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03/24/10 12:58 PM ET

Rotation decisions loom for Brewers

Club evaluates four hurlers competing for two starting spots

PHOENIX -- It's getting down to decision time for the Brewers, who have four pitchers vying for two spots and less than two weeks to sort this thing out.

Jeff Suppan and Manny Parra are slated to pitch Thursday against the Dodgers. Chris Narveson and Dave Bush don't know when they'll work next. By Monday, a week before the team's April 5 regular-season opener, the Brewers' plans should be much more apparent, manager Ken Macha promised.

What makes the decisions tough is that the Brewers cannot stash any of the competitors in the Minor Leagues without some help. Narveson and Parra are out of options and probably would be claimed off waivers if they were exposed. Bush has options, but he also owns enough Major League service time to refuse a demotion. Suppan also can't be sent to the Minors and is all but untradeable because of his $12.5 million guaranteed salary.

"Let's just put it this way: There are going to be tough decisions, and it's not going to be where 100 percent everybody is happy with what the decision was," Macha said. "That's why I get paid the medium bucks, OK?

"We are trying to do what we think is best for the present and the future viability of the organization. That's the way it should be."

The Brewers are weighing a number of factors. Here's how Macha ranked them:

1. Previous track record. Major League history matters, the manager said.

2. Maintaining organizational depth. This is a big one, since the Brewers' 2009 season was ruined when they couldn't recover from injuries to Bush and Suppan.

3. The "overall lookout" of the team. In other words, club officials are thinking not just about 2010 but the seasons beyond.

"So, for instance, we've got some guys who are out of options, and they are younger guys," Macha said. "You wouldn't want to lose them and then you're sitting here next year with no pitching. That comes into play."

Macha did not mention one seemingly important factor: Ability.

"Ability?" he said. "Yeah, I think they all have ability, otherwise they wouldn't be in the camp here. That's why I didn't mention that. But, yeah, we want performance. Eventually, performance is going to be the driving factor."

Club officials have met at length all spring to try to sort out their decisions, and the players have mostly done their part. Bush, Narveson and Parra all own ERAs under 4.50 in their Cactus League appearances. Suppan has allowed 18 hits and 12 earned runs in 12 spring innings.

"The one overriding thing we share is a philosophy that we need to keep all the inventory possible to help us win ballgames," pitching coach Rick Peterson said. "If you have difficult decisions, that's a sign you're good. If you don't have any quality, the decisions are easy."

The decisions might not be all or nothing. If five spots in the bullpen are spoken for -- by closer Trevor Hoffman, setup men LaTroy Hawkins and Todd Coffey, left-hander Mitch Stetter and right-hander Claudio Vargas -- then the Brewers could hypothetically option Carlos Villanueva to Triple-A and keep all four starter candidates. Villanueva has been with the Brewers in each of the past four seasons and would probably be shocked by such a move. No Brewers officials have mentioned that possibility to reporters this spring.

While Peterson & Co. ponder their permutations, we present the four candidates, in alphabetical order, with some thoughts about each from a prominent National League scout:

Opening Day age: 30
Track record: Acquired in a trade with the Blue Jays in 2005, Bush is 38-40 with a 4.86 ERA and a 1.259 WHIP in parts of six Major League seasons
Contract: Bush enters the season with five years, 52 days of Major League service and projects for free-agent eligibility after this season. He avoided arbitration over the winter with a $4.215 million contract for 2010. Notably, arbitration contracts are not fully guaranteed until Opening Day, and the deadline to release a player at just one-fourth of his salary is 1 p.m. CT on March 31.
Scout's take: "A throwback-type. He winds up and will pitch to your weakness until he gets ahead, and then he will go to his strength. If you like Paul Byrd, you'll like Dave Bush."

On Tuesday against the Indians, Bush became the first Brewers starter to work into the sixth inning. He has no clue when he'll start again.

"I don't really know what's going on," Bush said.

If the Brewers do indeed keep all of the candidates and move two players to the bullpen, Bush could be a candidate. He was a collegiate closer at Wake Forest and has made 25 relief appearances as a professional, including eight in the Major Leagues.

How would be feel about a bullpen assignment?

"I guess I would have to hear exactly how it would work out," Bush said. "I'm preparing myself to start, and I suppose whether that's here or somewhere else, I don't really know right now. I have to prepare myself for the season as if I'm going to be in a rotation, and I feel like I've pitched accordingly.

"Up to this point, I've been pleased with how I have thrown. I've shown them I'm healthy. I guess I don't know exactly what they are looking for or what they want to see, but I feel comfortable with what I'm doing."

He stopped short of making a declaration, but Bush did not indicate he was interested in accepting an optional assignment to the Minors.

