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With the way the Brewers have been playing lately, it may be difficult to see potential conflicts on the horizon. The Brewers do, however, have very real concerns, including a very thin bench due to injuries to Ryan Braun, Jean Segura, and more recently, Aramis Ramirez.
The best problem that the Brewers have is their stalwart bullpen, and how the team will react when Tom Gorzelanny returns to the team. While there is no set time frame on Gorzelanny’s return, it is interesting to consider what the team would/will do in the event of his return. For starters, Gorzelanny is useful as a swingman, as he has experience as both a starting pitcher and as a long reliever.
Incumbent swingman Tyler Thornburg could lose that distinction given his recent success in late, high leverage innings. In the long term, Thornburg and the team both want him to succeed as a starter, but with a full rotation, he has been thriving late in ballgames.
Another option is Will Smith, who started 17 games for the Kansas City Royals, but posted a 5.48 ERA in those instances. Currently, Smith looks like a talented late-inning reliever more than a future starter.
The third option is Zach Duke, who, like Thornburg, has been so good in relief that the Crew may be reluctant to start him, something he struggled at for years with the Pirates. Duke’s transition to a lower arm angle is also indicative of the team’s wish for him to remain a reliever. While Gorzelanny is not by any means a high level starter (4.62 ERA), he has started over 100 games, and looks more like a swingman than the others at this time.
The addition of Gorzelanny to the bullpen, out of which he posted a 2.70 ERA in 2013, looks, on the surface, to be a sure thing. The trouble comes from the current staff in the ‘pen, all of whom are currently earning their keep. Smith and closer Francisco Rodriguez have posted a combined 0.00 ERA over 26 1/3 innings. Thornburg has an ERA under 1, while Duke and Brandon Kintzler currently have sub-2 ERA’s.
Removing any of these players would be detrimental to the team as it currently stands. The remaining arms in the Brewers bullpen are Rule 5 Draft choice Wei-Chung Wang, and last year’s closer, Jim Henderson. Wang is essentially untouchable, because removing him from the 25 man roster would likely mean returning him to his original team, the Pirates. The Brewers seem committed to placing Wang in low leverage situations, and clearly plan on retaining the 22-year-old all season.
The process of elimination leads us to Jim Henderson, who last year saved 28 games for the Crew in 2013. On the first night of the season, fans were surprised to see K-Rod, and not Henderson, come in to save the game. Ron Roenicke has spoken at length about his concerns with Henderson’s velocity and command issues coming out of spring training.
Furthermore, after being roughed up two weeks ago (3 ER in 1.0 innings), Henderson has appeared in just five games. Henderson has by no means been terrible, earning a 3.72 ERA over 9 2/3 innings, but his velocity is still down, and he appears to be the odd man out in the Brewers bullpen.
As noted earlier, Tom Gorzelanny has no timetable for his return, but, as things stand today, it seems reasonable that Roenicke would elect to send Henderson down to AAA, and hope for improvement, while Gorzelanny adds depth to the team’s already outstanding bullpen. The Brewers are riding high early this season, and no manager wants his team’s momentum to slow.
Roenicke is the type of aggressive leader that would send down a reliever coming off of a breakout year, simply because he believes it strengthens the team. Roenicke has no-nonsense demeanor and unwavering self-confidence, and is consistently proving he will do whatever it takes to improve his team. His decision to slide K-Rod into the closer’s role has worked like a charm, leaving little doubt that he understands the ins and outs of his team.