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Crew's rotation competition to occupy spring spotlight

MILWAUKEE -- Left-hander Chris Narveson doesn't mind that he will have a lot more competition in 2013 for a spot in the Brewers' starting rotation.

Narveson had a job all but assured last spring, but will report to camp this time (Feb. 12 for pitchers and catchers with zero to three years of Major League service; Feb. 15 for everybody else) to take part in what promises to be a spirited competition for four spots behind ace Yovani Gallardo.

"I think that's what baseball is all about," Narveson said. "It breeds better players and better teams. I think it's going to help us out. Look at last season -- it took a lot more than five guys to get where we needed to be."

After employing only six starting pitchers in 2011, the Brewers used 11 starters last year.

Now it's back to the drawing board for 2013, and it appears the Brewers are confident their in-house options will cover the departures of Zack Greinke (traded), Randy Wolf (released) and Shaun Marcum (free agent). General manager Doug Melvin made a two-year offer to Ryan Dempster, but Dempster opted to sign with Boston for more guaranteed money.

After that, Melvin indicated the Brewers were not pursuing any other free-agent starting pitchers.

"Our young pitchers earned an opportunity last year, with the way they pitched, that they should at least be given a chance," Melvin said.

Here's a look at the choices:

1. The lock

Gallardo, 27 on Feb. 27, is in line for his fourth consecutive Opening Day start and is the only rock-solid bet to make the Brewers' Opening Day pitching rotation. He has been about as durable as pitchers come since missing the bulk of 2008 with a knee injury, making 30-plus starts in each of the past four years, with 200-plus strikeouts in each of those seasons and 200-plus innings in each of the last two.

The debate can continue about whether Gallardo is a true "No. 1." But there's no debating that he is the Brewers' No. 1.

2. The "veterans"

Right-hander Marco Estrada and left-hander Narveson have 95 career starts between them, so they are not exactly grizzled veterans. But in the Brewers' pool of rotation candidates, they are just shy of Gallardo in terms of experience.

Estrada, 29, may be the closest thing to a lock for the rotation outside of Gallardo. He started 23 of his 29 appearances last season and finished with a career-best 3.64 ERA. Of Major League pitchers who logged at least 100 innings, Estrada's 4.93 strikeouts per walk ranked fourth, behind the Braves' Kris Medlen (5.22), the Rangers' Colby Lewis (6.64) and Major League leader Cliff Lee (7.39).

"The record wasn't as good as he pitched, but [Estrada] is consistent," Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said. "He's shown that his command allows him to do a lot of things. He's also a guy that surprises you that he strikes out as many guys as he does."

For Narveson, the question is health. He had surgery May 1 to repair the labrum and rotator cuff in his left shoulder, but was throwing off a mound before the end of the season and is expected to be back to 100 percent well before the start of Spring Training.

Both Estrada and Narveson are arbitration-eligible for the first time. Both also have experience in relief, a factor that could come into play if the Brewers plan to shift one or more competitors for the starting rotation into relief.

3. The upstarts

Right-handers Mike Fiers, Wily Peralta and Mark Rogers all proved in 2012 that they could pitch at the Major League level. The unknown is whether they can pitch successfully in the Majors over the course of a full season.

The Brewers seem prepared to find out the answer, especially for power arms like Peralta and Rogers. Peralta, 23, made his big league debut and pitched to a 2.48 ERA in five starts and one relief appearance, and did not allow a home run in 29 innings. Rogers, 27 on Jan. 30, was 3-1 with a 3.92 ERA and more strikeouts (41) than innings (39) in seven starts before the Brewers, concerned about his workload, shut him down as a precaution.

For Peralta, who had not impressed Roenicke in two previous Spring Trainings, including in 2011 when Peralta was presented with a chance to win an Opening Day roster spot, it was a statement about his poise. For Rogers, a former first-round Draft pick long dogged by arm injuries, it was a statement about his durability.

Then there is Fiers, 27, a former 22nd round Draft pick who was so excellent for the Brewers in his first 13 games (1.80 ERA, .218 opponents' average) and so hard-hit (6.99 ERA, .308 opponents' average) in his final 10 games. Fiers insisted to the end that fatigue was not an issue, and he showed an uncanny ability to miss bats with a fastball that averaged 88 mph, logging 9.52 strikeouts per nine innings. Among pitchers with at least 100 innings in 2012, only Francisco Liriano, Yu Darvish, Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg struck out batters at a higher rate.

Fiers and Peralta have Minor League options remaining. Rogers is out of options.

If you're counting, that's five pitchers for four starting spots behind Gallardo. And then there are ...

4. The backups

In a perfect world, right-handers Tyler Thornburg and Hiram Burgos would go to Triple-A Nashville to start the season. But with Dempster off the board and the Brewers apparently unwilling to overpay for any of the remaining free agents, Thornburg and Burgos could be pushed a bit faster than originally planned. Either could be a Plan B in the event of an injury to a starter, and either could also be considered for a spot in the bullpen.

Thornburg, 24, got a taste of the Majors in 2012 with three starts and five relief appearances. He was yo-yoed all year between Double-A Huntsville, Nashville and Milwaukee, and would be an interesting bullpen candidate considering some scouts are already predicting his future in relief. The Brewers say they are committed to Thornburg as a starter, pointing to his 10-4 record and 3.20 ERA in 21 Minor League starts last season.

Burgos, 25, was the Brewers' Minor League Pitcher of the Year after going 10-4 with a 1.95 ERA in 27 starts and one relief appearance at three Minor League stops in 2012, topping out at Nashville. He was added to the 40-man roster after the season.

Milwaukee Brewers, Yovani Gallardo, Chris Narveson, Wily Peralta, Mark Rogers