Opportunity knocks for Burnes, other relievers to claim spot in Brewers’ bullpen

Spring training is often described as a time when players are battling for spots on the opening day roster.

The truth is, however, that most slots are filled and there are a scant few openings. At least, that’s normally the case.

For an opposing point of view might we present the Milwaukee Brewers’ bullpen.

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There are eight available spots for relievers – 13 pitchers are allowed on the new, expanded 26-man roster and five of those will be starters. There are at least 12 relievers on the 40-man roster – we’re not counting guys like Corbin Burnes and Adrian Houser, who are vying for that fifth starter role, but more on them later, not to mention a bevy of non-roster invites, several of whom have major-league experience.

“I think we have questions to answer in the bullpen and I think our mind is pretty open to a lot of people in that scenario,” manager Craig Counsell said. “We have multiple spots and a pretty good list of players we’re considering. Predicting those spots going into it will be difficult.”

Among those we should consider locks or near locks to break camp with the Brewers are Alex Claudio, Josh Hader, Corey Knebel (if healthy), David Phelps and Brent Suter. That’s already five slots filled.

Also in camp on the 40-man roster are Ray Black, J.P. Feyereisen, Freddy Peralta, Angel Perdomo, Bobby Wahl, Devin Williams and Eric Yardley. All but Feyeresien and Perdomo have pitched in the majors. Peralta has bounced back and forth both between the rotation and bullpen and majors and minors the past two seasons with Milwaukee. Black, who can throw 100 mph, was acquired from San Francisco last season and has pitched for the Giants and Brewers. Yardley made his MLB debut in 2019 with San Diego and was claimed off waivers by the Brewers in November.

“The reason we’re a little more wide open is we have bunch of guys kind of at the same place in their career. They’ve had Triple-A success (or) light sprinkle of big-league experience,” Counsell explained. “So there’s another level for these guys. You can see how they move forward by being in the strike zone more, for executing a little more, those are the guys who are going to take the next step and be in the picture for us. Role is not what we’re trying to figure out right now, we’re trying to figure out who gets outs.”

The non-roster invites include Mike Morin, who has pitched for the Angels, Twins, Royals, Phillies and Mariners from 2014-19, and Justin Grimm, a veteran of the Cubs, Rangers, Royals and Mariners beginning in 2012 who spent all of last season in Triple-A.

“(Grimm is a) player we’ve liked for a while and this time it worked out. He was a force at times in the major leagues,” Counsell said of the 31-year old right-hander who had a 1.99 ERA in 2015 for Chicago. “He was dominant for some partial seasons. There’s some things that we’ve liked and can hopefully accentuate and bring out the best of it.”

Counsell noted that the bullpen can also be filled out by guys who don’t make the rotation, such as Peralta has done in parts of the last two years.

That could well apply to Burnes and/or Houser in 2020. Both are being stretched out to start and their roles could be anywhere from in the majors as a starter or long reliever or at Triple-A in San Antonio’s rotation.

Burnes was supposed to be a part of Milwaukee’s rotation in 2019 and he did make four starts at the beginning of the season but got lit up, allowing 21 runs on 30 hits – including 11 home runs – in 17 2/3 innings.

It was back to the bullpen and eventually the minors for Burnes, who had a season to forget, posting over an 8.00 ERA at both levels.

“Corbin wants to wipe away last season and have a fresh start,” Counsell said.

Burnes had Lasik surgery in the offseason but perhaps more importantly he worked on the mental side as well as the preparation of the game.

“Probably what I’ve prided myself the most this offseason is just the mental work I’ve done … just basically trying to prepare yourself for everything,” Burnes said. “I started working with a guy to try to make things daily as routine as possible — try to keep as even-keel as possible. We’ve done a lot of work on that mental side of it to make sure the highs and lows are pretty steady. One of the priorities on my list was to become mentally tougher.”

Unlike Burnes, Houser doesn’t want to forget about 2019. Splitting his time between starting and relieving (he had 18 starts among his 35 appearances), Houser pitched to a 3.72 ERA, 1.240 WHIP and 9.5 K/9 over 111 1/3 innings in his first full major-league season.

He also left on a high note. In his final start at Colorado on Sept. 29 (Houser did not pitch in the playoffs), he allowed one hit and one walk while striking out five in four scoreless innings.

“The way I was moving down the mound, my mechanics and the way I was throwing my pitches,” Houser said of that pitching appearance at Coors Field, “(I) try to repeat the feeling I had back then.”

Houser did say this training camp is not like previous ones for him as “In the past I’ve come in not kind of knowing where I stand and being an out-getter. This year I’m going in a starting role, so it’s a little bit different buildup for me.”

But things don’t always go according to plan. Counsell pointed out that “For a lot of these guys the roster is connected.” If Burnes makes the rotation, someone else doesn’t. Maybe it means Houser heads to the bullpen, which means someone else would be headed to Triple-A. Which brings up Counsell’s second point regarding the bullpen: “Guys that don’t start can sometimes become the biggest contributors.”

Another point Counsell has made often in spring training is, as is the case every year, relievers come and go. You don’t have the same eight guys in the bullpen all season long. Not only are there injuries, but also there’s the Triple-A shuttle depending on performance, usage, etc.

And being in Triple-A – that’s key for some of the guys listed above as well as minor leaguers Clayton Andrews, Jake Faria, Thomas Jankins, Drew Rasmussen and Aaron Wilkerson, all in camp as non-roster invites.

“If you’re in Triple-A, you’re in the picture,” said Counsell, although noting that being on or off the 40-man roster can make a difference, “But for (pitchers not on the 40-man), you perform and we notice for sure.”

In other words, don’t get tied down to the eight who are slotted for the pen come March 26 when Milwaukee opens up the 2020 regular season at Miller Park against the Chicago Cubs.

“The role for this bullpen won’t be figured out until 3-4 weeks into the season,” Counsell warned. “The message for making this team is you’re probably going to spend time in Triple-A, also. These guys are going to move back and forth.”