Projecting the Shuckers starting rotation in 2017

Woodruff, Ventura, Ponce, Ortega and Ortiz could make up the Biloxi starting rotation in 2017.

With football season coming to an end for most fans, it’s time to look towards baseball. Can you believe it’s going to be the third year of Double-A in Biloxi? It seems just like yesterday we were enduring a 54-game road trip and moving into MGM Park. If you are counting, we are just 21 days until pitchers and catchers report, 73 days until Biloxi’s opener on April 6th and 79 days until the home opener on April 12th. Today we begin a series of blogs previewing what could be the 2017 roster. The are only projections and are very much subject to change.

We start with the starting rotation. In order to project a Double-A rotation, you must fill out the two above. Pending more moves from the active GM David Stearns, Milwaukee’s rotation would feature RHP Junior Guerra, RHP Matt Garza, RHP Chase Anderson, RHP Zach Davies and RHP Willy Peralta. The next tier of starters include LHP Josh Hader (the top lefty in MLBPipeline rankings), RHP Jimmy Nelson, RHP Aaron Wilkerson, RHP Jorge Lopez, LHP Tommy Milone, LHP Sean Nolin, LHP Wei-Chung Wang and RHP Taylor Jungmann . It really is tough to see a scenario for any of those above to open the season at Double-A. It’s well documented how tough the conditions are to pitch at Colorado Springs, but with a new PDC that extends through 2018, it’s something the Brewers will just have to deal with. Last season, Jungmann had a 10.74 ERA in eight starts for the SkySox before being shutdown. Lopez had a 7.49 ERA over 16 starts and Hader, a 5.48 ERA in 14 starts in the high elevation. It’s not uncommon for a Major League team to use their Double-A team for top prospects until they are ready for a call up, but for now, Colorado Springs will house that next tier.

The 2016 starting rotation posted a very respectable 3.66 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, .242 Opp BA, 658 strikeouts over 726.1 IP and 47 quality starts. The rotation was led by Brewers’ Minor League Pitcher of the Year, Brandon Woodruff. The Mississippi State product went 14–9 with a 2.68 ERA (158ip, 47er) in 28 starts combined between Class-A Brevard County and Biloxi. The 23-year-old struck out 173 batters, which not only led the Brewers farm system, but all of the minors. After being promoted to Double-A on May 16th, Woodruff led the Southern League in WHIP (1.04), opposing batting average (.211), highest strikeout rate per 9.0 IP (9.82), fewest base runners per 9.0 IP (9.66) and was among the leaders in ERA (3rd, 3.01) and strikeouts (4th, 124). He led the organization in starts and innings pitched, which were career-highs.

There were 14 different starting pitchers used last season with Woodruff leading the way with 20 starts, followed by LHP Wei-Chung Wang (19), RHP Jorge Ortega (18), then Jungmann and RHP Adrian Houser (13).

Projecting the 2017 Rotation:

№1 Starter: RHP Brandon Woodruff
2016 Stats: A+ BRV/AA Biloxi — 14–9, 2.68 ERA, 28g/28gs, 158ip, 40bb, 173so, .209 Opp AVG, 1.02 WHIP.
MIL Prospect Ranking: MLBPipeline: 25, Baseball America: 7, SB Nation: 7
2016 was a breakout season for the former 11th round pick by the Brewers in 2014. You can make a very strong argument that he has nothing left to prove at this level, but with the log jam above him and his close ties to the state of Mississippi, it would make sense to have him open the season in Biloxi.

His 2016 season featured an early promotion from Brevard County and quick emergence as the Shuckers’ top starter when Hader was promoted to Colorado Springs.

If Woodruff gets off to a strong start, expect to see him move along quickly and become another Shucker to make his Major League debut.

№2 Starter: RHP Luis Ortiz
2016 Stats: A+ HD/AA FRI/AA BLX — 6–8, 3.08 ERA, 22g/20gs, 90.2ip, 23bb, 78so, .270 Opp AVG, 1.31 WHIP.
MIL Prospect Ranking: MLBPipeline: 4, Baseball America: 3, SB Nation: 6
The first round pick (30th overall) for the Rangers in 2014 was part of the blockbuster trade between Texas and Milwaukee at the 2016 trading deadline. Stearns and the Brewers pulled in quite the haul as Ortiz came over with OF Lewis Brinson for C Jonathan Lucroy and RHP Jeremy Jeffress. OF Ryan Cordell (MLBPipeline #18) became the PTBNL in the deal.

Ortiz possesses great command without at times overpowering stuff. The term “Baby Bartolo” has been tossed around and his 6'3", 230 build gives that impression, but he’s worked a lot on his body and lost some weight during the last part of the 2016 season. Some of that was credited, to his own admission, the gulf coast heat.

