Picking an Opening Day starter was a little more difficult than usual this year for Milwaukee Brewers manager Craig Counsell.
Counsell had two bona fide aces to choose from in right-handers Corbin Burnes and Brandon Woodruff, who established themselves as two of the National League’s best young pitchers during the 2020 season.
Counsell ultimately chose Woodruff for the honor, making him the first Brewers pitcher to make back-to-back Opening Day starts since Yovani Gallardo made the last of his franchise-record five in a row in 2014.
“Brandon has earned it,” Counsell said after announcing the decision Thursday morning. “You try to put a guy there that earned it, and that’s what Brandon has done.”
Woodruff, 28, went 3-5 with a 3.05 ERA in an MLB-leading 13 starts during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. He was fourth among NL pitchers with a .204 batting average against and 6.72 hits per nine innings; fifth with a 0.99 WHIP and 5.06 strikeout-to-walk ratio; and seventh with 91 strikeouts and 11.1 strikeouts per nine innings.
“Any time you can go out, get the ball for the first game and try and set the tone for the year, it’s a huge honor and something I don’t take lightly,” Woodruff said.
It will be a significantly different atmosphere when he takes the mound April 1 against the Minnesota Twins at American Family Field than what he experienced when he opened last season against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field.
Brewers by position: Pitching depth will be key as teams readjust with return of 162-game schedule
RHP Corbin Burnes (above)
RHP Brandon Woodruff
RHP Adrian Hauser
RHP Josh Lindblom
LHP Brett Anderson
Not only do the Brewers start camp with the makings of a full rotation, they also have the benefit of continuity as all five projected starters were in the rotation for most of last season. Burnes (4-1, 2.11 ERA, 12 appearances, 9 starts) and Woodruff (3-5, 3.05, 13 starts) will most likely fill the top two spots, giving Milwaukee a formidable 1-2 punch.
The team is hoping Houser (1-6, 5.30, 12/11) can take another step forward in his development, specifically by avoiding the blow-up inning that plagued him in many of his starts last season, and that with a more consistent schedule both during spring training and the regular season, Lindblom (2-4, 5.16, 12/10) will be able to fully adjust to the big leagues after his dominant run through the Korean Baseball Organization while Anderson (4-4, 4.21) — whose signing has not yet been made official — can continue to eat innings while keeping the ball on the ground.
IN THE 'PEN
RHP Freddy Peralta (above)
LHP Eric Lauer
LHP Brent Suter
Peralta (3-1, 3.99 ERA) made one start for Milwaukee in 2020 and will be prepared for a starting role during spring training but is likely to start the season working out of the bullpen, where his ability to cover multiple innings will provide flexibility especially early in the season as Counsell manages his starters' workload. Lauer (0-2, 13.09) did not fare well in limited action last year (four appearances, two starts), but he's expected to benefit from the return to a more normal structure as well as being fully healthy. Suter (2-0. 3.13) was an unsung hero for the Brewers' staff last year, posting a 1.38 ERA over 13 innings in four spot starts to go along with a 4.34 mark in 12 relief appearances, eight of which covered multiple innings. He'll fill a similar 'swingman' role in 2021.
ON THE FARM
LHP Ethan Small
LHP Aaron Ashby
RHP Zack Brown (above)
The Brewers added Small, their first-round pick in the 2019 MLB Draft, to their 60-man player pool last season after he posted a 2.50 ERA in five appearances for Class A Wisconsin in his first taste of professional action. ... Brown was named the organization's minor league pitcher of the year after going 9-1 with a 2.44 ERA for Class AA Biloxi in 2018 but struggled the next season at Class AAA, where he posted a 5.79 ERA and 1.73 WHIP. He showed flashes of improvement during spring training and the Brewers added him to their player pool when the season restarted to keep him from missing an entire year of development. If he can get back on track this season, he could be in line for his first call-up at some point in 2021. ... A fourth-round pick in the 2018 MLB Draft, Ashby has a 3.53 ERA in 37 minor league appearances (33 starts). He, too, spent last season at the team's alternate training site.
BY THE NUMBERS
BREWERS' 2020 STARTING PITCHING STATS
ERA — 4.18 7th/National League
WHIP — 1.23 6th
K — 310 4th
BB — 92 11th
HR — 33 15th
ER — 134 10th
IP — 288.2 7th
K/9 — 3.4 5th
Individually, Brandon Woodruff (above) finished among the NL leaders in just about every major statistical category last season. His 3.05 ERA was ninth among qualifiers while he was fifth with a 0.991 WHIP and 5.05 strikeout/walk ratio and seventh in total strikeouts (91) and strikeouts/nine innings (11.12).
Corbin Burnes finished ninth in the NL with 88 strikeouts.
That game, which came three months after the season originally was scheduled to begin, was played without fans. The Brewers open this season at home with approximately 12,000 fans, thanks to approval from the City of Milwaukee to allow up to 25% capacity to start the season.
“It makes a difference,” Woodruff said. “It was still a special day (last year), definitely a unique one that I can always look back on, but I’m definitely excited to get back home and get going.”
