Milwaukee Brewers’ Bullpen Picture Becoming Clearer

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Having too much pitching is never a bad thing, and the Milwaukee Brewers have found themselves with an excellent problem on their hands. GM Doug Melvin has long been adept at assembling quality bullpens; he has struck gold in the past on scrap heap pickups like Zach Duke, John Axford, and even Derrick Turnbow once upon a time all thrived in Milwaukee for a period after being jettisoned from other organizations. Doug Melvin did well again in shoring up his bullpen depth for 2015: Francisco Rodriguez and Neal Cotts were signed to reasonable free agents deals, Corey Knebel was brought over via trade, Chris Perez was added on a minor league deal, and Jeremy Jeffress and Jonathan Broxton were added mid-season in 2014. The Brewers realistically had 12 pitchers vying for seven available bullpen spots as Spring Training ramped up. With a little over two weeks left until Opening Day, however, it appears that the bullpen picture became a little more clear today.

The first news to break this morning was in regards to former closer Jim Henderson, who is attempting to come back from shoulder surgery this spring. At his height during the 2012-13 seasons, Henderson was able to blow his fastball by hitters in the mid to upper 90s while he was locking down 31 saves for the Brewers. He first began experiencing issues with his velocity last spring, however, and eventually spent most of 2014 on the disabled list after only 14 appearances. Early reports were encouraging, with Henderson stating his intent to be ready for Opening Day during the “Brewers On Deck.” Once Jim made it into camp, however, the results were much less promising. His fastball sat in the 88-89 MPH range in game action this spring, and as I discussed earlier this week, Henderson’s breaking ball isn’t good enough to support his no longer “plus” fastball.

It appears that Brewers brass support my line of thinking, as they have reportedly sent Henderson to minor league camp to continue the rehabilitation process. Though there was no official move, I would say it’s almost guaranteed that Henderson begins this season either on the disabled list or in the minor leagues. Assistant GM Gord Ash said that Henderson “might have to become a different pitcher now” to deal with his decreased velocity, and at nearly 33, Henderson’s Major League career seems as though it might be in jeopardy.

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In an interview earlier this morning, manager Ron Roenicke acknowledged that the bullpen will likely come down to Chris Perez, Tyler Thornburg, and Rob Wooten competing for the final available spot. Given that Corey Knebel was optioned to AAA yesterday, this means that Rodriguez, Broxton, Jeffress, Cotts, Will Smith, and Brandon Kintzler are all but guaranteed to be ticketed to Milwaukee to begin the season. Here is a breakdown of the competitors for the final spot:

Tyler Thornburg-Thornburg is being stretched out this spring as insurance for rotation after missing most of last season with a UCL injury. He was terrific in relief last season before a bad final outing inflated his ERA to 4.25 in 29.2 innings pitched, striking out 28 batters against a worrisome 21 walks. Was rated at the Brewers top prospect by MLB.com in 2012, and would have been the Brewers fifth starter to start last season if not for the Matt Garza signing. Thornburg has posted a 2.79 ERA in 9.2 innings this spring, and started in place of Mike Fiers yesterday. He is able to be optioned to the minor leagues.

Rob Wooten-Wooten has been up and down between the Brewers and AAA several times over the past two seasons, with “baseball card stats” like a 1-4 record with a 4.72 ERA in 2014 making Rob look like a pretty below average reliever. Wooten has experienced a lot of bad luck, however, with an astronomically high .380 batting average on balls in play against last season while holding hitters to a 53.3% ground ball rate. Wooten has given up only 2 home runs in 62.0 career MLB innings, and his FIP of 2.87 says that Wooten has pitched much better than the results have shown throughout his career. He has the ability to pitch multiple innings, and has given up only one run in nine innings so far this spring, with an 8|3 strikeout to walk ratio. Wooten can also be optioned to the minor leagues.

Chris Perez-Perez has racked up 133 saves in his career, twice making the All-Star team while pitching for the Indians. It has been a couple years since Perez has been effective, however, as he has posted ERA+ marks of 88 and 82 in the last two seasons, posting a FIP over 5.00 both years. He does, however, have the “closing experience” that the Brewers seem to value highly as well as a fastball that still hits the mid 90s. Perez is an Article XX(B) free agent, meaning that he must either be added to the 25 man roster five days before the start of the season or be paid a $100,000 roster bonus to go to the minor leagues. Perez would also have a June 1st opt-out date. He has given up two runs in 6.1 innings pitched this spring.

I think that Thornburg will be the one to win the final spot in the bullpen, especially given the slight setback experienced by Mike Fiers, who could see his turn skipped in the early going of the season (the Brewers won’t need a fifth starter until the third week of the season). He has the most upside in the bunch, and until getting injured last season was a more highly touted prospect than Jimmy Nelson. He has proven he can be effective out of the bullpen and as a starter, and it’s exceedingly likely that the Brewers will need several spot starts this season. I wouldn’t be incredibly disappointed if Wooten is the choice, however, as long as Thornburg gets plugged in at the top of the Sky Sox rotation. Perez seems like a long shot given that he would need to be added to the 40 man roster, although a roster spot could conceivably open up if Jim Henderson is put on the 60 day DL. If Perez is the odd man out, I would like to see the Brewers pay him the roster bonus and keep him around to start the season as insurance.

The Milwaukee Brewers start their season on April 6th at Miller Park, sending Kyle Lohse to the mound to face off against the Colorado Rockies.

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