Bullpen will again be a strength in 2012

MILWAUKEE – In 2011, the Milwaukee Brewers went into the All-Star break tied with the St. Louis Cardinals atop the National League Central. They went 49-43 in the first half – a respectable mark – but tore through the second half with a 47-23 record, on the way to a franchise-record 96 victories and their first division title in 29 years.

There may have been no bigger factor in that second-half surge then the Milwaukee bullpen.

There was some uncertainty, especially early on when Takashi Saito went to the disabled list and LaTroy Hawkins had yet to find a role. That moved ground ball specialist Kameron Loe into the setup spot, where he had mixed results.

After acquiring Mets closer Francisco Rodriguez the night of the All-Star Game, though, the relief corps jelled. Suddenly, the Brewers were shortening games and all the pieces fit perfectly. If a starter got into trouble early, manager Ron Roenicke could turn to Loe to get a much-needed double play and end the threat.

He preferred not to use the 40-year-old Saito on consecutive days, leaving him an ideal candidate for the occasional sixth- or seventh-inning assignment, with Hawkins available if necessary. And of course, the eighth and ninth innings were more than covered by Rodriguez and closer John Axford.

The success was evident. From the All-Star Game on, the Brewers did not lose a game when leading after the seventh inning. Credit Rodriguez and Axford for that, as the duo allowed just 13 earned runs in 67 2/3 innings in the second half.

The good news is the Brewers again will have Rodriguez and Axford anchoring the back end of the bullpen in 2012. Rodriguez’s return was something of a surprise. He had been expected to sign a multi-year deal elsewhere, but when the opportunity to close games didn’t materialize, he accepted the Brewers’ offer of arbitration and last month worked out a one-year deal worth approximately $8 million.

There had been speculation that the Brewers, trying to keep their payroll under control, might be interested in trading Rodriguez, 30, to a team looking for a closer. But Brewers GM Doug Melvin insisted that the team was prepared for the possibility of Rodriguez returning for another season.

“We feel very good about having him and Axford, and having them the whole year,” Melvin said. “We only had them half the season last year.”

Couple the late-inning combo with a top-flight rotation and it’s not hard to see why the Brewers were one of the top pitching staffs in all of baseball a year ago and even with the loss of first baseman Prince Fielder, why Milwaukee can’t be counted out of the NL Central hunt in 2012.

“We have our entire starting staff coming back,” Axford said. “We have the eighth and ninth covered and a great group of guys in the bullpen. On paper, the team looks great, I think.”

Saito and Hawkins are gone in 2012, having moved on to the Diamondbacks and Dodgers, respectively. But Rodriguez, Axford and Loe make for a formidable bullpen nucleus. The Brewers are also confident that lefty Zach Braddock can return to his 2010 form, when he posted a 2.94 ERA in 46 appearances.

Braddock’s 2011 season was full of inconsistency and disappointment. He appeared in just 27 games with a 7.27 ERA. He went to the disabled list with a sleep disorder in May and in July, was demoted to the minor leagues and ultimately ended up on the inactive list with Class AAA Nashville.

Another lefty, Manny Parra, will be back, too, in 2012. Once a former top prospect in the Brewers’ system, Parra struggled as a starter (23-26, 5.44 ERA in 74 career starts) but after moving to the bullpen in 2010, settled in with a 2.39 ERA in 26 appearances, holding opponents to a .252 average and posting a 3-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

He missed the entire 2011 season while dealing with back and elbow injuries. Parra underwent surgery in August to remove a bone spur from his elbow, but at the Brewers’ winter fan fest event, Parra said he was feeling healthy and looking forward to showing Roenicke what he’s capable of contributing.

“It’s been so long, I don’t even think they know me,” Parra said. “They don’t know me, really. As a pitcher, they don’t know me. They’ve seen probably video and stuff like that, though. I pitched against one hitter in spring training last year and that’s it. It’s an opportunity for me to go out there and really get to know them and let them get to know me.

Originally a spot starter to cover during Zack Greinke’s season-opening injury, Marco Estrada opened eyes with a solid season. Overall, Estrada was 4-8 with a 4.08 ERA in 43 appearances and he’s likely to get more work out of the bullpen.

Jose Veras also figures to play a prominent role. Acquired from Pittsburgh in the Casey McGehee deal, the 31-year-old right-hander went 2-4 with a 3.80 ERA in 79 appearances with the Pirates last season and in his six-year career, is 14-13 with a 4.11 ERA.

So the Brewers have options in the bullpen. And with the back end locked down, there are few concerns.

“It’s going to be tough missing Hawkins and Saito, but with K-Rod and Ax we’ll have the best eighth and ninth in baseball,” starter Greinke said. “We’ll just have to get through seven instead of six this year.”