From the time that this site got me mildly obsessed with following the Brewers’ farm system, I have been fascinated with trying to predict breakout seasons.
Specifically, pitching breakouts.
Sometimes, like Max Lazar, Zack Brown, Evan Reifert and to some extent Bowden Francis, the breakouts happen.
Other times … well … I thought Conor Harber and Karsen Lindell were intriguing breakout candidates right up to the point where I saw the notices that they’d been released. I also think I might be to blame for the demise of Preston Gainey’s career because every time I hyped him as a potential sleeper he suffered another injury.
Damuelle covered a few (Lucas Erceg, James Meeker, Jolon Zhao, Lazar), but here are several other breakout candidates on the mound.
Bring on the stats
The Pioneer League was typically unkind to Brewers pitching prospects, and that went doubly so for the young ones.
When the league ceased to be a part of affiliated ball it had already been more than a decade since the last Brewers starter 20-or-younger had a FIP of less than 4.00 in the league (Jake Odorizzi in 2009). In the interim only Devin Williams really came close.
It had been that long since, in the system's top short-season level, a Brewers pitching prospect who couldn’t yet legally drink posted that kind of season.
Until this past year.
Before Alexander Cornielle earned a late-season promotion to Wisconsin, the 19-year-old posted marks of 13.64 K/9 and a 3.77 FIP.
Even acknowledging that it is not an apples to apples comparison between the old Pioneer League and the current Arizona League, which features a mishmash of players who would have been in the old high and low rookie leagues, Cornielle was still among the ACL’s top five teenagers with at least 20 innings in both categories.
Simply put, his season, for his age, deserves notice.
His was not the only impressive season for a young Brewers starter in Arizona last season, though. You could make a case it wasn’t even the most impressive.
Israel Puello spent much of the year on the Carolina Mudcats’ injured list, and when he finally made his debut in Arizona, the results weren’t always pretty as he shook off the rust.
Once he did, however, the results weren’t just pretty.
They were stop-you-in-your-tracks gorgeous.
In his last four starts, totaling 18 innings, Puello struck out 25 while walking only two and surrendering just three runs. This is a rare case where the peripherals back up a 1.50 ERA.
Just a hot streak? Perhaps. But it is enough to signal a possible breakout to me
On the list of non-roster invitees to the Brewers’ 2021 spring training, nestled amid the usual crowd of minor league free agents, top prospects and returning triple-A players, was one name that produced a “Wait … what?” reaction.
Jake Cousins’ pre-COVID year stats were eye-popping (39:2 strikeout to walk ratio), but they came as a 24-year-old in the low minors.
Turns out, Cousins’ invitation MEANT something. The Brewers saw talent there.
There aren’t nearly as many notable tea leaves to read this year. No shocking NRIs. The only pitching placement that would have been even mildly surprising at the start of camp was Miguel Segura starting off in Carolina.
Scanning through photos from the Brewers early camp, though, along with the highly thought of prospects, guys coming back from injury (or in Tyler Gillies’ case, cancer) and catchers, because you need a lot of catchers at something like this, was one name I hadn’t expected to see: Robbie Baker.
The later-season indy ball signing didn’t produce the kind of stat line that Meeker did, but the Brewers apparently saw enough where they at least wanted to see more. While two of the five later season indy ball additions got cut, Baker is joining Meeker in Wisconsin.
Is this a stretch? Perhaps, but it is also perhaps a sign that the hopes for Baker should be dialed up at least slightly from the number approaching zero where they currently sit.
Need for speed
Another one-time indy league signing Zach Vennaro struggled after basically skipping three levels from 2019 to 2021, giving up almost a run an inning, allowing 10 more hits than innings pitched and walking more than five batters per nine innings.
So why is Vennaro on this list? He struck out a bunch, can dial it up to 100 and when things are working, this can happen.
Sometimes it is just that simple