One of the few competitions the Milwaukee Brewers have became a bit less intriguing Friday when the club brought back Francisco Rodriguez on a one-year contract.
Instead of having four locks for the seven-man relief corps, the Brewers will head to spring training with five pitchers seemingly guaranteed to make the roster barring an injury or unforeseen circumstance.
Joining Rodriguez in that category are: closer Jim Henderson, setup man Brandon Kintzler, left-hander Tom Gorzelanny and new lefty Will Smith. Gorzelanny is likely to miss the majority of spring training recovering from offseason shoulder surgery and may not be ready for Opening Day, but he’ll have a spot whenever he can go.
Henderson will enter a season as a big-league closer for the first time in his career, looking to build upon a solid year when he finished with a 2.70 ERA and 28 saves. The 29-year-old Kintzler is coming off the best season of his career. He was healthy for a full season and made 71 appearances with a 2.69 ERA.
While Henderson knew he was going to make the Opening Day roster in 2013, Kintzler had to earn his way on last year. This year he knows where he stands going into camp. The addition of Rodriguez may alter his role a bit, but it’s something for which he’s prepared.
"I just think for me coming in, this year’s different because I don’t have to stress as much," Kintzler said. "It’s nice to come in and get ready for the season instead of getting ready for Feb. 15.
"As far as our roles, you never know what your roles are going to be. You never really know what your role is going to be, you just have to be ready to help the team win."
Assuming the Brewers keep the standard seven relievers, two bullpen spots remain open with a handful of pitchers looking to earn their way onto the roster. Michael Blazek, Alfredo Figaro and Rob Wooten all left positive impressions last season, while the Brewers face an interesting decision with Tyler Thornburg.
Slated to head into camp as the fifth starter until Matt Garza was added, Thornburg could still earn the fifth starter’s job, but that’s likely going to go to Marco Estrada. Thornburg could head to the bullpen or Milwaukee could elect to have him stretched out and starting at Triple-A to have him ready to come up at any time.
An interesting case is Rule 5 pick Wei-Chung Wang. The Brewers have to keep the left-hander on their 25-man roster or offer him back or work out a trade with Pittsburgh. He’s an intriguing prospect, but the 21-year-old hasn’t pitched above rookie ball. Will the Brewers be willing to take up one of their two open bullpen slots with a project? That question will have to be answered in spring training, as Wang will almost surely be wanted back by the Pirates if Milwaukee doesn’t keep him.
Young relievers David Goforth and Kevin Shackelford may be long shots to make the team this year, but certainly could impress enough this spring to get a look. Both had success in Double-A in 2013, making a jump to the big leagues not that farfetched. Goforth, who has a power arm, is not on the 40-man roster, which could hurt his chances. At minimum, the two will pitch in the backend of Triple-A Nashville’s bullpen.
Non-roster invitee Zach Duke will be looked at as a possible left-handed specialist, a role vacated when the team opted not to re-sign Michael Gonzalez. Lefties hit .327 against Duke last year and .282 during his career, but most of those numbers came when he was a starting pitcher. At minimum, Duke will provide depth in Triple-A.
While Gonzalez did not pitch well in 2013, other relievers considered him the leader of the group, especially after Rodriguez and John Axford were traded. Rodriguez’s addition will help that loss, but guys like Henderson and Kintzler will be asked to step up.
"It’s going to be tough to miss out on Gonzalez this year," Henderson said. "The guys that are in the bullpen, we’re all pretty young and inexperienced, or not inexperienced, but we haven’t had much time up in the league, so we’re just going to take from what those guys taught us."
Kintzler, who raved about what Gonzalez and Axford brought to the bullpen multiple times last season, agreed with Henderson.
"One thing I learned when I first came up here was (Trevor) Hoffman said, ‘No matter what, have a routine, good or bad day, always stick to your routine,’" Kintzler said. "So I’ve always tried to stick to that. Axford was really big on always telling us to try and stick to routines. So that’s me."
Inexperienced or not, the Brewers do have plenty of options to fill out the bullpen and will have capable reinforcements in Triple-A if struggles or injuries strike. Bullpens are very hard to predict because of how fragile relief pitching is in general, but Milwaukee made a significant jump from the worst relief unit in baseball in 2012 to the fifth best in 2013.
The Brewers return many of the guys who made that leap happen. Now they just have to do it again.
"We’re a pretty tight-knit family out there in the bullpen, so anybody that came in out of the bullpen, we’re the biggest cheerleaders for each other, really support each other," Henderson said. "The roles change, we had different roles, so we all knew what to expect. So let’s just keep the bullpen topic quiet this year, we’re just going to go about our business. We were pretty good last year so just keep it rolling into this year."