Boy, was last season a disappointment. The Milwaukee Brewers, who had one of the best bullpens on paper going into the season, catastrophically imploded and became the worst in the majors by no short distance.
Previously dependable arms like closer John Axford and set-up man Francisco Rodriguez had… well… less-than-stellar seasons. Axford picked up steam as the season went on, but there was no excuse for his major drop off between 2011 and 2012. We’ll get more into that later.
The Brewers sent the majority of their bullpen packing after last season. Rodriguez, along with Jose Veras, Manny Parra, Kameron Loe, and Livan Hernandez were all relieved of their duties by the Brewers, and it was up to Doug Melvin and the rest of the front office to fill the massive holes.
Let’s take a look at next season’s likely bullpen, including new names, old names, roles, and expectations.
Spot Starter/Long Reliever: Tom Gorzelanny
Gorzelanny was one of the pieces picked up by the Brewers to fill their bullpen void, and he’s not going to disappoint. Gorzelanny is a starter by trade, turned into a reliever last season by the Washington Nationals. Gorzelanny pitched in 72 innings, struck out 62, put together a nice 2.88 ERA and was equally as effective against lefties and righties (Gorzy is a lefty himself). As a starter first, Gorzy has an expansive repertoire of pitches, something that is uncommon for most relievers who rely on two pitches. His four-seam fastball has gained more life in relief, sitting around 92-94 MPH. He mixes that in with a tw0-seamer, a mid-80s change-up, a low-80s slider, and an upper-70’s curveball.
Spot Starter/Long Reliever: Mark Rogers
I have Rogers just missing making the starting rotation to start the season in favor of Chris Narveson. Narveson has the benefit of experience and being a lefty, and Rogers has an expansive injury history, so the bullpen might be the best way to acclimate Rogers to the majors full-time. With no minor league options left, you can bet he’ll at least be in the pen. Rogers obviously has a strong repertoire, slinging a mid-to-high 90s fastball, a biting slider in the mid-80s, a change-up also in the mid-80s, and a curve in the upper-70s. Rogers is a strikeout pitcher all the way, but has the endurance of a starter. It’s a matter of control with Rogers, who has struggled to maintain control in the minors, but has done a decent job of holding off on free passes in the majors. A 3.1 BB/9 between his two major league call-ups is solid, and his 9.6 K/9 is good enough for a solid 3.06 K/BB ratio. Rogers has what it takes to be a starter, and will get the call to start over Gorzelanny when the time comes.
Middle Reliever: Brandon Kintzler
Kintzler is a big-time wildcard for this group of relievers. He primarily throws two pitches—a good, hard fastball in the mid-90s, and a slider in the mid-80s. With these two pitches, Kintzler can strike out plenty of batters, though his major league sample size is limited. in 38.2 career innings, Kintzler has a K/BB of 8.8. Control isn’t a huge problem, but it can be a concern for anyone with the kind of heat that power pitchers like many of Milwaukee’s relievers have. Kintzler performed well during his time with Milwaukee last season, and he could definitely see at least 50 innings in the majors this season as long as he can perform. Think of him as a potential replacement piece for Jose Veras.
Middle Reliever: Burke Badenhop
After a career season with the Tampa Bay Rays, the Brewers snagged Badenhop in a trade for a minor leaguer likely never to see the major leagues. Not a bad trade for the Brew Crew. Essentially a carbon copy of Kameron Loe, just more effective. In 2012, the sinkerballer pitched in 62.1 innings, struck out 42, had a 3.03 ERA, a WHIP of 1.203, and excellent control. Despite the relatively low strikeout rate of 6.1 batters per nine innings, he still managed a 3.50 K/BB ratio, meaning he has excellent control and does a great job pitching to contact, as any sinkerballer should. A good repertoire of a low-90s sinker, a low-80s slider, and the occasional change-up in the mid-80s will keep batters on their toes. Depending on how Kintzler performs, and if the Brewers decide to use Michael Gonzalez in more than lefty relief, Badenhop could be the go-to seventh-inning keeper.
