Young pitching was one of the keys to the Milwaukee Brewers’ resurgence in 2018, when the team fell one victory short of its first World Series appearance since 1982.
Much like Josh Hader in 2017, Corbin Burnes and Brandon Woodruff were developed as starters in the Minors only to be shifted to the bullpen to help the big league club last season.
Burnes arrived in early July and quickly carved out a spot as a high-leverage reliever. Appearing in 30 regular-season games, he went 7-0 with a 2.61 ERA and .199 BAA. In the playoffs, Burnes allowed two earned runs on four hits with 11 strikeouts while tossing nine innings across six outings.
Woodruff debuted in late 2017 and then made 19 appearances, four as a starter, last year during the regular season. The right-hander was exceptional in the postseason, striking out 17 batters and allowing three runs over 9 1/3 frames pitching in long relief, and adding another three hitless frames in his lone playoff start.
Freddy Peralta also fired three hitless innings out of the bullpen, striking out six and walking three in his lone postseason appearance. During the regular season, the rookie right-hander averaged 11 strikeouts-per-nine over 78 1/3 innings as a 21-year-old.
But despite the graduations of Burnes, Woodruff and Peralta to the Major Leagues, the Brewers are poised to receive contributions from another wave of pitching prospects in 2019.
“We’ve obviously had some turnover,” said Brewers farm director Tom Flanagan, “but I think the strength of our system is still on the pitching side. There are arms up and down the system.”
Specifically, right-handers Zack Brown and Braden Webb -- No. 6 and No. 12, respectively, on Milwaukee’s Top 30 list -- are candidates to join the team during the upcoming season after pitching well at Double-A Biloxi in 2018.
Brown garnered honors as the Southern League's Most Outstanding Pitcher last year after he posted a circuit-best ERA (2.44) and finished second in WHIP (1.06) and BAA (.210). He also induced ground balls at a better than 55-percent clip, all while compiling 119 strikeouts and 37 walks in 127 2/3 innings.
He’s built on that success this spring with a strong performance in big league camp, working to a 1.50 ERA over six innings and three appearances, including one start.
“He’s just continued to improve as he’s gained confidence,” said Flanagan about the 24-year-old right-hander. “Last year was obviously big for him and I think it set him in the right direction. He pitched some big games at Biloxi, so it’s been great to see him perform well this spring starting games on the Major League side.”
Webb, 23, didn’t reach Biloxi until early August, but he still made a big impression on the team’s staff, as well as club officials, during the final month of the regular season and into the playoffs. Specifically, the 2016 third-rounder struck out 10 batters and allowed one hit in his final regular-season start, then fired another six-inning, one-hit gem in the Southern League playoffs.
“I think that got his confidence rolling,” said Flanagan about Webb’s late-season surge. “He’s always had the great stuff -- with that power fastball, plus curveball and a really good changeup -- but now he seems to have matured to where he can harness everything. He knows he has a little more margin for error with his stuff than a lot of guys.”
Their backgrounds as starters give Brown and Webb the potential to contribute in different roles in the big leagues much like Burnes and Woodruff. When they arrive, as well as how they’re ultimately used, will be need-based.
“I think it’s something we’ll play by ear,” Flanagan said when asked about a possible timeline for both hurlers. “They both still have development remaining to some extent … but yeah, we think they’re going to be good ones for us when we need them.”
The Brewers signed Lucas Erceg for $1.15 million as their second-round pick in 2016, after he had erupted to hit .308/.351/.639 with 20 home runs for NAIA Menlo College. He hit his way up to full-season ball in his pro debut, then delivered 15 homers and 33 doubles while ranking among the Class A Advanced Carolina League leaders with 81 RBIs (first) and 207 total bases (second) in his first full season.
But the consistency that Erceg showed at the outset of his career wasn’t there for him in Double-A last season, and he slashed just .248/.306/.382 in 123 games, while also regressing with his defense at third base.
Yet, the Brewers have high hopes for their No. 8 prospect in 2019 after he spent the offseason training with the organization’s strength and conditioning staff.
“He was in there every day for serious, well-defined workouts, which for him -- even though he’s worked out every offseason -- was the most structure he’s ever had in terms of working out, and he was all-in,” said Flanagan.
While Erceg’s results have been mixed in big league camp so far, with the 23-year-old producing a .200 average and a pair of homers, he has seen significant playing time, tying for the team lead by appearing in parts of 19 games.
Beyond his numbers, club officials have been impressed with the quality of Erceg’s at-bats and swings, as well as his improved athleticism at the hot corner.
“It’s showing even in just the way he moves laterally [at third base],” said Flanagan. “He’s still a lanky guy when you see him, but he’s moving a lot better out there.”
Brice Turang, the Brewers’ No. 3 prospect, has been anything but overmatched on the Major League side, going 2-for-6 with a pair of singles while appearing in seven games. It’s the first career Spring Training for the 19-year-old shortstop, who spent the bulk of his pro debut last summer in the Rookie-level Pioneer League after Milwaukee drafted him with the No. 21 overall pick.
“He actually got a big league spring training at-bat -- and smoked a single in it -- before a Minor League one,” said Flanagan. “He’s looked really good and handled himself well on the big league side.
“That’s what we stress to these guys when they go over there; that it’s the same game, and we know you’re going to have some butterflies, but don’t act any differently because it’s a big league environment. Brice certainly hasn’t.”