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Jim Henderson a Long Shot For Milwaukee Brewers’ Bullpen

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The Milwaukee Brewers’ bullpen was pretty solid last season, ranking 16th in baseball with a 3.62 ERA (17th with a 3.60 FIP) while having to work only 465.1 innings last season (less than 24 other teams in baseball). The Brewers managed to do this despite being hit with injuries to key pitchers early in the season; both Tyler Thornburg and Jim Henderson were expected to be major contributors last season but ended up missing significant time with injuries. While Thornburg has been stellar so far this spring while the Brewers look to stretch him out and increase their rotation depth, the opposite has rang true for Jim Henderson, who could find himself on the outside looking in at the bullpen come Opening Day on April 6th.

Henderson first opened eyes in 2012, when he made his major league debut for the Brewers as a 29 year old after spending ten seasons in the minor leagues and undergoing shoulder surgery in 2008. Jim immediately won plenty of fans in Milwaukee with his feel-good story and a fastball that could hit the upper 90s. Henderson usurped the closer’s job from a struggling John Axford in 2013, and saved 28 games in 32 chances while working to a 2.70 ERA with 75 strikeouts in 60 innings pitched. Henderson had earned the role of unquestioned closer as the Brewers’ reported to Spring Training in 2014.

The wheels soon began to fall off for Henderson, however. His velocity had fallen precipitously from the previous season, leading to Francisco Rodriguez being installed as closer on Opening Day last season. Henderson struggled through 14 appearances last season, giving up nine earned runs in 11.1 innings pitched. Though he managed to strikeout 17 batters, Henderson gave up 14 hits and three home runs, working with a fastball that was nearly 2 MPH slower on average than it was in 2013. Jim was put on the disabled list in May, and after an unsuccessful rehab stint, was shut down for the season. Henderson underwent shoulder surgery similar to the one he had in 2008, and early reports were encouraging that Henderson would be ready for Opening Day.

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Henderson has appeared in three games so far this spring, giving up just earned one run in three innings while notching a couple of strikeouts. Though the Brewers declined to use radar guns until recently, it had been noted that Henderson still didn’t look as though he had been achieving his familiar fastball velocity. Once the guns were busted out over the weekend, Henderson was said to be sitting in roughly the 92 MPH range, which is still well below his 2012-13 velocity. When asked about the possibility of a handicapped Henderson making the Brewers despite his diminished velocity, Roenicke had this to say:

"“It depends if he’s getting people out with it. If his slider gets really good and he’s still pitching well, then it chances our mind. It’s consistently throwing that ball with ‘life’ on it. That’s what he did before…So, if he doesn’t come back with his velocity, he has to locate better.”"

If Henderson cannot regain his formerly dominant fastball and is forced to rely on his slider as an out pitch, then he could be headed for trouble. Henderson’s slider has been rated below league average over the course of his major league career, with wSL (runs above average against sliders) marks of -2.5 and -0.9 over the last two seasons. During the 2012-13 seasons, when his plus fastball was coming up on hitters at an average speed over 95 MPH, Henderson posted a cumulative 9.5 wFB (runs above average against fastballs). When he lost his zip last season, he posted a -1.7 wFB, leaving him with two out of two pitches rated below major league average.

Despite losing Zack Duke and Tom Gorzelanny to free agency this offseason, the Brewers’ relief corps should be a strength this year. K-Rod was re-signed again this offseason, and Neal Cotts and Corey Knebel were added to the mix as well. The Brewers’ figure to have seven spots available in their bullpen, with six pretty well spoken for. Rodriguez will reprise his role as closer, with Will Smith and 2014 midseason additions Jonathan Broxton and Jeremy Jeffress slotting in as the setup guys. Free agent pickup Cotts will be the second lefty in the bullpen, with Thornburg likely entering the season as the long man. That leaves one available spot for pitchers like Henderson, Knebel, Brandon Kintzler, Rob Wooten, Michael Blazek, and non-roster invitee Chris Perez. Kintzler figures to be the favorite after the Brewers gave him $1.075 mil in arbitration this past offseason.

Jim Henderson is a former flamethrower that is now in search of his lost velocity, and he just isn’t the same pitcher without it. Henderson posted an ERA of 2.98 ERA and struck out nearly 12 batters per nine innings over the 2012-13 seasons, while saving 31 games on the strength of a plus fastball that could get close to hitting triple digits. Without his elite velocity, however, Henderson’s secondary pitch isn’t good enough to keep him in the big leagues, and he struggled mightily last season before undergoing shoulder surgery. Henderson will turn 33 this season, leaving the distinct possibility that his skills could simply be eroding with age and that he may never throw as hard as he once did. Either way, unless Jim Henderson can find his lost velocity, don’t expect to find him in the Brewers’ bullpen as the 2015 Championship Season begins. The Brewers will open their season on April 6th against the Colorado Rockies at Miller Park.

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