The Milwaukee Brewers are in kind of a weird place in their organization's history. They bid adieu to homegrown All-Star Prince Fielder this past off-season, and they just dealt Zack Greinke, the starting pitcher on whom they spent the few useful young players they had in their possession. They have a comfortable grasp on fourth place in the NL Central, in the sense they are 8½ games behind the third-place Cardinals, but 7½ up on the fifth-place Cubs. The bounty from the second Greinke deal will help Milwaukee's future, but for now, this is who they are.
They aren't without their entertaining parts, though, nor are they lacking new help. That help just isn't coming from where you would expect it: a trio of hurlers in their late 20s have worked their way into the spotlight at an unexpected stage of their careers.
You've likely heard of one of these three in the past week, as he made a bid at a perfect game that fell after seven innings, but was still great regardless. Mike Fiers is a 27-year-old rookie right-hander who didn't join the Brewers until late May, but 80 innings and 12 starts into 2012, he's pitching like someone who isn't leaving any time soon.
Fiers isn't some long-suffering minor-league pitcher, despite what his age might make you think. He was selected by the Brewers in the 22nd round of the 2009 draft, at age 24, out of Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale. Fiers led Division II ball in strikeouts with 145 in 109 innings, then signed for a $2,500 bonus before making his pro debut in rookie ball. He threw 40 innings to close out the year, striking out nearly 12 times as many hitters as he walked, and finished up at High-A Brevard County.
That kind of success isn't necessarily expected, but it's not a huge surprise, either, for a 24-year-old playing way below the levels you normally see pitchers of that age at. Fiers would start 2010 at High-A, succeed once more, and finish up at Double-A, tossing 31 innings with over 10 strikeouts per nine innings, and more of the excellent control he had flashed in his first pro season. He was very quickly becoming a legit prospect, rather than a late-round curiosity, but it would take his 2011 season at Triple-A Huntsville to push him all the way there. Following his 64 innings of 1.11 ERA ball, courtesy of 9.6 punch outs per nine and a 3.1 K/BB, Baseball America rated Fiers the #11 prospect in a thin system.
His 2012 stint at Triple-A is arguably his worst showing as a pro, but, now 27 and with an opening in Milwaukee, it was Fiers who got the call to the majors. Since then, he's thrown 80 frames, owns a 1.80 ERA and 2.21 FIP, and has struck out five times as many batters as he's walked, thanks to his continually impressive control. Fiers likely isn't this good, but he doesn't have to be in order to remain productive: There's a lot of leeway to work with when you post a 223 ERA+ in half a season.
Marco Estrada is 28, and, unlike Fiers, looked like a minor-league lifer for a while. He was a sixth-round selection of the Washington Nationals back in 2005, and he pitched poorly in his first three years as a pro. The strikeouts were there, but occasional troubles with walks and homers kept that from meaning much until 2008, when Estrada pitched in Double- and Triple-A, as well as the majors. These were the lowest strikeout rates of his career, but he also featured manageable walk and homer rates, resulting in a 3.09 ERA in the minors, and 11 games in the bigs.
That time in the majors didn't work out, though, and only served to begin an up-and-down roller coaster between the majors and Triple-A for Estrada, one that didn't make a final stop until 2011. By this time, he was a Brewer, as he had been plucked off waivers by Milwaukee the previous February. The Brewers used him mostly to relieve in 2011, but also gave him seven starts. He displayed the top control of his career, with 2.8 walks per nine, but gave up over a homer per nine. He fared a bit better as a starter than a reliever, though, and the Brewers used that this season when a rotation spot opened up for him. In 13 starts, the 28-year-old is 0-5, but with a 6.1 K/BB, and 73 strikeouts in 71 innings.
The issue, as it oftentimes was in the minors, is the long ball. In those 71 innings, Estrada has allowed 12 bombs, or 1.5 per nine, in line with his career rate in 204 MLB frames. It's unlikely we're going to see that part of his game vanish, but if he can keep his control in check and continue to miss bats, he still might be useful as a back-end starter, at least with this iteration of the Brewers.
Last of the trio is Jim Henderson, who was called up in late July. Henderson is the oldest of the bunch at 29, and the last of the group to make it to the majors. He's been in the minors since 2003, when the then Montreal Expos drafted him out of Tennessee, two years before they went south to become the Nationals.
Henderson's career has been up and down over its 10 seasons, as he entered 2012 with as many minor-league campaigns that finished with an ERA in the twos as he did in the fives. (The answer: three a piece.) The strikeouts were there, except for when they weren't, but as he moved up the ladder, he seemed to improve and retain more of his successes. Enter the 2012 Brewers, where Henderson now has two saves in seven innings of relief work to go along with a 10 K/BB.
No one expects that out of him going forward, nor should anyone take seven innings seriously, but the Canadian native might be a useful bullpen piece if he can avoid handing out too many free passes, and the assuredly fourth-place Brewers are in a situation to find out either way, just as they are with Fiers and Estrada. It's not a great place to be in as an organization, but a few late-life rookies to help in the future -- ones who might not have been discovered if not for 2012's struggles -- are easing the pain of not contending.