Middle Reliever/Lefty Specialist: Michael Gonzalez
One of my favorite additions of the offseason, Gonzalez is wildly effective against left-handed hitters, average against righties, and altogether a solid pitcher, capable of being either a specialist, a middle reliever, a set-up man, or even the closer. His mid-90s fastball and his low-to-mid 80s slider carry his repertoire and both have great movement and bite. Gonzalez is a big time strikeout pitcher, having a career major league K/9 of 10.3, and has carved out an effective major league career, having a career 2.94 ERA. Command is an issue at times, and he has the propensity to give up walks, which could hurt him in hitter-friendly Miller Park, where extra men on base could always spell trouble. Still, I love the addition of Gonzalez, and I’m excited to see what Roenicke decides to do with him.
Set-Up Man: Jim Henderson
Jim Henderson, in many ways, is comparable to the man he’ll likely be setting up in John Axford. Henderson, a diamond in the rough pitcher who never saw major league action before 2012, throws high heat with a mid-90s fastball, and a mid-80s slider. Again, sound like anyone you know? Axford, essentially unknown prior to the 2010 season, came out and has become an admittedly up-and-down pitcher, but oftentimes dominant. Henderson displayed consistency in the bullpen when no one else could. He pitched in 30.2 innings to a 3.52 ERA, and managed to strike out 45 batters for a wonderful 13.2 K/9. Again, another Axfordian trait. It’s going to be incredibly exciting to see what Henderson does now that his feet are wet with a full season ahead of him. He’ll likely be defaulted into the set-up man to begin the season, but he’ll have to pitch well to maintain that roll with so many capable pitchers behind him.
Closer: John Axford
No surprise here. Axford, though having a disastrously inconsistent season in 2012 after a completely dominant 2011 campaign, will go into the season as the undisputed closer. As far as stuff, few pitchers have what he has. The upper-90s fastball and mid-80s slider/upper-70s curveball baffle hitters when Axford is in control of his pitches. Despite an high ERA of 4.67 and the atrocious stat of nine blown saves, which nearly tripled his career blown save count, which now sits at 14, Axford still has what it takes to be elite. The differences between 2011 and 2012 are shocking, but he’s still going to be the unquestioned anchor of this pen. Brewers fans are hoping that the Ax-Man either returns to 2011 form, or finds a happy middle-ground between 2011 and 2012. Articles can, will, and have been written about Axford’s inconsistencies, but it’s spring training time, and we’re going to see if Axford can carry the momentum he had exiting the 2012 season into 2013.
The Outsiders Looking In: Tyler Thornburg, Kelvim Escobar, Michael Olmsted
We all know what Tyler Thornburg is capable of. He’s been one of the best pitchers in the minor league organization, and he did a decent job in his call-ups last season with the Brewers. It won’t be enough to get him a roster spot from the start of the season though, as he’ll likely be starting in AAA to get more starting experience to continue grooming him for a future spot in the rotation.
Escobar was a low-key pickup by the Brew Crew, but could be a huge wildcard if things play out like they could. The former Major League stalwart has done it all. Started, relieved, and closed, and he has done all of those things well. He has a career ERA of 4.15, 1507.0 innings pitched, 1310 strikeouts for a K/9 of 7.8, but there are control and injury concerns. Injuries derailed his career in 2007, but at a still young-ish 33 years old, there’s still hope for the vet. This offseason, scouts clocked his fastball in the mid-90s, and it looks like Escobar is ready to make it back to the majors. Just don’t expect it to be at the start of the season.
Michael Olmsted is the most under-the-radar move that the Brewers made this season, stealing him from the Boston Red Sox organization for practically nothing. Olmsted is 25, has pitched across the world, but has never made it to the majors despite his domination in the minors. Last season he obliterated minor league hitters, compiling a 1.52 ERA in 59.1 innings while striking out 92 batters, giving him a ridiculous K/0 of 14.0. In Double-A, Olmsted pitched in 20 innings and did not give up a single earned run. That’s right, a 0.00 ERA in AA. It’s almost entirely thanks to his fastball, which can reach triple digits. Olmsted is a guy to watch this spring, and while he probably won’t start in the majors, don’t be surprised if he doesn’t make his major league debut with the Brewers this season.
Bottom line is simple. This bullpen, though unfamiliar to the casual Brewers fan who will be baffled by the complete overhaul to start the season, is significantly better than last season. All of them have good stuff, most of them pitching in the mid-to-upper 90s, and the new additions have track records of being dependable, while guys like Kintzler, Henderson, Thornburg, and Olmsted all show signs of being good.
This is a better bullpen than last year. It’s going to be an exciting season.