ON THE ROSTER (alphabetical order): RHP John Axford (5-8, 4.67 ERA, 35 saves), RHP Burke Badenhop (3-2, 3.03 ERA with Tampa Bay), LHP Michael Gonzalez (0-0, 3.03 ERA with Washington), LHP Tom Gorzelanny (4-2, 2.88 ERA, 1 save with Washington), RHP Johnny Hellweg (7-11, 3.29 ERA in Double-A), RHP Jim Henderson (1-3, 3.52 ERA, 3 saves), RHP Brandon Kintzler (3-0, 3.78 ERA), RHP Santo Manzanillo (0-4, 6.08 ERA in Double-A), RHP Michael Olmsted (1-4, 1.52 ERA, 19 saves in minors), RHP Jesus Sanchez (4-1, 1.71 ERA in Triple-A), RHP Josh Stinson (0-0, 0.96 ERA)
OFFSEASON CHANGES: A complete bullpen overhaul was Milwaukee’s top priority this offseason, and general manager Doug Melvin didn’t disappoint.
Gone are Francisco Rodriguez, Kameron Loe, Jose Veras, Manny Parra, Tim Dillard, Mike McClendon and Livan Hernandez from a bullpen that posted a MLB-worst 4.66 ERA and 29 blown saves. Melvin set out to not only improve the team’s weak spot but to make it more versatile. He accomplished his goal by adding left-handers Gorzelanny and Gonzalez and right-hander Badenhop.
Badenhop, 30, was Melvin’s first piece and will serve a role in the bullpen similar to the one Loe filled. Acquired from Tampa Bay in a trade, Badenhop uses his sinker the majority of the time and will be valuable when a ground ball is needed. He’s proven himself as a reliable reliever for four seasons, and the Brewers gave up just a low-level prospect to get him.
By adding the pair of left-handers, Melvin gives manager Ron Roenicke two quality lefties for the first time in his tenure. With Gonzalez on board, Gorzelanny can be used in a variety of different roles and not just as a lefty specialist. Since moving to the bullpen full-time, Gorzelanny has found success and had his best season in 2012, going 4-2 with a 2.88 ERA for the Nationals.
Gonzalez is one of the best lefty specialists in baseball. Left-handed hitters hit just .179 against Gonzalez in 2012 and hit just .209 against the 34-year-old in his career. Though he’s going to be valuable against the Joey Vottos and Jay Bruces of the division, Gonzalez also has experience closing and could be a fallback option if Axford doesn’t bounce back.
STARTER SPOTLIGHT: Well, these guys aren’t starters, but Axford and Henderson are the other locks to make the Opening Day roster.
Henderson made his big league debut July 26 and provided some stability to the struggling bullpen. He finished with a 3.52 ERA in 30 2/3 innings and will get the first crack at being the setup man and pitching the eighth inning.
That leaves five of the seven spots sewn up before pitchers and catchers even report to Phoenix. Barring an injury or struggles in spring training, Kintzler has shown he’s a capable reliever when healthy and will likely grab one of the two open spots. Minor league free agent Olmstead is a hard thrower and put up eye-popping numbers in the minors last season. Boston didn’t want to let Olmstead go, but it didn’t have an open spot on its 40-man roster. Stinson had a good year in Double-A as a starter and came up to Milwaukee and gave up just one run in 9 1/3 innings out of the bullpen. A former catcher in the minor leagues, Sanchez impressed the Brewers enough with two straight stellar seasons in Double-A and Triple-A to add him to the 40-man roster. This will be just his fifth season as a pitcher, but he’s a dark-horse candidate for the final bullpen spot.
However, Olmstead, Stinson and Sanchez all may be competing for a spot in the bullpen that doesn’t exist. With at least six pitchers competing for five rotation spots, somebody is going to be left out. If Chris Narveson misses the rotation, he’ll more than likely be kept in the bullpen. Mark Rogers is out of minor league options, so he’d certainly be used as a reliever. If Wily Peralta is the odd man out, Milwaukee will send him to Triple-A to continue to work as a starter, freeing a bullpen spot. There’s a good chance there will be no bullpen slots open if Kintzler sews up his job. Considering how many relievers the Brewers parted ways with, that’s impressive.
SPRING TRAINING QUESTION: Will this bullpen be any better? It would be hard to be any worse than the 2012 bullpen. Still, the pressure is going to be on this group to perform – at least early on – because of the toll 29 blown saves took on a club that finished just five games out of the playoffs.
It’s impossible to predict the success of a bullpen. Last year was case in point as to why. Nobody expected the group of relievers the Brewers had to all have down seasons – career-worst seasons – in the same year. In fact, the Brewers’ bullpen was lauded by many as a strong point heading into Opening Day last season, especially the eighth- and ninth-inning duo of Axford and Rodriguez.
So, how can anyone be certain about anything with relievers? All that can be judged is the pieces and their track records. Melvin had to replace a lot of the parts and he did so successfully – on paper. Gorzelanny, Gonzalez and Badenhop all are proven and provide Roenicke with tremendous flexibility. Henderson and Kintzler showed at the end of last season they can pitch at this level. The S-factor will be Axford. With fewer closing options on this year’s team, he has to bounce back and pitch like he did in 2011 and at the end of last season. It was encouraging to see the closer shake off struggles and finish the year strong because this bullpen will only be as good as its anchor. This question will be answered when we know which Axford shows up in 2013.
BADENHOP SAYS: “I think the front office has done a great job (with the bullpen). All you can do is kind of get the pieces and from Game 1 to Game 162 see how those pieces fit and how things kind of shake out (is up to us). (Gorzelanny and Gonzalez) were on a winning team last year so they know how to win, coupled with John Axford, one of the best closers in the game, and Jim Henderson who was from what I could tell pretty much lights out.
“We want to be reliable out there so when Ron picks up that phone he is not pressed to who he is going to get up.”