ON THE ROSTER (alphabetical order): John Axford (5-8, 4.67 ERA), Jim Henderson (1-3, 3.52), Livan Hernandez (3-0, 7.68), Brandon Kintzler (3-0, 3.78), Kameron Loe (6-5, 4.61), Manny Parra (2-3, 5.06), Francisco Rodriguez (2-7, 4.38), Jose Veras (5-4, 3.63)
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LOOKING BACK: Coming into the 2012 season, Milwaukee Brewers management fully expected the bullpen to be one of the strengths of a team that had finished just short of the World Series.
After all, John Axford, who was still carrying one of the longest consecutive saves streaks in baseball history, was back in his closer role. Francisco Rodriguez, the dominant closer-turned-setup man that had locked down the eighth inning the season before was back as well. And behind them, the Brewers had actually added talent. It seemed, by all accounts, to be a perfect equation for relief success.
But after Axford lost his saves streak and other pieces started to fall apart around him, the Brewers learned how volatile a seemingly perfect equation could be when it comes to dealing with a major league bullpen.
Arguably more complicated to put together than any other facet of a baseball team, bullpens are often known for their inconsistency. One year, they’ll seem bulletproof. The next, they’ll collapse at the first sign of pressure. And in 2012, the Brewers’ relief staff proved the latter to be true, turning in a consistently inconsistent product all season long.
It wasn’t long into June and July before, suddenly, the Brewers couldn’t win one-run games. Late leads never seemed safe, and the confidence of a once-proud staff was absolutely shot. Even Axford admitted to not feeling himself on the mound.
Subsequently, Axford was removed from the closer’s role — something that seemed near-impossible the season before. He was replaced by Rodriguez, who somehow, managed to do even worse. The Brewers bullpen had hit rock bottom.
But true to the saying, once the Brewers relievers hit rock bottom, there was nowhere to go but up. Slowly but surely, things started to piece their way together again. Axford met with manager Ron Roenicke and asked for his job back — a move that seemed to resonate among his fellow relievers. And as Milwaukee made its impressive late-season run, winning 24 out of 30 games at one point, the Brewers bullpen was back to its 2011 form.
Still, the Brewers couldn’t seem to fully put their relief struggles behind them. In their final road game of the season against Cincinnati — a must-win game, in which a loss would almost certainly end their wild card contention — Axford came to the mound in the ninth inning of the 1-0 contest and struck out the first two batters he faced. But on an 0-1 pitch, Reds infielder Todd Frazier blasted Axford’s next pitch out of the park, tying the game. It took only six more Axford pitches for the Reds to end the Brewers’ playoff hopes.
It was a seemingly fitting ending for a team that finished 24-32 in one-run games. But what will inevitably be missed in the surefire blame the bullpen will take this offseason is the staff’s performance from late August through most of September — a span in which the bullpen’s dominance truly kept the team in the race.
OFFSEASON DECISIONS: It seems, given the bullpen’s struggles and the relative flexibility the organization will have with their contracts, that the Brewers bullpen might, more or less, be gutted this offseason.
That’s not a given yet, but there are certainly a lot of decisions that the Brewers’ brass will have to make in regards to their relief staff. John Axford is the only player that’s 100 percent safe, as Roenicke and general manager Doug Melvin have both said he’ll be the closer for the foreseeable future.
But from there, it gets particularly dicey. Francisco Rodriguez and Livan Hernandez are all but guaranteed to be jettisoned, and Manny Parra and Kameron Loe could very well join them. Roenicke also didn’t seem that thrilled with the job that Jose Veras has done, so he could be on the bubble as well.
Jim Henderson and Brandon Kintzler both seemed to be in good standing, so there’s reason to believe that they’ll be back as well. But there’s no doubt that Melvin will be looking for bullpen help in free agency. And it’s probably safe to expect at three or four new faces come next season.
LOOKING AHEAD: Melvin spent a great deal of Thursday’s season-ending press conference explaining how consistent Axford has been, citing how the closer position has changed so much since Hall of Famers like Rollie Fingers put together seasons that barely eclipsed 30 saves. In only two months had Axford blown more than one save in his Brewers career — both of which came in the middle of this past season. So there’s reason to hope that the ninth inning, at least, can be back on track as early as 2013.
For the rest of the unit, however, there are only question marks. Will Henderson be able to fill the eighth inning role that’s likely to be vacated by Rodriguez’s departure? Will the Brewers go to a starting pitcher for long relief help? If Parra is sent packing, who’s going to be the team’s left-handed specialist? And those are just a few of the questions that won’t likely be answered until next year.
So what should you expect from the bullpen in 2013? Well, the truth is, your guess may be as good as mine.
GM DOUG MELVIN SAYS: “The bullpen, there’s going to be changes. There’s guys that are going to be free agents, arbitration-eligible. … We were committed to the bullpen, so if guys were slumping, we couldn’t really make any moves. Where I said next year, guys have to come in and win jobs or earn those jobs. Our bullpen was pretty well tied to guaranteed contracts, so we didn’t have flexibility when we had a few hiccups to just go and release guys early in the year and go get someone. … I don’t think we really had any competition in the bullpen … because they were so good the year before. They were perfect the year before.”