad to say--and just managed to keep his ERA under 4. Despite making an impact for the first time in his career, Capuano didn't do too much that he hadn't already proven he was capable of, except stay healthy. For 2006, I'd love to see exactly the same line from Chris, but he can't expect the same offensive and bullpen support he got in '05. The Brewers will be fortunate if Cappy again makes 30 starts with a 4ish ERA, and he keeps his HR rate at or lower than his career average. He probably won't win 18 games, but he'll be a steal for a half-million bucks.

4. Tomo Ohka. Where is the love? Tomo has never been a warm-and-fuzzy guy: in fact, it was his semi-public spat with Frank Robinson that got him exiled from Washington last season for the discount price of Junior Spivey. He doesn't overpower anybody, and it seems like he gets shelled once every 8-10 outings, but aggregate stats don't lie: his ERA+ for each of the last four seasons has been 131, 119, 122, and 103. If you think that 103 is a down year instead of a new, lower talent level, you're looking at a slightly older A.J. Burnett. His peripherals aren't great, especially a K/9 that has always hovered around 5, but since his age 26 season, he's gotten guys out and usually stayed healthy doing it. You see the pattern here: apparently it's impossible to say anything good about Ohka, except whatever you say has to be mitigated by the fact he's a pretty good pitcher. If Ohka puts up his career average 114 ERA+ this year, he may well be the best 4th starter in the league. If nobody else in baseball notices, all the better: Doug Melvin will lock him up for three years at a discount. Really, keep ignoring Tomo. I don't mind.

5. Dave Bush. Every year since I started playing fantasy baseball, there's one guy I get in every single league I join. Usually, since I base my fantasy rankings on ZiPS projections, it's someone who ZiPS loves. Last year it was Jeff Francis. This year it's Dave Bush. I just hope Bush's '06 doesn't turn out like Francis's '05--for my sake, and for the Brewers' sake. ZiPS predicts Bush, who the Brewers acquired in the Lyle Overbay trade last December, will have an ERA of 3.97, with a modest strikeout rate but a K/BB of 3:1. Adjusted for somewhat homer-happy Miller Park, those numbers also suggest he'll allow a mere 21 HRs--fewer than either Davis or Capuano allowed last season. That's a lot to ask of a guy who racked up a 5-11 record last year with a 4.49 ERA. But Bush won't turn 27 until after the season, he's been throwing great this spring, and he'll have the benefit of one of the best pitching coaches in the game in Mike Maddux. I don't know whether Bush will prove to be worth all of my 12th-round picks, but I suspect that he, like Ohka, will be one of the better back-of-the-rotation starters in the league this year.

More starters: Coming into Spring Training, Bush was competing with Rick Helling for that 5th spot. Helling got hurt, rendering the battle moot, but he will probably be ready to slide into the rotation by mid-April if need be. Last year 38 starts went to Brewers who didn't open the season in the rotation, seven of those to Helling, who came up from AAA and--astonishingly--dominated. Obviously you don't want to hang your hopes for the season on a reclamation project like Helling, but he's a heck of a lot better than, say, Gary Glover, who began 2005 as the Brewers' #6 guy. Behind Helling is Jared Fernandez, a knuckleballer who has pitched well this spring. And by midseason, a couple of prospects could be solid options for the rotation. While Ben Hendrickson may have passed his expiration date in triple-A, Dana Eveland, Dennis Sarfate and Zach Jackson, who also came over from Toronto in the Overbay deal, could be #3- or #4-type guys in the very near future. Even Justin Lehr, who will pitch in Milwaukee's bullpen to begin the season, spent most of 2005 as a starter at triple-A Nashville. The Brewers "second 5" may not stack up with the obscene depth that Oakland has amassed, but it'll probably still outpitch the Kansas City rotation.

Closer: Derrick Turnbow. Last year he tied a club record with 39 saves with an ERA of 1.74. Show of hands: who saw that coming? If I see your hand, I say you're lying. No matter how much you like Doug Melvin's waiver-combing skills, no matter whether you think of Mike Maddux as the second coming of Leo Mazzone, there was no way Turnbow was going to be this good. I was rooting for him last spring, but I was also rooting for Mike Adams to become the next great (cheap) Brewers closer. Adams didn't work out, neither did anybody else (remember Ricky Bottalico? No? Oh. Sorry to have reminded you) so Derrick got the job. Maddux smoothed out his mechanics some, so while he still throws closer-worthy gas, he's not in danger of combusting every time he breaks it out. He might not keep his ERA under 2, but he should be good for 35 saves and a strikeout or more per inning.

