MILWAUKEE — It didn’t take Michael Blazek long to figure out something was going on. After being optioned by the St. Louis Cardinals but told not to report to the minor leagues, the right-handed reliever connected the dots.
The Cardinals had just pulled off a trade to acquire reliever John Axford for a player to be named later. Sitting in a hotel room, Blazek and his agent figured out he was the guy about to be sent to Milwaukee.
“I just kind of sat there and waited to see what would happen,” Blazek, who was officially announced as the player to be named later on Sept. 1, said. “They said, ‘Just sit around and wait and see what happens. We don’t really know where we’re going to put you yet.’
“I didn’t really understand it, so I just kind of said, ‘OK, that’s fine.’ I didn’t really start thinking about something being up until probably the second day.”
The 24-year-old quickly found his way into a game for the Brewers, as he was thrown into the fire on the same day he reported to his new team. Blazek tossed a scoreless inning on Sept. 2 and showed off the stuff that makes him an intriguing prospect.
With a fastball sitting between 95-97 mph and two breaking balls, Blazek has the repertoire to be a late-innings reliever.
“He had some really good outings for St. Louis,” Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said. “He’s got a really good breaking ball — both slider and curveball. And he throws hard. He’s another guy that’s up in the (strike) zone. Everything I saw (with his fastball) was 95 and 96 (mph).”
A 35th-round pick of the Cardinals in 2007, Blazek has beat the odds to make it to this point in his career. Unlike many drafted that late, Blazek passed up a scholarship offer to play the middle infield at the University of Nevada and signed with St. Louis to begin his minor-league career as a starting pitcher.
“I didn’t pitch too often in high school,” Blazek said. “That’s probably the reason why I didn’t go very high in the draft because they didn’t know me as a pitcher
“Coming out of high school, especially getting drafted that late, most people probably would have assumed college would have been the priority. For me, it was just to play, and obviously in the big leagues. I didn’t know much about pro ball at the time, so for me it was an easy decision. That’s obviously what I wanted to do and I took that opportunity that was given to me.”
Blazek converted to relieving in 2012 and he has seen the reward of his move in 2013. He had a 1.97 ERA with nine saves in 45 2/3 innings between Double-A Springfield and Triple-A Memphis this season.
His numbers over three stints with the Cardinals weren’t great — 6.97 ERA in 10 1/3 innings — but six of the eight earned runs he allowed came in two bad outings.
“It’s been kind of a crazy year to say the least,” Blazek said. “My goal coming into spring training this year was to make it to the big leagues. If you would have asked me if I thought I was going to be in Milwaukee in September, I definitely wouldn’t have had an answer for that.”
With so much turnover in Milwaukee’s bullpen lately, Blazek has a prime opportunity to get a head start in earning a role for next year. Jim Henderson, Brandon Kintzler and Tom Gorzelanny are the only members of the current bullpen assured of a spot on next year’s team, leaving the seventh inning role wide open.
Now ranked as Milwaukee’s 10th-best prospect by MLB.com, Blazek has the stuff to thrive as a big-league setup man.
Because he still is fresh off transitioning to the bullpen from the rotation, Blazek still features four pitches. His background as a starting pitcher gives him two polished breaking balls, but Blazek hasn’t used his change-up as much when pitching in relief.
The Brewers were likely to non-tender Axford in the offseason because he was due a minimum salary of $4 million for next year. Blazek seems like a good haul for an up-and-down reliever whose time was wearing thin with St. Louis. At minimum, Blazek seems like he can be the middle reliever Axford was this year for much less money.
“Yeah, it’s important,” Blazek said of the final month of this season. “I definitely want to make a good impression over here. I’m not going to put too much pressure on myself to try to go out there and do too much. I’m just going to try to keep doing the same things I’ve been doing.”