With an Opening Day age of 21, expect Ortiz to be a key member of Biloxi’s rotation throughout the 2017 season.

№3 Starter: RHP Cody Ponce
2016 Stats: A+ BRV — 2–8, 5.25 ERA, 17g/17gs, 72ip, 17bb, 69so, .285 Opp AVG, 1.40 WHIP.
MIL Prospect Ranking: MLBPipeline: 11, SB Nation: 18
Ponce is another “large” presence on the mound at 6'6", 240 and possesses all the traits of a power pitcher. His 2016 numbers were down, but the former 55th overall pick by the Brewers in the 2015 draft has a lot of upside. Here’s how MLBPipeline described Ponce.

…”(Ponce) boasts a plus fastball that sits at 92–94 mph and touches 98, while his upper-80s cutter enables him to effectively attack left-handed hitters under the hands. His changeup is below average because he throws it too firmly, though it tends to play up thanks to his deceptive arm speed and overall conviction in the pitch. He also throws a curveball that was inconsistent and slurvy in college, but had tighter spin and a better shape in his pro debut.”
Lane Grindle visited with Ponce on a visit to Brevard Co. in 2016

His 2016 numbers don’t overwhelm you, but nagging injuries attributed to that. Their won’t be a shortage of pitchers that can touch 98 on the Shuckers roster in 2017, especially when you account for a few of the potential relievers (we will get to those in the next blog). The Brewers have put a premium on promoting pitchers that posses the ability strike out batters at a high clip and if all goes well this spring, Ponce should be a Shucker.

№4 Starter: RHP Angel Ventura
2016 Stats: A+ BRV/AA BLX — 5–7, 3.90 ERA, 26g/18gs, 117.2ip, 50bb, 115so, .237 Opp AVG, 1.33 WHIP.
MIL Prospect Ranking: N/A
The 23-year-old from the Domincan Republic won his first start at the Double-A level on July 9th, but dropped his next four decisions and finish 1–4 over nine games, eight starts with Biloxi. In his pro career Ventura has averaged almost a strikeout per inning pitched, but has lacked consistency.

Ventura tossed six innings of one-hit baseball against Jackson on August 31st

Ventura could be poised to break out in 2017, having had success in the Midwest League during the 2015 season being older for the league. He led the league in ERA (3.09), strikeouts (126) and innings (122.1). He’ll turn 24 on April 7th and be one of the older members of the rotation.

№5 Starter: RHP Jorge Ortega
2016 Stats: AA BLX — 1–9, 4.99 ERA, 18g/18gs, 97.1ip, 15bb, 54so, .240 Opp AVG, 1.30 WHIP.
MIL Prospect Ranking: N/A
The 23-year-old Ortega came into 2016 as a potential breakout player in the Brewers farm system. He won the 2015 Florida State League ERA title with a 2.41 mark, had six complete games, two shutouts and averaged 0.68 walks per 9 IP. In 2016, Ortega posted a 1.19 ERA in April, but had an ERA over 6 the rest of the season.

Ortega will always possess great control, having only walked 70 batters in 536.1 IP over his career. But, keeping the ball down and generating more ground balls should be his top priority. Ortega is an innings eater when he is on and can take advantage of those lineups that feature a lot of swing happy hitters. He should return to Biloxi again in 2017.

Swingman: RHP Javi Salas
2016 Stats: R AZL/ A+ BRV/AA BLX — 3–5, 6.75 ERA, 21g/17gs, 66.2ip, 51bb, 53so, .267 Opp AVG, 1.77 WHIP.
MIL Prospect Ranking: N/A
2016 was a really tough season for the soon-to-be 25-year-old out of Miami (FL). Salas had a few nice outings in the Arizona Fall League, but was inconsistent over the six outings.

He opened the 2016 season by tossing 5.0 innings of no-hit baseball on April 8th against Chattanooga and then 3.1 perfect to start his outing on April 19th against Pensacola. Salas went 2–1 with a 2.82 ERA in April with 17 strikeouts and seven walks. Like Ortega, things went downhill after the first month, posting a 5.40 ERA in May and 9.26 ERA in June with 31 walks and 18 strikeouts.

Javi Salas tossed a perfect game in college

When Salas is throwing strikes and has good command, he can be really good, but you could say that about every professional pitcher. 2017 will be a huge year for the former Hurricane.

Next Up:

RHP Phil Bickfor
2016 Stats: A-AUG/ A+ SJ/A+ BRV— 7–7, 2.93 ERA, 23g/22gs, 20ip, 42bb, 135so, .219 Opp AVG, 1.15 WHIP.
MIL Prospect Ranking: MLBPipeline: 5, Baseball America: 8, SB Nation: 8
The 21-year-old Bickford will open the 2017 season serving a 50-game suspension following a second positive test for a drug of abuse. Selected 18th overall by the Giants in 2015, Bickford likely would have began the season in Biloxi. Eyeing a late May start to the season, it’s quite possible he could slide onto the Shuckers roster, but who knows. A lot can happen over the first two months of the season, so we will have to just wait and see.