Setup #1: Matt Wise. In 2005, he was the best reliever you'd never heard of, the Scot Shields of the National League. Much of that success relied on one of the nastiest changeups in the well as a BABIP that, frankly, has to be ascribed in part to luck. His BABIP (batting average on balls in play) was .190, which--for those of you keeping score at home--is about 15 standard deviations below the mean. Brewer fanboys (well, the fanboys who know what BABIP is) would love to believe that Wise does something to keep that number down, and he might. Watching him, it sure looks like he's got magic make-batter-look-stupid pixie dust that he's illegally sprinkling on the ball before throwing his changeup. But there's no historical precedent that suggests he'll be able to maintain that level, pixie dust or no. Fortunate for the Brewers, he doesn't need it: his weighted mean PECOTA projection gives him an ERA of 3.84 in 53.3 IP--that's with a BABIP of .271. If he can keep the BABIP down to league-leading levels, he'll once again be among the best relievers nobody's ever heard of.

Setup #2: Dan Kolb. Oof. The Brewers are paying him $2 million this year, either because they think they owe it to him for his excellent work in '03 and '04, or because Scott Boras has pictures of Doug Melvin in a compromising situation with two of the new Miller Park Diamond Dancers. There's no question that Kolb was fantastic as the Brewers closer, but even while he was inducing ground balls faster than you can hit them with a fungo, there were signs he wouldn't be able to keep it up. His GB/FB ratio was as high as Wise's BABIP is low; he seemed to get a GIDP every second time out, and he just wasn't striking out enough guys to maintain that level of performance. I mean, 21 K's in 57 IP? Let's trade him to some sucker GM who'll give up a hot pitching prospect in exchange for a "proven closer." Kolb, reunited with guru Mike Maddux, is certainly worth a flyer this year, but for $2m, I just don't see him being worth it, especially when Maddux has proven so many times that he can turn relief dross into gold. One can only hope that Kolb's price tag doesn't mean he's relied on for important innings--that is, until he proves himself worthy.

Setup #3: Jose Capellan. I really, really wanted him to work out as a starter, if only because that would've made the Kolb trade even more lopsided than it already was. But Capellan likes life better in the bullpen. Since his performance drastically reflects that, power reliever he shall be. His overall numbers at Nashville are deceptive because he was so inconsistent as a starter, but once he switched to the bullpen, he started looking like the B+ prospect he'd always been. He was solid in 15 Major League innings last year, and has looked just as strong this spring. He would appear to be stuck behind Turnbow for a few years yet, but everything about this guy suggests he'll be closing games in the not-too-distant future.

The rest: Ben Sheets will open the year on the DL, and the versatility of the Brewers' bench makes it easy for Ned Yost to carry 12 pitchers. That means that on Opening Day, the roster will include eight relievers. At the moment, the four not listed above look to be Justin Lehr, Jared Fernandez, Jorge de la Rosa, and Rick Helling. Helling is still working his way back to health and Mike Adams has come on strong after his own injury issues, so that final spot might go to Adams. Fernandez and Helling figure to be long relievers and spot starters, though Lehr can function in that role as well. De la Rosa is the designated left-hander, on the team both because he has no options left and because none of the 19 other lefties invited to camp pitched well enough to displace him. Adams would be a 6th- or 7th-inning guy, but he had a very nice stretch setting up Dan Kolb in 2004, so a return to form from him would give Yost and Maddux yet another option in the late innings.

Even more: The next guy on the depth chart is Kane Davis. He's currently not throwing due to injury, but he was solid after a mid-season callup last year. If he comes back quickly, he'll force the front office to make a tough decision: he's out of options. However, by the time Davis is ready to return, Ben Sheets's return will have already kicked one guy out of the pen (my bet is Fernandez), and Davis just isn't much better than any of the guys who'll go north with the team.

Still more: Should the Brewers ever give up on de la Rosa, a flurry of lefties wait in AAA: Eveland, Jason Kershner, Justin Thompson, and Wil Rodriguez all have Major League experience and showed varying degrees of competence this March. Sarfate and Jackson, though they will start in AAA, could be beckoned should relief help be needed. Even Carlos Villanueva, a righty who will start the year in double-A Huntsville, might see some action in Milwaukee; he turned heads in Major League camp, and Doug Melvin has repeatedly said good things about the unheralded youngster.

Skimming? Read more closely now: The Brewers surprised a lot of people by putting together the 5th best team ERA in the National League. Unless they're struck by major injuries, they should have no trouble repeating or improving on that this year. Despite the possibility that a few major contributors--Capuano, Turnbow, Wise--will regress some, the impressive depth of both the rotation and the bullpen ensures that an injury or sudden bout of ineffectiveness (*cough* Kolb *cough*) isn't going to result in a huge dropoff to the next option. If Sheets stays healthy, Dave Bush takes that next step, and Rick Helling contributes ten league-average starts, this could be one of the 2 or 3 best pitching staffs in the league. If only two of those three happen, the Brewers will still be in a strong position to contend well into September.

Once again, thanks to Jeff Sackmann for his contribution to this site