Brewers 2015 position preview: Bullpen
This is the second in a nine-part series previewing the Milwaukee Brewers by position leading up to Opening Day on April 6
2014 IN REVIEW:
When the gate swung open prior to the top of the ninth inning on Opening Day last season, the entire stadium expected Jim Henderson to emerge. Instead, manager Ron Roenicke surprised everyone by turning to Francisco Rodriguez for the save.
After reporting to camp late due to visa issues in his home country of Venezuela, Rodriguez had his preparation time cut into further after he stepped on a cactus. That didn’t slow the veteran closer, as he did not allow an earned run over his first 16 appearances en route to making the National League All-Star team. Rodriguez slowed a bit in the second half, but he converted 44 of 49 save opportunities to go along with a 3.04 ERA.
Henderson never was a factor, as he pitched in just 14 games before a shoulder injury ended his season.
Left-hander Will Smith and right-hander Tyler Thornburg quickly pitched their way into late-inning roles, as the duo combined for a 0.67 ERA in April. Thornburg appeared in 25 games in April and May before he suffered a season-ending elbow injury in Pittsburgh on June 6.
Smith wound up tied with Pittsburgh’s Tony Watson for the National League lead in appearances with 78, while his 30 holds were the third-most in baseball. He posted a 7.16 ERA over June, July and August, but insists his midseason struggles had nothing to do with overuse.
Milwaukee’s decision to sign Zach Duke to a minor-league deal turned out to be a brilliant one, as the lefthander ended up posting a 2.45 ERA in 74 appearances. Jeremy Jeffress was added on a minor-league deal in April. After a stint in Triple-A, Jeffress went 1-1 with a 1.88 ERA in 29 games with the Brewers. Brandon Kintzler was effective in the middle innings despite a lingering knee issue, while Marco Estrada pitched well in a long-relief role after being removed from the starting rotation in July.
Although he finished with a 0.86 ERA over 23 outings, left-hander Tom Gorzelanny was never fully healthy after undergoing shoulder surgery the previous offseason. Rob Wooten and Alfredo Figaro began the season in Triple-A but combined to pitch in 46 games for the Brewers.
Milwaukee pitched with a six-man bullpen for most of the season because it carried Rule 5 pick Wei-Chung Wang. The then 21-year-old had never pitched past the rookie ball level and was overmatched in the big leagues. However, the Brewers deemed the left-hander too talented to return to Pittsburgh. Wang’s presence tied the hands of Roenicke at times, as he had to navigate with a man down in the bullpen.
In an attempt to add a right-handed set-up man, the Brewers traded for Jonathan Broxton on Aug. 31. He ended up tossing 10 1/3 innings over 11 outings with Milwaukee.
Milwaukee’s bullpen was 16th in baseball with a 3.62 ERA. Take out Wang’s 10.90 ERA over 17 1/3 innings and the bullpen ERA was 3.33.
The Brewers appeared set to enter the season with Broxton as their closer until Rodriguez was re-signed to a two-year deal during the first week of spring training.
With K-Rod set to close, Broxton is bumped back to the eighth inning. That will allow Roenicke to use Smith and Jeffress to bridge the gap from the starters to the veterans at the backend. The Brewers are hoping offseason knee surgery will allow Kintzler to return to the reliable reliever he was in 2013. The right-hander has value as a middle reliever because he has been extremely effective against left-handed hitters in his career.
The Brewers replaced Duke, who turned his successful season into a three-year, $15 million contract with the White Sox, with left-hander Neal Cotts. The veteran posted a 1.11 ERA with Texas in 2013, but a rough final two months inflated his ERA in 2014 to 4.32. Cotts is not a left-handed specialist. In fact, he’s had more success against right-handed hitters in his career than he has against lefties.
One spot remains open in Milwaukee’s bullpen as spring training winds down. Veteran Chris Perez must be informed if he’s made the team by March 31. The Brewers would have to pay him a retention bonus of $100,000 in order to keep him in Triple-A, while Perez could then opt out of his contract if he isn’t in the big leagues on May 1 or June 1. The other candidate for the final spot is Tyler Thornburg, who has performed well this spring after he narrowly avoided Tommy John surgery last summer. If Milwaukee values Perez’s experience as a former closer, it could opt to use Thornburg as a starter in Triple-A to have him ready in case of injury to a starting pitcher.
KEY TO SUCCESS
Milwaukee needs the high-priced duo of Rodriguez and Broxton to lock down the eighth and ninth innings. If that happens, the Brewers have numerous options to bridge the gap between the starting pitcher and the eighth inning.
THEY SAID IT
"It is not even just depth, but it is the good mixture we have of older guys and younger guys. The older guys kind of take us younger guys under their wings and are more than happy to share their experiences with us. That’s awesome. I love that kind of stuff." — Smith
"Me and my family feel really comfortable here. This organization and the Brewers community and the fans have treated me extremely well. It was a no-brainer. This is just a big family. I want to always be a part of it." — Rodriguez on why he picked the Brewers in free agency
"I’m kind of up for anything. I don’t know how Ron exactly runs everything. Time will tell. Everything kind of works itself out in the end. I’m OK with wherever I happen to land." — Cotts on his role
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