Cactus League report: Brewers pitchers hope to build off dominant 2021 season

Milwaukee right-hander Brandon Woodruff is a force on the Brewers pitching staff, and one that the younger arms in the Brewers organization hope to emulate. (Photo by Wesley Johnson/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – Over the past few seasons, the defining strength of the Milwaukee Brewers unequivocally has been their pitching staff, and that isn’t expected to change in 2022.

The Brewers even are showing signs of improvement this spring, which has to be a frightening prospect for the rest of the NL Central Division.

Between reigning NL Cy Young award winner Corbin Burnes and right-hander Brandon Woodruff, Milwaukee has at least two ace-caliber starters, and there’s no shortage of depth up and down the rotation or in the Brewers’ bullpen.

“I can tell you this is the best group of athletes we’ve had in 18 years,” Brewers owner Mark Attanasio said. “Our pitching is off the charts. Obviously we have three All-Star starters, and Devin (Williams) and Josh (Hader) are top-10 relievers in the league.”

Last season, the Brewers posted a team ERA of 3.50, third best in the majors, despite playing their home games at hitter friendly American Family Field. This, accompanied by the fifth-fewest home runs allowed and 10.1 strikeouts per nine innings, is evidence of their dominance in 2021.

So far this shortened spring, Milwaukee’s staff is picking up right where it left off.

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Although the sample size is small at this point, it should be noted that the starting rotation in particular is healthy and improving. Burnes, Woodruff, Freddy Peralta, Adrian Houser and Eric Lauer will almost certainly make up the Opening Day rotation, but left-hander Aaron Ashby profiles as a potential sixth option.

Ashby’s lone Cactus League outing thus far was as efficient as it gets – he needed just 15 pitches in three near-perfect innings, allowing no hits or runs and striking out three.

“The five guys that we had last year are really good,” Ashby said. “To have a chance to be a part of that group is awesome. It’s a rotation with depth when we need it; and when we don’t, I’ll be wherever they need me. It’s exciting.”

Ashby tossed 31.2 innings in 13 games last season before struggling in a pair of postseason games. It was a valuable experience for the young left-hander, and he believes he’s primed for a breakout season because of it.

Versatility makes Ashby a valuable commodity for the Brewers as their sixth option. He is capable of delivering five-plus innings as a starter or coming out of the bullpen to eat up just as many frames in relief.

“I’ve adapted to that role, especially after last year,” Ashby said. “I’ve come to enjoy it at times. There’s fun parts about pitching out of the bullpen. Obviously I enjoy starting more, but you learn a lot more about yourself coming out of the bullpen one day and starting the next.”

Houser is another versatile piece the Brewers have used in a variety of ways since his debut in 2015. Having carved out a spot in the starting rotation, Houser’s focus is set on improving his repertoire.

He’s tinkering with new grips on his slider and changeup, which are the two pitches in his arsenal that he used the least last season. He hopes those pitches will help him generate more strikeouts and cut down on his walk rate, which placed him in the 20th percentile in MLB last year.

“I’m trying to kind of throw it how Freddy (Peralta) throws his slider,” Houser said. “It’s been a lot better, and in the bullpen it’s getting the action that we want. The changeup has been working out really well and just like the slider, I think we’re heading in the right direction with it.”

The supplementary pieces like Ashby – and even Ethan Small, Milwaukee’s No. 5 prospect according to MLB Pipeline – intrigue Houser. Last season arguably was one of the best ever for the Brewers on the mound, but Houser is confident the extra help this year could set a new standard.

Right-hander Brandon Woodruff has been a fundamental cog in Milwaukee’s rotation since 2018, something he figures to be once again this season. (Photo by Wesley Johnson/Cronkite News)

In Houser’s mind, part of what made the Brewers so good last season was the internal competition between some of the team’s mainstays and those just breaking into the bigs who were looking to get decent innings of work.

“We were all just pushing each other, making sure we all were taking care of our business,” Houser said. “I think that really helped us in the long run. We have some good depth. You throw Ashby in there, Small is in Triple A. Hopefully we can build off of last year with that.”

At a glance, Woodruff’s first spring start last Thursday against the Arizona Diamondbacks wasn’t encouraging. The right-hander gave up four earned runs in three innings of work. However, it was his first outing of the spring and as critical as Woodruff was of himself afterward, he made an important point about the purpose of spring training.

“At the end of the day, I’m not pitching for March, I’m pitching for October and hopefully November,” Woodruff said. “That’s always the goal in mind. Everybody in our clubhouse is a competitor, so when you don’t do well you take it to heart. But at the same time, you realize you’re getting ready for a season.”

Woodruff’s remarks embody the high standards of the Brewers pitching staff. It’s one reason why Milwaukee finished atop the NL Central in 2021 before flaming out in the NLDS against the Atlanta Braves.

Woodruff understands that spring training won’t make or break your season. However, he also knows there’s work to be done in order for him to return to elite form.

“It takes me a little bit to get my mechanics down,” Woodruff said. “For me, a goal of mine is always to start the season strong. I was fortunate enough to do that last year. I just want to be healthy when we break, that’s the main thing.”

With one week remaining before the Brewers depart for Chicago to face the Cubs on Opening Day, manager Craig Counsell and company have no shortage of decisions to make. Normally, a slew of open spots and a fast approaching roster-trimming deadline would suggest a lack of options to fill those holes.

But that isn’t the case with the Brewers, at least not on the pitching side of things. If anything, the decisions are difficult because there are so many options. For Milwaukee, that’s a good problem to have.

Cole Bradley(he/him)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Cole Bradley expects to graduate in May 2023 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Bradley, who has interned as a reporter with the Orleans Firebirds of the Cape Cod Baseball League, is working for the Phoenix sports bureau.

Sports Visual Journalist, Phoenix

Wesley Johnson expects to graduate in May 2022 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Johnson, who has interned as a digital editor and social media manager at Arizona PBS, is working for the Phoenix sports bureau.