John Axford knows how to be successful as a closer - now he needs to make it happen (Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports)

Milwaukee Brewers Pitchers and Catchers Report!


Yes. You read that right, folks. The long, hard winter is finally over, and the baseball season is almost upon us.

In Phoenix, Arizona as we speak the Milwaukee Brewers are taking the first crucial steps towards success in the 2013 season, by bringing together the pitching and catching staff to shake off the rust and get back to the business of Milwaukee Brewers baseball.

As usual, leave it to a guy like me to take some of the fun away from a day like today. Though every Brewer fan is excited about the return of baseball, I’d be lying if I said there weren’t some things that we will be keeping our eye on.

Here’s three things the Milwaukee Brewers pitchers would be wise to answer in the days to come.

Youth vs. Experience

Wily Peralta and his band of young gun pitchers have a chance to prove that youth can be a benefit on a pitching staff (Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports)

Out of the 22 pitchers expected at the Maryvale Sports Complex in Phoenix, nearly half of them are 25 years old – or younger. A few of them – namely Wily Peralta and Tyler Thorngburg – are fighting for starting spots in the rotation.

And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I am not one to rally against youth on a 40-man roster – the kids have to get their day in The Show at some point – but it does create a few problems you wouldn’t normally have worry about.

With younger pitchers you should be hoping for a bit more natural poise. A younger pitcher is not usually gifted with the ability to out-think opposing batters (all wisdom comes with age) so they try to out-pitch them. At some point this strategy is going to run out of gas, and you’d like to see the young hurlers keep themselves together at that point. Peralta isn’t a concern for that – some of his starts last year proved he could bear down against the best of them. Thornburg, however, has a few questions to answer in that department after some rocky performances.

That isn’t to say that the Old Guard of Milwaukee Brewers pitching is immune to tense situations – it’s just to say that it isn’t something we’re actively worried about. After a few years in the Majors, you should be able to handle the situations you’re going into. In that sense, the veterans on the team have a responsibility to help get the young guns into shape on the mound.

I think this veteran crew is up to that challenge, but just how effective they’ll be remains to be seen.

Consistency in Relief

For those of us who are gluttons are punishment, here are some quick numbers

Whether he likes it or not, Tom Gorzelanny is now responsible for fixing this Brewers bullpen(Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports)

about last year’s bullpen:

  • 265 earned runs (2nd most in MLB)
  • 234 walks given up (3rd most in MLB)
  • 4.66 ERA (Highest in MLB)
  • 9,102 total pitches (3rd highest in MLB)
  • .264 average against (3rd highest in MLB)

Suffice it to say that ‘business as usual’ should not be the goal here. For as much as there is pressure on young pitchers to step up, there are veteran relievers in place in the Brewers bullpen to reinvent the wheel in terms of how this team finishes games.

Burke Badenhop and Tom Gorzelanny are not just new editions to a pitching staff, they are expected to be standard bearers and leaders from Jump Street. Certainly their career numbers bear out the fact that they earned such a distinction, but they will still need to turn high expectations for change into a reality – to say nothing of the win-loss column.

Obviously those two are not the only ones with the spotlight on them, as younger players like Ariel Pena will be fighting for a spot while players like Brandon Kintzler and Jim Henderson still have something to prove to be a part of bullpen that desperately needs consistency and success. While the rotation definitely should be a concern, anyone who doesn’t think sorting out the bullpen isn’t the highest priority is simply kidding themselves.

Closing With Confidence

Everyone’s thinking it so we might as well lay it out on the table:

Which John Axford are we going to get in 2013?

There’s no question that the Ax Man can be a top-level closer in the Major Leagues. We’ve seen it. But something happened during the 2012 season that nobody expected, as Axford struggled to get ahead of batters and let the wheels fall off of more than his fair share of games. Despite that performance, he still managed to rack up 35 saves and had a career-high K/9 rate of 12.1.

He also had the lowest percentage of first-pitch strikes, 54%, in his career thus far, as well as one of the lowest percentages of 0-2 counts with only 21% of batters reaching the pitcher’s count against Axford.

When he does get that first strike or reach that 0-2 count, he can seem unstoppable. When he falls behind on batters, the mistakes pile up with startling regularity. This may seem obvious, but identifying these kind of trends brings us closer to figuring out how to correct it.

It really was the Tale of Two Closers. The Milwaukee Brewers cannot afford to go through that again in 2013. With a younger, leaner team in terms of payroll and a division decidedly stacked against them, John Axford has to be able to stand tall in the ninth. He needs to get back to attacking batters with confidence, intimidating his opponents, and in a more tangible sense locating that fastball of his.

If we get the Axford with a Devil May Care attitude – like the Axford that racked up 46 saves in 2011 – the Brewers have a legitimate shot in the Central. If we get the unlucky, uninspired and inconsistent Axford of 2012 this bullpen may be no better off than it was the year before.

Unfortunately, we won’t get a lot of time to see Axford with the Brew Crew in the Cactus League as he will be playing for Team Canada in the World Baseball Classic. But the farther that team gets in the tournament, the more pressure will be put on Axford to perform regardless – and that may be a very good time to see what he’s made of.

Keep these talking points somewhere in the back of your mind, but try to remember that today is not about conerns, or questions, or division standings. Today, Milwaukee Brewers pitchers and catchers report. It means baseball’s back – and for all the anguish and concern the off-season has brought, take at least today to enjoy the fact that we are that much closer to Opening Day.

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Tags: John Axford Milwaukee Brewers Wily Peralta