Woodruff has a 4.50 ERA through two Cactus League appearances but felt he turned a corner after making a few adjustments while pitching in an intrasquad scrimmage Wednesday during the team’s off-day.
“Yesterday was a huge step for me,” Woodruff said. “I had it working all day, so that’s definitely a positive sign.”
Burnes will take the mound for Milwaukee’s second game April 3 against the Twins. Counsell has yet to make any decisions beyond that, but Adrian Houser, Brett Anderson and either Josh Lindblom or Freddy Peralta would follow Woodruff and Burnes if the schedule being used in Cactus League games carries over to the regular season.
Counsell also wasn’t ready to make a decision on a five- or six-man rotation, which some teams are employing at least to start the season to help protect pitchers as they return to a normal workload after last year’s 60-game season. The early season schedule, which includes four off days in the first 18 days, provides some flexibility. Counsell in the past has used early off-days to avoid picking a fifth starter.
“We’re going to give ourselves flexibility there,” Counsell said. “I think most times this year, you will see us stick to five. I don’t think we’ll go below five. We’re more likely to go to six than go below five.”
On the field
Burnes struck out four over 3⅔ innings but Milwaukee’s lineup managed just one hit and struck out eight times in five innings against left-hander Andrew Heaney during a 3-2 loss to the Angels at Tempe Diablo Stadium.
Burnes allowed an unearned run on two hits and a walk while throwing 37 of his 60 pitches for strikes in his third spring outing.
“It was a little bit ‘grindy’ early on, trying to figure out some mechanics,” said Burnes, who has a 0.33 WHIP and 11 strikeouts in 6⅔ innings this spring. “But the third and fourth was a lot better. Cleaned some things up. A good outing to get stretched out.”
The Brewers tagged Heaney for four runs on four hits and three walks his last time out but managed just two Luis Urias walks against him over the first four innings Thursday and didn’t record a hit until Daniel Robertson singled with one out in the fifth.
Billy McKinney hit his second home run of the spring in the seventh, making the score 1-1, but the Angels retook the lead in the bottom of the inning, scoring twice against right-hander Eric Yardley (0-1).
Daniel Vogelbach capped off Milwaukee’s scoring with an RBI double in the eighth.
Around the horn
Right-hander Devin Williams will make his Cactus League debut Saturday night when the Brewers face the Reds. ... The Brewers will appear on national television seven times this season, starting with their Monday, April 12 game against the Cubs on FS1. ... Fox Cities Stadium in Appleton will again serve as the Brewers’ alternate training site prior to the May 5 start to the Class AAA season.
Here’s everything you need to know as Milwaukee Brewers kick off spring training in Arizona
Here's everything you need to know as Milwaukee Brewers kick off spring training in Arizona
WHO'S ON THIRD
After Keston Hiura moved to first base to make way for Kolten Wong, third base remained the only position without an obvious starting candidate.
The Brewers brought Travis Shaw back on a minor-league contract, hoping he can return to the form in 2017-18, when he hit 63 home runs with 187 RBI. While Luis Urias (above) and former top-prospect Daniel Robertson are likely to get a shot at winning the job, too.
Acquired last winter in a trade with Seattle, Omar Narváez (above) was supposed to give the Brewers a much-needed offensive boost while admittedly being a work-in-progress behind the plate. Instead, Narvaez was one of many Brewers hitters to struggle last season but surprised the Brewers’ coaching staff and front office with his defensive improvements. He’s back again in 2021 but will have to battle for a job with the likes of Manny Piña, Jacob Nottingham and Luke Maile.
With Brett Anderson returning on a one-year deal, the Brewers will open camp with all five spots of their starting rotation seemingly filled. But as history has shown, it’s rare to get through an entire season with just five starters. So who’s waiting in the wings if and when the Brewers need a replacement? Eric Lauer (above) and Freddy Peralta will try to earn spots in the rotation this spring, as will former UW-Stevens Point standout Jordan Zimmermann, who is in camp on a minor league deal.
PLAYERS TO BE NAMED LATER
It was a quiet offseason for the Brewers, but they weren’t unique in that regard. Across baseball, trades and signings seemed to be few and far between as players and teams both waited out a winter of uncertainty. Now that camps are open, there’s a greater likelihood of trades and with more than 100 free agents still unsigned, the Brewers’ roster could have a new face or two before the season gets underway.
WILL IT LAST?
Baseball is back, but for how long? That might be the single biggest question this spring, not just for the Brewers but baseball as a whole. The pandemic still rages on and though vaccinations are on the rise, one infection can quickly become an outbreak that leaves an entire team sidelined indefinitely. Players resisted requests and suggestions to delay the start of spring training, and the regular season, by a month believing they proved last year they can complete a season safely. But the margin for error is still slim and another full-blown shutdown of spring training, which would ultimately impact the regular season, remains one large outbreak away.
