Milwaukee Brewers: Tough Decisions Lie Ahead

SAN DIEGO, CA - JUNE 19: Yasmani Grandal #10 of the Milwaukee Brewers can't make the catch on a single hit by Fernando Tatis Jr. #23 of the San Diego Padres during the second inning of a baseball game at Petco Park June 19, 2019 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images)
SAN DIEGO, CA - JUNE 19: Yasmani Grandal #10 of the Milwaukee Brewers can't make the catch on a single hit by Fernando Tatis Jr. #23 of the San Diego Padres during the second inning of a baseball game at Petco Park June 19, 2019 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images) /
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The Milwaukee Brewers continue to lack consistent late-inning guys.

Another issue that’s plagued the Milwaukee Brewers during this recent stretch has been their bullpen. Partly due to poor quality, and partly due to their starters failing to go deep in games, the Brewers pen has been quite unreliable at times.

During this Stretch

Milwaukee’s bullpen has given up runs in six of their past ten games. Most of the games where they’ve given up runs have been close too.

The Brewers were down six to one entering the bottom of the fifth inning on Friday night. They got three runs from the middle of their line-up that inning to get the lead down to a manageable two runs at 6-4.

Milwaukee’s subsequent bullpen arms came in and put the game out of reach. Junior Guerra was pulled with the bases loaded in the seventh inning. Burnes came in and preceded to give up all three runners he inherited from Guerra that inning, making the score 9-4. Burnes would return for the following inning, only to give up two more runs of his own on a two run home-run by Yasiel Puig. By the time he was pulled, Milwaukee faced in an insurmountable 11-4 deficit in the eighth inning.

This past Wednesday afternoon, Jeremy Jeffress came into an eighth inning where the Brewers had just come back from a two run deficit in the top of the inning to lead 7-5. Jeffress preceded to give up an infield single, a walk, then a three run home-run to Franmil Reyes which gave the Padres an 8-7 lead which they held down to complete a sweep.

Milwaukee had an nearly identical situation unfold in both of their losses against the San Francisco Giants too last weekend.

Why there’s concern

Milwaukee knew coming into the season that their bullpen would not be what it was last season, especially in the later innings. With Corey Knebel out for the season due to an elbow injury, and Jeffress starting the year on the IL too due an injury of his own, the Milwaukee Brewers were going to be without two of their elite options for a big part of the season.

Ever since opening day, the Brewers have had issues consistently bridging the gap between their starters and their elite closer, Josh Hader. Jeffress coming back was supposed to alleviate some of that, but he’s largely been a shadow of his former self so far this season.

Milwaukee has lacked options beyond Jeffress as well. Alex Claudio has been an unmitigated disaster this season. Whenever he’s come into a close game, he’s struggled to have a clean inning. The only player with a worse WAR on the team right now among their pitchers is Burnes. (-0.4 compared to Claudio’s -0.3).

Guerra has been okay in the late innings, but’s he’s often struggled with his own command issues in these spots too. His ERA sits near a four, and his walks per nine is approaching a four as well, both of which are poor for a set-up man.

Matt Albers has been much better than he was in the second half of last season, but he’s still far away from the elite late-inning option that he was several years ago. As his 4.06 ERA and his 3.98 FIP suggest, he’s yet another mediocre option in a mediocre to bad bullpen.

Burnes, as was already discussed in the previous slide, was a complete disaster in the pen too and is no longer on the roster because of it. He was another player who Milwaukee relied on late in games last season, but they haven’t gotten much out of this year.

With these five guys playing at a mediocre or worse level, Milwaukee have lacked any semblance of consistency out of their bullpen. That’s a big deal, especially when you consider that their elite pen was what got them within a game of making the World Series just a few months ago.

Without the same strength and depth, the Milwaukee Brewers haven’t been able to bridge the gap as well to their closer as they did last year. This has had devastating consequences, at times, on the team.

How they can improve

The Brewers will have to explore the trade market to improve their bullpen.

Most of their in-house options aren’t working, nor do most  of them have good underlying numbers to suggest a dramatic improvement is coming.

The only notable exception to this is Adrian Houser. Houser has been exceptional when given the opportunity to pitch out of the pen this year. He’s averaging 10.27 strikeouts per nine innings entering play on Saturday with a 2.35 ERA. His FIP of 3.43, and xFIP of 3.17, suggests his production is sustainable too.

Houser, though, will not be able solve all of their problems. Outside help is needed.

Several good relievers should be available. Former Brewer, Will Smith, would be their best option. He would give the Brewers another elite lefty-bullpen arm who’s also capable of closing games.

Milwaukee could also explore getting Ian Kennedy from the Royals. He’s having an excellent season out of the pen, and would be a great option if Kansas City is willing to eat most of the money remaining on his contract.

There have also been rumors that the Padres may move their elite bullpen armKirby Yates, in the coming weeks. His acquisition cost, however, would be the highest of any bullpen arm on the market which may make a trade for him highly unlikely.

Bullpen arms are easier to get at a lower cost than starters. The Brewers could try to reconstruct their model from last season by loading up on elite bullpen arms to help compensate for their shorter starts. This may be the ideal and most realistic option for them to improve.

Regardless of how many arms they target, though, the Milwaukee Brewers need to improve their bullpen fast. If they don’t, they’re not going to be a real contender this season.