By Andrei Greska
MILWAUKEE -- With the league's most potent offense coming back whole for the most part, there was only one topic in the minds of fans and players alike during the 2013 edition of Brewers On Deck: pitching.
"I think there are far more unknowns this year than there were last year because of a lack of experience," Ryan Braun noted. "Our starting pitchers last year with (Zach) Greinke, with (Shaun) Marcum, guys that have longer track records, whereas this year there are guys that are pretty inexperienced, but also very talented.
"There's a lot of uncertainty, but certainly a lot of talent. I think everybody in here is excited about the depth we now have in our starting pitching."
Yovani Gallardo and Marco Estrada will be penciled in for two rotation positions going into spring training, but four others will battle for the remaining three starter spots.
Mark Rogers, Wily Peralta and Mike Fiers all found success late in the year as the Brewers stormed back into playoff contention while Chris Narveson missed most of last season with a torn rotator cuff.
"Yo (Gallardo) is going to be a starter. We're counting on Estrada being a starter, so now we got three spots," manager Ron Roenicke said. "You've got Peralta, Narveson, Rogers and Fiers. So you got four guys we know can pitch in the big leagues for three spots. It's nice having those extra guys in case guys aren't pitching well."
Peralta went 2-1 with a 2.48 ERA last year in five starts while Fiers maintained a 3.74 era in 127.2 innings pitched. Rogers went 3-1 in seven starts as an August call-up but will have to prove he can remain healthy and efficient as the innings begin to mount up.
General manager Doug Melvin noted Rogers had the most question marks of the four candidates as he has never thrown over 120 innings at any level in one season.
Rogers was happy to have a full, healthy offseason and is eager to prove himself during the full course of a year after being injured so often in his career.
"I was able to focus on total body stuff. Every day, a throwing routine, getting stronger, getting better, getting physically prepared for a full Major League season," Rogers noted. "Just mentally as well, not having to worry about an injury or anything one way or another. Just waking up every day going to the yard knowing that I was healthy, that I was going to improve every day, instead of trying to get back to square one."
He added that the experience he gained during his two months in the majors will go a long way towards helping him succeed this year and beyond.
"I think that proving to myself that I could pitch was as important as anything. I always believed that if I was healthy I could pitch in the big leagues, and to be able to go there and actually do it is an entirely different thing," Rogers said. "I have some innings under my belt, some starts under my belt. It went well, and that's encouraging. It helped me prepare and just know what I need to do to win games at a major league level."
Melvin did note that the free agent market wasn't lucrative enough to go outside the system, as he was willing to give his young guys, whose stats compared favorably, a shot at the big leagues.
"It's no different than when we went with our young positional players: Corey Hart, J.J. Hardy, Ricky Weeks, Prince Fielder. The reason we got Greinke and Wolf a couple years ago was to bide time to give our younger guys the ability to develop in the big leagues," Melvin said. "Now it's their time to do it on the big league level.
"Marco Estrada, there's only two guys with a better walks to strikeouts ratio in the major leagues. Michael Fiers had a better strikeouts per nine innings than a whole list of quality pitchers. I'm banking on some of their performance of last year in August and September."
While Milwaukee went with youth for its starters, it chose experience to shore up last year's shaky bullpen. New lefty signings Tom Gorzelanny and Michael Gonzales bring a winning culture from Washington and much needed left handed relief.
The Brewers also traded for Burke Badenhop, a right-handed reliever who finished 1.42 ERA in his final 16 appearances for Tampa Bay.
"I think (the front office) has done a great job. All you can do is kind of get the pieces and from game 1 to game 162 see how those pieces fit and how things kind of shake out," Badenhop said. "(Gorzelanny and Gonzales) were on a winning team last year so they know how to win, coupled with John Axford, one of the best closers in the game, and Jim Henderson who was from what I could tell pretty much lights out.
"I just hope that when I'm called on I can give consistent innings and let Ron know what he's going to get when I'm out on the field, that's really about all you can ask for. I can keep the ball on the ground and keep guys off the bases by walking them. Those are things I can control and aside from that, we'll let the chips fall where they may."
There are more questions than answers at this point, but as is the case with most ball clubs at the end of January, hope springs eternal.