Something that is not up for debate is his talent. In quite possibly Stearns’ best move of 2016, he dealt LHP Will Smith to the Giants for Bickford and big league catcher Andrew Susac. Here’s how MLBPipeline describes Bickford.

“Bickford can hit 98 mph with a four-seam fastball and miss barrels with a low-90s two-seamer that features plenty of sink. His slider can be a plus pitch when his mechanics are in sync but also can get slurvy when he doesn’t maintain his release point. He made strides with his changeup during his first instructional league with the Giants and then made even more progress with the pitch in 2016.
Though he’s passed every test as a starter to begin his career, some scouts still think he’s destined for the bullpen. He’s a good athlete who usually fills the strike zone, but he sometimes lapses into overthrowing and has trouble maintaining his arm slot. His stuff is electric in short stints, so he’s a potential closer if he can’t make it in the rotation.”

RHP Bubba Derby
2016 Stats: A+ BRV — 6–13, 5.59 ERA, 26g/25gs, 132ip, 47bb, 109so, .306 Opp AVG, 1.61 WHIP.
MIL Prospect Ranking: N/A
The Brewers acquired Derby alongside C Jacob Nottingham from the Athletics last February, in exchange for OF Khris Davis. Derby has moved out of most of the Brewers prospect rankings , but should still be on the radar. I’ll always pull for a fastball/changup guy to succeed. He didn’t miss a lot of bats in 2016, allowing opposing hitters to hit.306 against him. Bubba will be just 23 years old on opening day and has a lot of upside.

RHP Jon Perrin
2016 Stats: A- WIS/A+ BRV/ AA BLX — 3–10, 3.06 ERA, 26g/23gs, 150ip, 23bb, 144so, .252 Opp AVG, 1.12 WHIP.
MIL Prospect Ranking: N/A
Perrin made his Double-A debut on September 2nd at Mississippi and surrendered 10 runs on eight hits in 3.1 IP. It wasn’t the debut he’d hoped for, but for the accurate Perrin, it was a learning experience.

Like Ortega, Perrin has great control and walked just one batter and fanned 47 over 36 IP with Wisconsin before being promoted to Brevard County on May 11th. The Oklahoma State product struck out a career-high 14 on April 26th against Great Lakes in 6.2 IP and tossed his first career complete game on July 21st against Port Charlotte.

Having gotten a cup of coffee at the Double-A level in 2016, he’ll certainly see the Double-A level at some point in 2017.

RHP Taylor Williams
2016 Stats: N/A
MIL Prospect Ranking: N/A
One of the more interesting stories this offseason was the addition of Williams to the Brewers’ 40-man roster. The 25-year-old underwent Tommy John surgery at the end of spring training in 2015 and was somewhat forgotten. After being selected in the fourth round out of Kent State in 2013, Williams posted outstanding numbers in his first two pro seasons. In his first 39 games, 23 starts, he was 12–4 with a 3.09 ERA with 179 strikeouts and only 45 walks for Helena, Wisconsin and Brevard in 2013–2014.

It’s unclear what role Williams will have going forward, but seeing him in Biloxi as a starter or reliever would not be a surprise. He has never pitched above the Single-A level.

RHP Devin Williams
2016 Stats: A- WIS/A+ BRV — 7–5, 3.79 ERA, 22g/12gs, 150ip, 46bb, 94so, .250 Opp AVG, 1.41 WHIP
MIL Prospect Ranking: MLBPipeline: 19, SB Nation: 19
From SB Nation-

“Williams, 22, a second round pick in 2013 posted 3.79 ERA with 94/46 K/BB in 97 innings between Low-A and High-A, 91 hits; good solid fastball in low-90s, along with a change-up that drew praise from Midwest League observers; slider and curveball remain erratic, as does his command; on the right night he looks like a number three MLB starter but he’s not there yet. ETA 2019.”

Next up will be a look at the 2017 bullpen which might be the strongest part of the roster.

SHUCK NOTES:
Staff Announcement:
The Brewers will unveil the 2017 Minor League coaching staffs on Thursday. 
Two-Way Nick: Former Shucker Nick Ramirez confirmed on Tuesday that he will be a two-way player in 2017. His fastball touched 95 in instructional league and should be an interesting story to follow in 2017. 
Brewers sign former Yankee: After signing reliever Neftali Feliz last week, Milwaukee signed 31-year-old Joba Chamberlain to a minor league deal and invite to big league camp.