"I would have to wait and see how it all shook out," Bush said. "I suppose I've done everything I can to deserve to be here. If I'm not, I'm not. I'm comfortable with where I'm at in the spring, what I've done and what I've shown. If none of that carries any weight, then I guess there's nothing else I can do."

Opening Day age: 27
Track record: The only homegrown Brewers player in the group (drafted in 2001 and signed in 2002), Parra is 21-20 with a 5.17 ERA and a 1.829 WHIP in 58 Major League starts and 10 relief appearances.
Contract: Parra is entering his final pre-arbitration season, so the Brewers own his rights for four more years. Parra and Gallardo would be among the Brewers' key first-time arbitration-eligible players next winter.
Scout's take: "You've got a left-hander with a power fastball. Once he establishes that, he can get ahead and build off it. After that, he has to figure out what his best pitch is at the time. He uses the split, the changeup, a cutter/slider-type thing. But he cannot go to those until he gets the fastball to work."

Parra was originally to pitch a Minor League game on Wednesday, but he'll work in relief against the Dodgers on Thursday instead. He's extremely talented but has been maddeningly inconsistent in the Majors, and drew a demotion to Triple-A Nashville last June after a poor start against the White Sox.

The Brewers are very hesitant to give up on Parra because he's the youngest of the group and because of their previous experience with an inconsistent southpaw. They gave Jorge De La Rosa an extremely long leash before trading him to the Royals in 2006, and De La Rosa was later shipped to Colorado and has become a reliable pitcher for the Rockies.

Would Parra like a better idea of how the competition will play out?

"It's always nice to know what's going to happen, but I didn't feel any pressure out there," he said after his most recent start. "I haven't felt any pressure with any work I've done. I've worked my butt off, and I understand I have something to prove, but at the same time I feel really good."

Opening day age: 28
Track record: The former blue-chip Cardinals prospect is 2-0 with a 3.99 ERA in 26 Major League games including five starts.
Contract: Narveson enters the season with only 102 days of Major League service, so the Brewers hypothetically own his rights for six more seasons, including the next three at a salary near the Major League minimum.
Scout's take: "He throws five pitches and what makes him valuable is that all of his pitches are equal. If one of them isn't working, he has the ability to go to other choices. He would be good in [a bullpen] role, and that's what makes this decision tough. Whether he starts, pitches in the bullpen or in middle relief, I don't know."

Narveson burst onto the Brewers' scene last September, when he went 1-0 with a 2.73 ERA in four starts and five relief appearances down the stretch to win Brewers pitcher of the month honors for September-October. Narveson has carried that success into Spring Training, holding opponents scoreless on just six hits in three Cactus League starts. He has worked nine innings.

"I thought he was a surprise last year at the end of the year," Macha said. "He got an opportunity, and he took charge of it.

"Now, what do we have?" Macha continued. "He's an older guy, he's pitched a lot of innings in the Minor Leagues and nothing has jumped off the page. Has, all of a sudden, he come up with his cutter and his changeup that helps him hit both sides of the plate? It's something we're looking at. ... Sometimes guys get it a little later. Maybe he's just a late-bloomer."

Narveson has the shortest track record of the competitors, and thus is another bullpen candidate. His next turn to start should come Sunday, but that's also Davis' day to pitch. Macha was asked about that logjam on Tuesday afternoon and said that Narveson would not pitch that day, and that the plan would become clearer later in the week.

Opening Day age: 35
Track record: 135-135 with a 4.68 ERA and a 1.452 WHIP in parts of 15 seasons
Contract: Suppan is entering the fourth season of a four-year, $42 million contract. His $12.5 million salary for 2010 is guaranteed, and his deal also includes a 2011 club option with a $2 million buyout.
Scout's take: "The big things is changing speeds and being able to read bat speed. One of the most difficult things as you age as a pitcher is reading bat speed. If he can recognize that and adjust his pitching approach, he's effective. He throws the whole toolshed at you."

Suppan typically uses Spring Training to get ready for the season without worrying about results, and he declared early this year that he would continue that approach amid the competition. In his last start against the Angels on Friday, Suppan allowed the first five batters to reach base and surrendered five first-inning runs. His game started with a walk and a home run, then single, single, double.

Suppan explained that it was his first opportunity to use his full arsenal of pitches and he was too "amped up" for the game. Macha had a slightly different take, saying he had to send Peterson to the mound to remind Suppan to throw some offspeed stuff.

"It's not something that hasn't been mentioned before," Macha said. "That's how he has to pitch. ... That wasn't a real good outing for 'Soup.'"

Suppan and the other Brewers' rotation candidates should get some clarity next week. Stay tuned.

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