The Milwaukee Brewers wasted little time letting it be known the performance by last year’s bullpen was intolerable.
Brewers relievers posted a major league-worst 4.66 ERA in 2012, and general manager Doug Melvin acted swiftly in showing the door to seven players who pitched a combined 353 1/3 innings.
Gone are Jose Veras, Francisco Rodriguez, Tim Dillard, Kameron Loe, Manny Parra, Mike McClendon and Livan Hernandez, which means John Axford and Jim Henderson are the only major contributors returning in 2013.
Though it would have been easy for Melvin to panic and dish out money to some of the bigger-name relievers on the market, he stayed patient. And on the trade front, instead of dealing away valuable assets, Melvin found a way to acquire a useful reliever in Burke Badenhop by giving up only a low-level prospect.
The two free-agent relievers Milwaukee signed are perfect fits for the ballclub. There was no better match for the Brewers’ needs than Tom Gorzelanny. The 30-year old left-hander has never wowed anyone with dominant stuff but is as solid as they come and will provide the Brewers with tremendous versatility.
Not only can Gorzelanny be used against left-handers, he’s had success against right-handers, which will allow Brewers manager Ron Roenicke to use him for full innings. Signed to be a reliever, Gorzelanny also has vast experience as a starter and could be called upon in that role if the young options in the rotation falter.
Last season in Washington, Gorzelanny was allowed to be more than just a left-handed specialist because fellow left-hander Mike Gonzalez was also in the bullpen. Coincidence or not, the Brewers have reportedly signed Gonzalez to a one-year contract.
Choosing the Brewers over the Reds and Nationals, Gonzalez is a true left-handed specialist and was lights out against lefties in 2012. Left-handed hitters had just 12 hits, a .179 batting average and one home run off Gonzalez last season. His strikeout-to-walk ratio against lefties was a staggering 3.29.
With Gonzalez in the bullpen, Roenicke now can use Gorzelanny earlier in the game, either for a full inning or situationally, and still have a left-hander to use late in games. This is a luxury he hasn’t had in years past. From Zach Braddock to Manny Parra, Roenicke’s recent left-handed options haven’t gotten the job done.
With Gorzelanny, Gonzalez and Badenhop in the fold along with Axford, Henderson and more than likely Brandon Kintzler, the Brewers have six of the seven bullpen spots filled heading into spring training.
When healthy, Kintzler has proven he can be a reliable big league middle reliever, but health has been a major concern. A spot in the bullpen is essentially his to lose, but he’ll face competition. Melvin has made a couple of under-the-radar moves that at minimum will provide organizational depth.
An intriguing candidate for one of the final spots in the bullpen is right-hander Michael Olmsted. Signed to a minor league contract, Olmstead has a mid- to upper-90s fastball and had eye-popping numbers in both Single-A and Double-A with Boston last season.
Promoted to Double-A for the final 14 games of last season, Olmsted didn’t give up a single run and struck out 31 batters in 20 innings. His story is unique. Olmsted was a ninth-round pick of the Mets in 2007 but blew out his elbow and was eventually released. He went to Japan but returned home to pitch in the independent leagues when his mother was ill. It was there the Red Sox discovered the 6-foot-6, 245-pound power pitcher and signed him.
Boston didn’t want to lose Olmsted, but it didn’t have an open spot on its 40-man roster. The Brewers did and scooped him up. He may never pitch for Milwaukee, but his size, plus stuff, good numbers and unique path could make him the next Axford or Henderson.
Aside from Kintzler and Olmsted, the Brewers have a variety of in-house options for the final two spots in the bullpen, so another move probably isn’t likely. Whichever one of the young arms doesn’t make the rotation will have a good chance at sliding into the bullpen. Prospect Johnny Hellweg, Josh Stinson, and minor offseason additions Fautino De Los Santos, Miguel De Los Santos and Jairo Asencio also all have the potential to earn a spot in spring training.
Some of Melvin’s minor acquisitions may not make the club, but depth is vital to every organization, and the Brewers finally have it. With an unproven rotation full of young arms that have yet to go deep into games, the bullpen may be taxed.
Quietly, Melvin has — at least on paper –addressed that concern by putting together a group that has a good chance of being rock solid. Of course, a bullpen is hard to predict on paper. Good relievers can easily have bad years. The Brewers will need Axford to bounce back and return to 2011 form because unlike last season, there isn’t much closing experience behind him.
The 2013 version of the bullpen may not have many big names but has potential. After last season, that’s certainly a welcome sight.