SPRING TRAINING ROSTER
Teams are allowed to have up to 75 players in major league camp at any given time and the Brewers go into camp with all 40 of their roster spots filled along with 20 non-roster invitees. Once the regular season begins, active rosters will revert to the original 26-player limit that was planned for 2020 before the pandemic suspended operations. Teams still are allowed to add an additional player to the active roster for doubleheaders and can have a taxi squad of up to five players — including one catcher — on all road trips. Rosters will expand again in September, but only by two spots for a total of 28.
Pitchers (31): Brett Anderson, Clayton Andrews*, Aaron Ashby*, Alec Bettinger, Phil Bickford, Ray Black, Zach Brown*, Corbin Burnes, Jake Cousins*, J.P. Feyereisen, Dylan File, Josh Hader, Blaine Hardy*, Adrian Houser, Thomas Jankins*, Eric Lauer, Josh Lindblom, Hoby Milner*, Freddy Peralta, Angel Perdomo, Drew Rasmussen, Miguel Sanchez*, Ethan Small*, Brent Suter, Justin Topa, Quintin Torres-Costa*, Bobby Wahl, Devin Williams, Brandon Woodruff, Eric Yardley, Jordan Zimmermann*.
Catchers (6): Mario Feliciano, Payton Henry*, Luke Maile, Omar Narvaez, Jacob Nottingham, Manny Pina.
Infielders (11): Orlando Arcia, Zach Green*, Keston Hiura, Tim Lopes, Mark Mathias, Jace Peterson*, Daniel Robertson, Travis Shaw*, Brice Turang*, Luis Urias, Daniel Vogelbach, Kolten Wong.
Outfielders (11): Lorenzo Cain, Dylan Cozens*, Derek Fisher, Avisail Garcia, Tristen Lutz*, Billy McKinney, Garrett Mitchell*, Corey Ray, Pablo Reyes*, Tyrone Taylor, Christian Yelich.
* — Non-roster invitee
Manager Craig Counsell’s coaching staff will have a different look in 2021. Third-base coach Ed Sedar has transitioned into a new, advisory role while longtime bullpen catcher Marcus Hanel’s contract was not renewed by the team after last season.
Sedar will be replaced on the staff by Quintin Berry, who had been the Brewers' minor-league outfield and base-running coordinator for the last two seasons after concluding his 13-year playing career serving as a player/coach with Class AAA Colorado Springs in 2018.
Néstor Corredor and Adam Weisenburger will replace Hanel and Robinson Diaz as the team's bullpen catchers.
The rest of Counsell's staff will remain intact moving forward, including hitting coaches Andy Haines (above left) and Jacob Cruz. Chris Hook and Steve Karsay will handle Milwaukee’s pitchers and bullpen, respectively, and Pat Murphy returns for a sixth season as Counsell’s bench coach.
Jason Lane, the Brewers’ first base coach last season, returns, too, though Counsell planned to decide during spring training where Lane and Berry would be used in games this season.
Manager — Craig Counsell (7th season). Bases — Quintin Berry (1st season), Jason Lane (5th season); Bullpen — Steve Karasy (3rd season); Bench — Pat Murphy (6th season); Hitting — Jacob Cruz (2nd season); Andy Haines (3rd season); Bullpen catchers — Néstor Corredor (1st season); Adam Weisenburger (1st season).
CACTUS LEAGUE SCHEDULE
The Cactus League schedule underwent a last-minute adjustment earlier this month with the elimination of split-squad games. The Brewers will play 27 games in Arizona — 14 at American Family Fields and 13 on the road — and wrap up their exhibition slate with a pair of contests against the Rangers at Globe Life Park on March 29 and 30 before returning to Milwaukee ahead of their April 1 regular-season opener against the Twins at American Family Field.
February: 28 — @ Chicago White Sox. March: 1 — at Diamondbacks; 2 — vs. Athletics.; 3 — at Padres; 4 — vs. Cleveland.; 5 — at Rockies; 6 — vs Cubs; 7 — OFF; 8 — vs. Angels; 9 — vs. Giants; 10 — at Athletics; 11 — vs. Royals; 12 — at Cubs; 13 — vs. Rangers; 14 — at Mariners; 15 — vs. Padres; 16 — at Dodgers; 17 — OFF DAY; 18 — at Angels; 19 — vs. Diamondbacks; 20 — at Reds (7 p.m.); 21 — vs. Mariners; 22 — vs Cleveland; 23 — vs. Dodgers; 25 — at Giants (8 p.m.); 26 — vs. White Sox; 27 — at Royals; 28 — at Reds; 29 — vs. Rangers (Arlington, Texas); 30 — vs. Rangers (Arlington, Texas).
(NOTE: Unless otherwise noted, all games start at 2:10 p.m. local time prior to March 14 and 3:10 p.m. after, due to Arizona not observing Daylight Savings Time)
IF YOU GO
Unlike previous seasons, fans will not be able to watch the team’s workouts, which take place on the complex’s ancillary fields. That means no opportunities for kids — little and big alike — to get autographs and pictures. The team store at American Family Fields will be open and the team announced last week that a limited number of fans — up to 23% of capacity at the 10,000-seat stadium — will be allowed to attend games when Cactus League play gets underway.