Jim Henderson locking down the closer’s role


If you take away the bullpen, the Brewers would probably be having a fine season. The offense, surprisingly, is scoring as many runs as it did last year, despite the absence of Prince Fielder and injuries to key pieces such as Alex Gonzalez at Mat Gamel. The starting rotation has also had its share of injuries, but is still performing how it should be.

Unfortunately, the bullpen is the third vital piece to a good, contending team, and that’s the one piece the Brewers have been missing all year. They have arguably the worst bullpen in baseball. You can say what you want about the Mets or the Rockies, but there are few bullpens in baseball that you can give a six-run lead, and that bullpen will find a way to blow it. But that’s been the story of the Brewers’ bullpen.

However, there has been one piece down in the ‘pen recently who has given Brewers fans hope. That reliever is the Canadian 29 year-old long time farmhand Jim Henderson.

Prior to his call-up, Henderson had been in the Minor Leagues for all 10 of his professional seasons, without getting even one call-up. You have to wonder how he didn’t go insane while toiling down there. Before joining the Brewers’ system in 2009, he had previously pitched in the systems of the Expos/Nationals and the Cubs.

Henderson had the definition of an inconsistent Minor League career, which could be why it took him so long to get to the Majors. One year, he’d have a stellar sub-3.00 ERA, then the next year he’d get shelled and his ERA would skyrocket to over 5.00. Take his career in the Brewers’ farm system, for instance. In 2009, his first year in the system, he had a 2.04 ERA at Single-A, High-A, and Double-A combined. Then, in 2010 at Double-A, he struggled to a 5.46 ERA. In 2011, he came back and put up a 2.64 ERA at Double-A, but had problems after his call-up to Triple-A, posting a 5.93 ERA in half of a season there.

So that meant he was due for a good year this year, and it definitely happened. In 35 games for Triple-A Nashville, Henderson went 4-3 with a 1.69 ERA. That included his first 21 games of the season in which he didn’t give up an earned run. Henderson served as the closer for the Sounds, notching 15 saves before his call-up.

So far, he’s brought that same a-game to the Majors. He has yet to factor in a decision, but has a 1.29 ERA in seven innings pitched over eight games.

Henderson has also answered a huge call the past two days: the job of the Brewers’ closer. Coming into the season, the Brewers thought they had two established closers at the back end of their bullpen in John Axford and Francisco Rodriguez. But that simply hasn’t been the case: Axford’s ERA is 5.10, and K-Rod’s sits at 5.48.

Axford did save the first game of the series with the Reds (with a little help from Norichika Aoki). But, the past two games, Ron Roenicke has opted to go to Henderson, which I’ve been begging him to do ever since Henderson’s call-up. I actually even tweeted before his call-up that I wanted Henderson to come up and become the closer.

A few months later (and probably a few months too late), my wish has been answered.

In the second game of this series, Henderson threw a 1-2-3 ninth, including a strikeout, in a 3-1 win that locked up Mike Fiers’ best start in the Majors so far. Then, today, Henderson tossed another scoreless ninth in the Brewers’ 3-2 comeback win. He did walk batter, but also struck out two.

Henderson definitely has the stuff to be a closer. He has that high-90’s fastball, then a deadly slider that compliments it perfectly.

But, it’ll be a long time before we know if Henderson can be a real closer in the big leagues. Obviously we haven’t seen enough of him, as he’s pitched in just eight games and has two saves. But, even if Henderson finishes the season as a great closer for the Brewers, we still won’t know. If Henderson has a 40-save season in 2013, we still won’t know. Why? Because of Derrick Turnbow. Because of Trevor Hoffman. Because of John Axford.

The Brewers have just had horrible luck with closers in recent years. Each of the closers I just listed was dominant for roughly a year and a half to two years, and then just flamed out. I want and hope that Henderson will be different than those guys, but we just won’t know for a few years.

For now, though, the Brewers have found a guy who can safely get them through the ninth inning, even in a close game. And that’s all we can ask for in a season like this.