With a little more than a week to go til the Brewers’ home opener against the Cardinals, there are still some pending issues at bay. While I never though I’d make a part two to my “Reasons Why 2012 is Huge” post originally, I feel this is necessary. One huge issue in my opinion is that of the bullpen. John Axford and Francisco Rodriguez are pretty solid bullpen guys, but what about the rest? How do we go about replacing injured or crucial players and where do we stand not just in the NL Central, but the NL and maybe even the entirety of the MLB itself. These are a few issues I plan to tackle.
So in 2011 we learned that out of a haystack of bullpen guys, John Axford was our man. Well, to help him achieve his elite closer status last year, he needed some incredible backup. Guys like Takashi Saito, Francisco Rodriguez and LaTroy Hawkins stepped up their game in a big way. Unfortunately, Hawkins and Saito are gone and K-Rod is in his last year of his contract. Obviously a bullpen has a good side and a bad side. I think what frustrates not only a team and their fans, but the pitchers themselves are when their performance does not match up to the ability they have. For instance, Kameron Loe had a deceiving 4-7 record out of the pen with a 3.50 ERA to follow. Now typically, most people recognize a higher ERA in the bullpen signifies a weaker pitcher. This is not the case for Loe. In 2011, he pitched a total of 72 innings with only 16 walks and 28 earned runs. He struck out 61 batters and had a WHIP of 1.125. For a guy who was the most called on to make relief appearances, Loe did fairly well. His semi-high WHIP (for a reliever that is) can be lowered, but there’s a positive in all of this. Loe faced a total of 291 batters last year and his opponents only managed a .223 average against him. That’s very decent for any type of pitcher. So really, what seems to be Loe’s big problem is when he does give up runs or hits (though the hits are scarce) it all comes at once. He’s either on or he has an off day. I’m hoping he finds a way to balance that out this year because I have a feeling Roenicke’s going to go to Loe more often than not, especially with Saito and Hawkins gone.
Still on the subject of the bullpen, there’s a lot of work to be done. Perhaps the biggest pieces that need improvement inside our pen are those of Marco Estrada and Tim Dillard. I really don’t know how this happens, but both managed an ERA of 4.08 in 2011. Estrada had the second most relief appearances (not counting Axford and Hawkins) and really, it just wasn’t good enough. Roenicke had speculated that if Shaun Marcum isn’t ready by Opening Day, that Estrada has the possibility of taking over a starter role. Perhaps that might be best for him, but maybe a few more appearance out of the pen can straighten his pitching out. In his 43 appearances, Estrada proved one thing, he is a strikeout pitcher. Out of his 92 innings pitched, Estrada struck out 88 batters. On the flip side, he also allowed 83 hits and walked 29 batters. However to be fair, 2011 was Estrada’s first year in figuring out how he could pitch and if he could carry it through a season. Since his debut in 2008, Estrada only had 22 relief appearances, something that would be nearly doubled in 2011. If he can figure out how to strikeout more batters without leaving the ball over the middle of the plate, he’ll be a lethal force in the pen, especially since he is a strikeout pitcher. Another huge part, or at least I’m confident enough in saying he will be, is Tim Dillard. Even though he had 24 appearances, I’m still not satisfied that we saw enough of Dillard to make a fair assessment. Much like Estrada, Dillard is also a strikeout pitcher, striking out 27 batters in 28.2 innings pitched. He allowed 26 hits, was 13 for 13 in earned runs, but on the positive side of things, only walked four batters. Dillard needs time to figure this out and with two pieces gone, he, Estrada and Loe will be the big three behind Axford and K-Rod. As for the rest of the bullpen, there’s really only hope(and by hope I mean close your eyes and ask whatever it is that you believe in to make it so they can get the outs) for guys like Zach Braddock, Manny Parra and Mike McClendon (still need more looks at how Parra and McClendon can fare) and there’s also the assurance that veterans like Jose Veras can get the job done.
I’ve touched on before, the subject of injuries and how we go about replacing the injured. This section is really only for the starting rotation as I’ve really discussed the offense in greater lengths before, because I have a sleeper in mind that I think will do great. That sleeper is none other than Brandon Kintzler. Call me crazy or whatever, but if any guy in our rotation goes down, I think Kintzler should get a look. While he has hardly pitched in the Majors, only 16 relief appearances with 22 innings, I have a feeling he can start. Kintzler has a fastball that can reach up to 95 MPH and a nasty, sharp breaking slider. He completely destroyed his opponents in Double-A with a .40 (that’s right folks, a .40) ERA and while he was in Triple-A, he still impressed his scouts with a 2.36 ERA. Of course, there’s also the option of pitching Marco Estrada as a starter. With the contracts of Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum ending after this year, it’s never a bad idea to see what we have here before signing new guys to fill those roles. I mean, I for one would love to have Greinke and Marcum for years beyond 2012, but we’ll see where that goes. If we don’t keep them, or if say in the next few years Randy Wolf decides to retire, I think Kintzler is a smart option to start.
Looking at these issues, it really brings up the question, so where do we go from here? The bullpen needs either to step back and recuperate from last season or be restructured completely. K-Rod is in his final year as a Brewer, so we need to either show we can survive with out him, or play well enough to make him want to stay, same goes for Greinke and Marcum. Replacing Saito and Hawkins is not easy and with guys like Estrada, Dillard and Loe, it may take a season or two, but it can be done. While they may not be the big named pitchers, anymore, it’s being proven that the no name guy gets the job done better sometimes. Barring any serious injuries, I think we can stay on pace this year for another season with over 90 wins. We have the pitching, we have the offense, it’s just a matter of two things: having it all work at the same time and having our clutch performers, namely the bullpen, step up and slam the door. This revolving door in the NL Central needs to be shut. Each year, it seems there is a new team to arise in the Central. One year it was the Reds, then us, and last year the Cardinals proved to be the best NL Central team by winning the World Series. With Theo Epstein in Chicago and the Pirates revamping their entire team, we need to put the pedal to the metal and keep going because the Cubs and Pirates are going to improve. The Astros will be gone after this year, so this division will truly become competitive. Rivalries will get nastier as the players get better. Maybe our biggest goal now is to improve our bullpen and if it is, then so be it. That just shows we have a stepping stone in our path and our only option is to improve upon it. That said, these are reasons yet again, why 2012 is such a huge year. We tasted bits of victory in the NLDS last year, we want it again. Let’s prove that we’re not just a Cinderella team and that we have what it takes to be a winning franchise.
Until next time guys and gals.