The Colorado Rockies and the Milwaukee Brewers built their bullpens very differently this offseason. Colorado is spending big, while Milwaukee is relying on more cost-effective options. Which approach will pay off better?
With Wade Davis signing with the Rockies on Friday, Colorado now has the highest-paid bullpen in the league. That is a stark contrast to the approach of the Milwaukee Brewers. Their most expensive reliever is Jeremy Jeffress, who is signed on for just $1.75 million. Yovani Gallardo technically will make more than him if you consider the Mexican right-hander a reliever, but the point stands regardless. Milwaukee’s relief corps gets paid virtually nothing compared to Colorado’s.
That said, how do these two bullpens compare? Is the Rockies’ set of relievers that much better than the Brewers’? It’s time to juxtapose each section of the bullpen to see if paying up for relievers really pays off.
This is one of the toughest battles in this whole piece. Both Davis and Corey Knebel were outstanding last season. In his lone season on the north side of Chicago, Davis dominated hitters to the tune of a 2.30 ERA and a 12.1 K/9. He also racked up 32 saves in 33 chances.
Knebel, on the other hand, had his fair share of success as well. The 25-year-old topped Davis in ERA (1.78), strikeout rate (14.9 K/9) and saves (39). However, Knebel did blow six save opportunities and walked nearly five batters per nine innings. Nonetheless, his 2017 is a sign of good things to come.
In terms of numbers, these two hurlers are pretty even. Davis might have the edge if you consider his strong track record. A case can be made for Knebel based off his age and potential, though. In this instance, the advantage goes to Knebel because of the cost. Davis will make over $17 million over the next three years with potentially $15 million headed his way if a fourth year option is picked up. Conversely, the Brewers’ young closer is entering his first year of arbitration and will make nowhere near those figures until he enters the free agent market. Based on cost effectiveness, Knebel is the clear winner here.
This category is a bit tougher since neither team necessarily has one set eighth-inning guy. Milwaukee’s potential signing of Boone Logan also complicates things. For comparison’s sake, we’ll consider the Rockies’ setup men to be Jake McGee and Bryan Shaw, and the Brewers’ setup men to be Josh Hader and Jacob Barnes.
Starting with Colorado, McGee is an excellent southpaw at manager Bud Black’s disposal. After a tough start in Colorado, the lefty bounced back with a 3.61 ERA last season. He posted an unspectacular 9.1 K/9, but his impeccable control and ability to keep the ball in the park more than made up for it.
Shaw has some similar qualities. He doesn’t overwhelm anyone with strikeouts, but his groundball-heavy approach kept his ERA and home run rate at relatively low levels. This should also help his game play up at Coors Field this year.
For the Brewers, Hader was downright dominant in his first season out of the bullpen. In 47 2/3 innings for Milwaukee, the lefty produced a 2.08 ERA and a 12.8 K/9. However, his 3.07 FIP and high walk rate suggest a bit of regression could be in store next season. There have also been talks that Hader could move to the rotation at some point in 2018.
Barnes also flashed excellence in his first full season with the Milwaukee Brewers. In the first two months of the season, he posted a stellar 2.77 ERA. Additionally, the right-hander struck out over a batter per inning over the entire season. His numbers faltered a bit toward the end of the season, but 24 holds is certainly nothing to scoff at.
With all that said, I would give the Rockies the advantage in this category. Although Hader was outstanding last season, he may not even be part of the bullpen for the entirety of 2018. Barnes also faded significantly down the stretch, making me believe that the Rockies’ highly-paid duo is stronger than the Brewers’.
Middle relief is where more of the issues crop up. For the Rockies, Adam Ottavino struggled with control en route to a 5.06 ERA last season. The same went for lefty Mike Dunn, who walked over five batters and served up 1.4 home runs per nine innings. Adding insult to injury, Scott Oberg and Carlos Estevez also logged ERAs north of 4.90. Needless to say, Colorado’s middle relief situation was shaky last season.
Things in Milwaukee weren’t much better either, though. Jeremy Jeffress returned to Milwaukee with a decent 3.65 ERA, but his walk rate still left much to be desired. Oliver Drake produced a 10.1 K/9, but his 4.44 ERA was also less than desirable. Heading into next season, Wei-Chung Wang seems like a good bet to be in the Majors based on his stellar Minor League numbers. He has yet to translate any of his successes to the Big Leagues, though.
With all this in mind, the advantage goes to the Milwaukee Brewers. Even though the middle relievers of both teams had their respective ups and downs, the Brewers’ hurlers cost much less than the Rockies’ (as has been the case most of the time).
Long relief is where the tables turn a bit. The Rockies have relatively inexpensive options for long relief, as the combo of Kyle Freeland, Antonio Senzatela and Jeff Hoffman split time between the bullpen and the rotation. This strategy allowed the team to limit their innings and essentially stream the pitcher who was most effective. Better yet, they fill their roles at pre-arbitration cost. Chris Rusin also primarily pitches in long relief, and he’s fairly inexpensive since he’s only in his first round of arbitration.
The Brewers have more expensive options at their disposal here. Assuming he doesn’t land a rotation spot, Yovani Gallardo is a $2 million arm throwing in long relief. His numbers over the past few years don’t exactly warrant the relatively high cost, either. Junior Guerra is another long relief option for Milwaukee, although he regressed significantly last season. Brent Suter could also fill this role, but his presence still doesn’t help the Milwaukee Brewers gain much ground in this category.
In summary, the Rockies have both the cost and the performance advantage in this instance. Unless the Brewers’ hurlers can turn things around in 2018, they simply can’t match the future potential of Colorado’s arsenal of young starter/reliever hybrids.
Taking everything into account, it’s tough to determine a true winner. Each bullpen’s performance was relatively similar, and although the Milwaukee Brewers tend to have an overall cost advantage, the Colorado Rockies save their fair share of money in certain areas. Either way, it’s interesting how well the Brewers’ bullpen can stack up to other teams despite the fact that they’ve invested significantly less money in the area.