Milwaukee Brewers: A look at the locks in the bullpen

The Milwaukee Brewers’ bullpen has been the subject of blame for the team over its last two seasons. Gone are the days of 2011 when the game was essentially over if the Brewers had a lead heading into the eighth inning. Over the last two seasons, the Brewers’ bullpen leads the MLB in blown saves (52).

In 2013, Milwaukee entered the All-Star break at 38-56 and were “sellers” at the trade deadline. They dealt RHP Francisco Rodriguez to Baltimore (though he signed a deal with Milwaukee last Friday) and sent closer John Axford to St. Louis. The trades enabled the Brewers to call up young arms from Triple-A Nashville and give them valuable major league experience for the duration of the season.

The Brewers were able to bounce back in the second half of the season and finished 74-88, not bad for a young team not playing for the playoffs.

2014 sees the return of many of those young arms, with the addition of some familiar faces. Let’s take a closer look at the options the Brewers have when they arrive at Spring Training.

Locks (these players should be on the Opening Day roster)

RHP Jim Henderson:

It’s been a long road for Henderson to the Major Leagues. He was originally drafted in 2003 by the Montreal Expos (seems like a pretty long time ago) and spent the last ten years in the minors playing his way through the circuit. He was finally called up to the majors in July 2012.

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Jim Henderson (Photo credit: Source: Mike McGinnis/Getty Images North America)

Taking the long road paid off for Henderson. Then-closer John Axford seemed to lose his velocity (he threw 98 MPH during the World Baseball Classic, but only 91 MPH during the season) and blew six saves in the first half of 2013. It was obvious a change had to be made, and Axford was dealt to St. Louis just before the postseason.

When Henderson was finally given his chance, he stepped up and performed well for the Brewers. He saved 28 games out of 32 opportunities and strung together a streak of 12 straight saves through the month of August, before eventually blowing one on August 31.

For the first time in his career, Henderson will be in a starting lineup on Opening Day.

Henderson struck out batters 30.4 percent of the time in 2013 and his fastball touched just over 97 MPH (97.6). He throws the slider in the upper 80’s and showed great movement on it last season.

He’s been able to avoid injury for the most part and I can see him excelling once again in 2014. I like the combination of K-Rod in the 8th and Henderson in the 9th, provided that starting pitching improves and the bullpen isn’t used so early.

Even if Henderson struggles early, I think Roenicke will still stick with him…instead of opting for K-Rod as the closer. To many Brewers fans’ frustration, Roenicke has shown that he is a man of patience, especially in the bullpen. Henderson will be a main component of the pen and can’t afford to lose his confidence early on.

RHP Francisco Rodriguez:

K-Rod returns to the Brewers bullpen after spending half a season with the Baltimore Orioles. He signed a minor league deal with the Brewers on Friday and will immediately play a role in the late innings of games.

K-Rod adds experience to a young bullpen (Photo credit: Getty Images)

K-Rod adds experience to a young bullpen (Photo credit: Getty Images)

Before being traded, K-Rod was the closer for the team but was deemed expendable at the trade deadline. A 1.09 ERA over 24.2 innings made him one of the best, most consistent options for the Brewers and eventually made the Orioles bite.

K-Rod was dealt in exchange for highly touted prospect INF Nick Delmonico. Baltimore used him in relief, and he put up mediocre numbers (by his standards). He pitched 22 innings for the Orioles in relief and finished with a 4.50 ERA. Baltimore failed to make the playoffs andm gave up a high prospect for a half-season “rental” of a veteran (sound familiar? see: Grienke trade).

K-Rod enjoys playing in Milwaukee and hasn’t had any complaints about serving in the eighth inning as a setup man. I could see K-Rod getting more time than Kintzler, simply because of experience.

A rough 2012 season shouldn’t be looked at too much, as K-Rod showed he’s a different player in 2013. The signing of K-Rod makes sense and adds a veteran arm to a young pen.

Brewers fans know what to expect from K-Rod and should count on him starting the season as the teams’ setup man.

LHP Tom Gozelanny:

Gorzelanny offers the most experience out of the pen, but a shoulder injury may delay his 2014 debut. He sat out the remained of the season after injuring his shoulder in early September and had surgery in December. Melvin said that Gorzelanny won’t be available until mid-March at the earliest.

Gorzelanny is entering his 10th major league season and his second as a Brewer. He’s in the second year of a 2-year deal and will earn about $3 million this season.

Tom Gorzelanny eyes an Opening Day return from injury. (Photo credit: Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images North America)

Tom Gorzelanny eyes an Opening Day return from injury. (Photo credit: Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images North America)

The 30-year-old appeared in 43 games last season, starting 10 of them. He posted a 3.90 ERA while striking out 83 batters, good for fifth among Brewers pitchers. Gorzelanny is a ground ball pitcher – 41.5% career ground ball percentage – and primarily throws the fastball. He throws upper-80’s and has great command of his pitches.

He received the most work out of the bullpen last season and should expect the same for 2014.

If he can stay healthy, I see Gorzelanny as one of the Brewers top relievers this season. The absence of a spring training may lead him to a slow start, but I see him as a good long relief option. He had a few good outings as a starter last season and also flashed some athleticism with his glove and quick reactions.

Brewers manager Ron Roenicke should look at Gorzelanny as the top option in the bullpen. However, Roenicke can’t afford to overwork him. They need to be slow in putting him back to work, something I have confidence they’ll do. Count on Gorzelanny being in the bullpen on Opening Day.

RHP Brandon Kintzler:

Kintzler played in his first full major league season with the Brewers in 2013. Once the K-Rod trade happened, Kintzler went from early relief to serving as the teams setup man. He appeared in 71 games and registered 26 holds. Kintzler put up a 2.69 ERA while striking out 58 and only allowing two home runs.

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Brandon Kintzler (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

He offers four primary pitches: sinker, fastball, slider and changeup. By far, his most used and successful pitch is the sinker. He struck out 19 batters with the pitch while holding them to a .248 batting average.

At 28 years old and just three previous major league seasons, Kintzler will have high expectations this season.It will be interesting to see who will win the setup role in spring training. With K-Rod back in the mix, Roenicke may use both of them in a platoon situation. Kintzler has pitched better against right handed batters, while K-Rod has struggled mightily against righties, but dominated lefties. We’ll have to see how it plays out, but Roenicke will opt to use the hot hand more times than not.

K-Rod does have 9 years more experience than Kintzler…but as we’ve seen before (see: K-Rod in 2012, Axford versus Henderson), experience doesn’t always amount to performance.

Expect Kintzler to begin 2014 pitching primarily in the seventh inning in middle relief. However if K-Rod struggles, Roenicke won’t waste any time turning to Kintzler to fill the void.

 

These four players will be on the Opening Day roster, leaving most likely three spots to fill. Be sure to check out my thoughts on who will win those spots in the bullpen.