PHOENIX – As Cactus League spring training roared to a close, Brewers manager Craig Counsell was swarmed with questions surrounding who was going to be a part of the pitching staff and how integral they were to the overall success of the team.
“It’s the strength of our team. So, we don’t run away from it. It’s a strength for us. You know, our team is set up to thrive on starting pitching,” Counsell said. “Their health is really important and that’s something we got to think of over the long haul. But, every team knows that it takes more than that, but when your strength of your team is (pitching), their health is even more meaningful. So their health is really important.”
After Opening Day, the questions were warranted given Thursday’s first outing. Milwaukee Brewers ace Corbin Burnes threw five innings and allowed four earned runs in the 4-0 loss against the Chicago Cubs in what was supposed to be a dominant start to the season for the Brew Crew’s core five pitching staff. But then Brandon Woodruff pitched six sharp innings for Milwaukee in a 3-1 victory over the Cubs, followed by Eric Lauer’s 5 1/3 innings of two-run ball after a rocky start, helping the Brewers to a 9-5 win.
It’s still early, and Burns & Co. have plenty of time to back up Counsell’s declaration.
Counsell knew for certain that Burnes, the 2021 CY Young award winner, would get the start on Opening Day, but the rest of the pitchers were met with uncertainty throughout spring training.
Reliever Gus Varland had some anxious moments during his time in the Valley, but the 26-year-old remained confident in interviews that he was going to make the 40-man roster. That dream came true Monday when Milwaukee announced that Varland would be traveling to Chicago for the Brewers’ series against the Cubs instead of heading to Nashville and Triple-A ball.
In February, Varland said he was going to make the Brewers face a very tough decision at the end of spring training, and he did. Over 8.2 innings pitched this spring, he struck out 17 and allowed four earned runs.
MLB.com predicts that Burnes, Woodruff, Lauer, Freddy Peralta and Wade Miley will make up the Brew Crews’ rotation for at least the foreseeable future, with Aaron Ashby sidelined for at least the first month of the season as he deals with a left shoulder issue.
Miley, 36, is an unexpected addition to the starting rotation. The major league veteran started one spring training game, appeared in three, struck out eight and maintained a 4.22 ERA over the stretch.
“I’m hoping that they (the younger guys) can do all the work and I can just sit back and reap the benefits,” Miley said at the beginning of spring training. “That’d be the best thing. There’s gonna be some learning curves, it’s a lot different than when I was here and we’re gonna lean on each other. I’m here to help anyway I can, and to erase some gaps to bring it (the World Series) to them.”
Woodruff, 29, was dominant last season in Milwaukee, going 13-4 with a 3.05 ERA over 27 starts. In spring training the momentum didn’t stop, with Woodruff producing 17 strikeouts, 11 hits, and 9.8 strikeouts per nine innings in his four starts.
He attributed the rotation’s chemistry to familiarity and the fact that the majority of the pitching staff has been together for a few seasons.
“I just think it’s the familiarity with everybody. We, a lot of the guys have been in the organization for a while. Me, Corbin (Burnes), Freddy (Peralta), and how they got traded over and got traded over,” Woodruff said, referring to how many times the pitching staff moved around. “So we’ve been in a group for a while and Wade (Miley) is familiar with us. And so I think just having that group where we know each other, we root for each other. I think that goes a long way.”
For this season, Woodruff mentioned that he tweaked his curveball to make it similar to what it was in the 2021 season and refined the rest of his pitches to maintain the level of consistency he’s had for the last six seasons.
Transitioning to the bullpen for Milwaukee, things aren’t as steady as the rotation.
In the wake of trading star closer Josh Hader at last season’s trade deadline, the Brewers knew the bullpen needed to be addressed this offseason.
Besides the loss of Hader, relievers Brad Boxberger, Trevor Gott, Brent Suter and Taylor Rogers also left the Brewers in favor of other teams in the offseason. Milwaukee brought in relievers Javy Guerra and Joel Payamps in the offseason to offset some of those departures.
The bullpen is anchored by Devin Williams, one of the top closers in baseball. The Brewers’ right hander ranked in the 99th and 100th percentile league wide in nine of Baseball Savant’s percentile ranking stats.
The 2020 Rookie of the Year and 2022 All-Star reliever earned a spot on Team USA during March’s World Baseball Classic. Counsell said the WBC opportunity fueled Williams, who came into camp further along than normal.
“If you look at somebody like Devin (Williams), he clearly put in the work to be ready for this,” Counsell said. “So it’s helped him. It’s helped him be sharp and be ready sooner, and I think it’s going to be a great thing for him.”
Williams debuted for the Brewers in 2019, but didn’t make more than 22 appearances until 2021 when he appeared in 58 games, with an ERA of 2.50. In 2022, his usage went up to 65 appearances and he lowered his ERA by over half a run, posting a 1.93.
However, to get to Williams, the Brewers will need help along the way. A key returner for Milwaukee is 32-year-old Hoby Milner. The lefty takes over the role as the Brewers’ top left-handed option out of the bullpen following Hader’s departure.
In 2022, Milner served in a wide array of bullpen roles. Counsell had nothing but positives to say about Milner’s last season.
“Hoby had a very good season for us. I’d call him a glue reliever, where he just really bridged games for us,”Counsell said. “He pitched in different roles during games. Very available, durable, and that’s important.”
Milner has four pitches in his arsenal — a four-seam fastball, changeup, curveball and a sinker. In 2020 and 2021, Milner’s sinker usage dropped from his most used pitch, going from 58.6% in 2019 to a measly 2.8% in 2020. The number barely rose entering 2021, then skyrocketed back to being his go-to pitch in 2022 as he used it 42.9% of the time.
When asked why he decided to return to his favorite pitch, Milner kept it simple.
“Just trying to keep the ball in the ballpark,” Milner said. “It creates a lower launch angle for me, and if guys aren’t hitting home runs then I’m probably sitting in a good spot.”
According to Counsell, Milner will be in line for more high leverage roles this season, leaving the bridge role for someone else. The Brewers manager doesn’t like isolating his relievers to a singular role for the most part, and believes it’s up to the entire pen to provide that “glue.”
“You need relievers that kind of do Hoby’s job and there’s a certain part of the bullpen that’s not specific and when they pitch or what inning it is, but it’s just the glue and they kind of help everybody else,” Counsell said. “The bullpen itself is a unit, and their job is they all kind of rely on each other and help each other and getting your outs in that bullpen helps the next guy get his (pitch) home.”