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Zach Duke joined the Brewers for 2014 Spring Training as a Non-Roster Invitee, and given such humble beginnings, Duke proved one of the most pleasant surprises of the year for the Crew. He joined the team after bouncing around the National League for several years.
Duke began his career as a Pittsburgh Pirate, and spent parts of five seasons with the team. In that time, Duke was always slotted into the starting rotation, but never found his footing in that role.
Duke was an All-Star in 2009 and finished the season with a respectable 4.06 ERA over 213 innings, but this was easily his best year, and he imploded in 2010, posting a 5.72 ERA over 29 starts.
In November 2010, Duke was traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks for a Player to be Named Later (Cesar Valdez). He struggled with the Dbacks in 2011, again in part due to poor numbers as a starter, though his 3.86 ERA as a reliever showed slightly more promise.
Obviously Duke could grab hold in the Majors, and spent the vast majority of 2012 starting for the Syracuse Chiefs, the AAA Washington Nationals affiliate. It is worth noting that Duke made 26 starts in Syracuse, posting a 3.51 ERA with 15 wins.
In 2013, Duke was released by the Nationals after allowing 20 earned runs in just 20 2/3 innings in Washington. Four days later, he was picked up by the Reds, with whom he dominated between AAA and the Bigs. In 26 appearances, Duke posted a 1.30 ERA with AAA Louisville, and a 0.84 ERA in 14 appearances with the Reds.
It was under these conditions that Duke joined the Brewers in 2014 for a base salary under $1 million.
Position: Relief Pitcher
2014 Salary: $850,000
2015 Salary: Free Agent
When I first heard that we had signed Zach Duke, I felt what I imagine most fans felt: that he would be “good enough” for a team that consistently under-developed its bullpen. Instead, Duke posted the bullpen’s best pure stats, with a 2.45 ERA over 74 appearances.
In fairness, Duke was called on frequently to face lefties, but his splits against righties were similarly exceptional. Lefties managed a miserable .569 OPS, while righties fared little better, ending with a .586 OPS.
Perhaps more amazing was that these numbers were achieved while Duke faced a .322 batting average on balls in play (BABIP), meaning that he was slightly unlucky. Among 142 “qualified” relievers, Duke had the 13th best FIP, the highest ranked Brewers reliever since John Axford (11th) in 2011.
While his pure stats alone could earn Duke an “A” grade, he did not spend any time as the set-up man or the closer, which lowers his grade slightly. That being said, with numbers like he posted this season, Duke could fall into a set-up job for 2015 and onward.
Duke was frequently the 7th inning pitcher, making him the set-up guy to the set-up guy, but I think if the Brewers re-signed him, he could compete with incumbent Will Smith for the set-up role in the bullpen. While both are lefties, Duke excelled against right-handed hitters, an area in which Smith largely struggled.
I think that Duke would be a great insurance policy for the Crew, should Smith prove to be no more than a lefty-specialist. After first base, I think that Duke should be the next free agent signing on the Crew’s radar, and would love to see #TheDuke back in a Brewers uniform for next year.
It is, however, difficult to trust any reliever to repeat from year-to-year, particularly when the reliever has such little experience as a successful late-inning guy. For the first time in his career, though, Duke has pitched with varying arm slots, and the hope is that this change has brought on the potential for consistent prosperity.
With significant bullpen money going to Jonathan Broxton, it is hard to say if the Brewers would offer Duke a decent deal, but I would love to see him back to the tune of 2 years/$7 mil, or 3 years/$10 mil.
While Gorzelanny and K-Rod are good relievers, I think the former is more suited as a swingman, and the latter would be too expensive for Milwaukee. To me, this leaves Duke as the strongest candidate for re-signing.