Pitching depth presents unique problem

Pitching depth presents unique issue

PHOENIX -- When Brewers officials say they are considering all options for the starting rotation, they mean it.

Even if that means sending someone like Carlos Villanueva, whom pitching coach Mike Maddux called the MVP of last year's staff, to Triple-A Nashville, where he could lay in waiting. A number of candidates for spots in the starting rotation behind Ben Sheets and Jeff Suppan have Minor League options remaining, including Dave Bush, Chris Capuano, Yovani Gallardo, Manny Parra and, yes, Villanueva. Only one of the competitors -- Claudio Vargas -- doesn't have an option.

"If that's their decision, I'll respect it," Villanueva said. "I'll just try to make them have a tough choice. If I make it hard for them, then I've done my job. That's how I view it."

Villanueva went 8-5 with a 3.86 ERA as both a starter and a reliever last season, including 2-2 with a 1.99 ERA as a member of the starting rotation in September. Yost was adamant Thursday that he was not saying Villanueva was ticketed for Triple-A, but, after needing eight different starters last season and 12 the year before that, said he was open to any move that would preserve the team's depth.

"There's a lot of different scenarios that are going to come into play for [Villanueva]," Yost said. "I also do know that he has [a Minor League] option, which is not a fun thing to say, but ..."

Yost did not finish that thought. He went on to express confidence in Villanueva, 24.

"He is a Major League pitcher," Yost said. "That [he has an option] does not take away from the fact he's a Major League pitcher. The important thing that we do is keep our depth, if we can. Championship teams have to have depth. We're going to go over the course of the year and hopefully need no more than one or two extra starters, but when you need those starters, you want a Major League-caliber pitcher to throw in there.

"Again, all this works itself out. We don't worry about it."

But it could mean a scenario unfolds that the Brewers have not experienced during Yost's tenure since 2003. The team would base its choices for the starting rotation on something other than, "Who are our best five starters?"

"Take a look around -- championship teams do that all the time," Yost said. "We did it for years and years in Atlanta. To maintain your depth, you have to control your roster. You just don't cut guys to get down to five. Who's going to judge who's good? You? Me? They're all good. I've got eight good starters. I've got eight quality guys that I can plug in there. You can make an argument for every single [player] out there."

Spring Training
News and features:
• Hardy talks about his recovery  400K
• Weeks on signing autographs  400K
• Gallardo continues his recovery  400K
• Yost on working with Melvin  400K
• Melvin breaks down Brewers  400K
• Gross on spring results  400K
Spring Training info:
MLB.com coverage  |  Schedule  |  Ballpark  |  Tickets

Track record will play a role in the decision, Yost stressed again Thursday. That would seem to bode well for pitchers like Bush, Capuano and Vargas, who have much more big league service time than Parra or Villanueva. Gallardo was considered a lock for the rotation before undergoing knee surgery on Tuesday. He should be healthy again in mid-March.

Yost insisted several times that Villanueva will be right in the mix for both a spot in the starting rotation and the bullpen. Maddux was asked where he thinks Villanueva best fits.

"He has the pitches to start, he has the stuff to go short and he has the resiliency to go back-to-back [days]," Maddux said. "So he can do it all, he's an all-encompassing utility pitcher. Is he one of our best five starters? Probably. Is he one of our five best relievers? Yes. So he can fill any role."

Maddux put it in the "good problem" category. For now, Villanueva will be stretched out along with the rest of the starting pitchers, and the Brewers figure they can have the starters pitch four times in Spring Training games before the innings get tight. After that, some may have to get their innings in Minor League games.

Wait for the "smoke to clear," Yost urged.

"I'm not saying by any stretch of the imagination that he's not going to make the team," Yost said of Villanueva. "I'm just saying that we are open-minded enough that we have to control our depth. ... We did that for years and years in Atlanta. We'd send a guy that was better than the guy we had [in the big leagues] down to Triple-A. Atlanta won 14 straight division championships, so we weren't really in a building mode."

Villanueva is waiting as well.

"This year, I'm more prepared to go either way," Villanueva said. "If they want me to start, I will start. I've always preferred to start because that's what I've done my whole life. But I'm mentally prepared to be a reliever, and I can do that, too.

"I'm ready to do whatever they want me to do."

Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.