The Milwaukee Brewers have some of their bullpen locked up, and with the signing of Francisco Rodriguez, it appears that there are three spots up for grabs within the Brew Crew’s pen. In this piece, I’ll outline who the candidates are and eventually pick the guys who will start the year on the 25-man roster.
Manager Ron Roenicke will likely opt to go with seven bullpen pitchers, but that could change as the season wears on. Here are the guys that are vying for the final three bullpen spots:
RHP Alfredo Figaro:
Figaro was used primarily as a middle relief pitcher, but started five games in late May/early June due to an injury depleted back-end of the starting rotation.
In his first full season, he was shaky at times – mostly as a starter – but found his stride in the bullpen. He appeared in 33 games for the Brewers in 2013, had a 4.14 ERA, gave up 15 home runs and fanned 54.
In June, Figaro suffered a right oblique strain and was placed on the 15-day disabled list. It turned out to be a minor injury and is nothing to be concerned about.
Figaro is a solid middle relief guy that doesn’t have a lot of mileage. He’s been known to give up the long ball (1.82 HR/nine innings), but can deliver if he settles down. He can go anywhere from one to three innings, but anything more than that is setting the bar too high.
Figaro isn’t a viable starter, at least at this point in his career. He has to grow more in the bullpen, and continue to show that he can go more than 3-4 innings.
His quick reactions on the mound and strong arm should be enough to keep him on the Brewers roster all season long.
LHP Will Smith:
Smith is a newcomer to the Brewers and will be fighting for one of the three open spots during spring training. He was acquired by the Brewers in December in the trade that send OF Norichika Aoki to the Kansas City Royals.
At 24 years old, Smith is one of the youngest players that will compete at spring training. He appeared in 35 games for the Royals, starting all 16 of his appearances in 2012. He spent time in the minors in early 2013, but eventually returned to the majors in June. He pitched out of the bullpen the rest of the season, finding success.
If the Brewers hadn’t signed RHP Matt Garza to fill out the starting rotation, Smith would have been an option.
Instead, Smith adds depth, a left arm, and a lot of potential to the bullpen. He’ll be another option to get multiple innings out of if the starter exits early, which has recently been the case.
Last season, Smith had four games of five strikeouts or more, held batters to a .195 average and had a career low 0.98 WHIP in 33.1 innings pitched.
If he can stay healthy through spring training, Smith has the talent to be on the Opening Day roster and be an effective young arm.
RHP Tyler Thornburg:
Thornburg is another young prospect drafted by Melvin who has shown ability in the starting role. Last season he started seven games (3-1), lasting an average of 6.14 innings. By all accounts, he wasn’t a terrible starter and gained valuable major league experience in his rookie season. But with Wily Peralta and Marco Estrada filling up the final two spots, he will be relegated to the bullpen.
In June, Thornburg was called up from Triple-A Nashville and worked out of the bullpen in long relief. He appeared in six games, putting up a 2.95 ERA while holding batters to a .243 average.
He finished the season as a starter and totaled a 2.03 ERA.
His fastball is around the mid-90’s and throws a power curveball that touches the lower-80’s. He also throws a sinking change-up that has the ability to make over-zealous batters bite. His over-the-top delivery is similar to San Francisco Giants starter Tim Lincecum.
Thornburg is a guy we could see a lot of in 2014. I think he will be on the Opening Day roster, and could be used for spot starts as the season rolls on. If Peralta or Estrada struggle, count on Thornburg to return as a starter.
RHP Mike Fiers:
Remember what a great young prospect Fiers looked like in 2012? He started 22 games, recording a 3.74 ERA, a 1.261 WHIP and looked to be progressing at a fast pace.
Fiers began 2013 in the Brewers starting rotation, but struggled from the beginning. In his first go-around, he gave up six earned runs before being chased in the fifth. After that, Roenicke opted to use him out of the bullpen. Generally working the middle innings, he performed better but was sent back down to Triple-A Nashville.
He got another call up in May, working in relief. He started a game on May 19, but he was roughed up yet again (4 IP, 5 hits, 4 ER). It was his next start on June 2 that was the last straw. Fiers got chased in only the second inning against the Philadelphia Phillies, allowing seven hits and five earned runs. He was sent down to Triple-A Nashville shortly after the game.
In 11 games with the Brewers, Fiers posted a record 1-4 with a 7.25 ERA. In all respects, it was a horrid season, but it didn’t end there. His forearm was hit by a line drive, breaking his arm and ending his season. He’ll be ready to go for spring training, and hopes to start off fast.
Fiers doesn’t have a high velocity on his fastball (88 MPH ), but he boasts an array of pitches. He usually throws the four-seam fastball, curveball, changeup and slider, but has incorporated a cutter to surprise hitters and produce ground balls. He offers good command of his pitches and is known to strike out a few batters. (example 1, number two, and three)
The roller coaster that has been Fiers’ career thus far will not get any easier. He’ll be battling for a bullpen spot during spring training, but has the ability to serve as capable relief pitcher. I see him beginning 2014 in the minors, but is on the short-list for a call-up if needed.
LHP Zach Duke:
Duke is a veteran who has been with four other teams, including time with NL Central foes Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.
The Brewers signed Duke to a minor league deal on January 15 and he’ll compete for a roster spot in spring training.
He entered the majors as a starter and was a 2005 Rookie of the Year candidate, but struggled the following seasons. Since 2010, he’s pitched out of the bullpen as a middle reliever.
Last season, Duke struggle with the Nationals, with an 8.71 ERA and a 1.887 WHIP over 20.2 innings. He was designated for assignment in early June and was picked up by the Reds just a few days later.
The change of scenery may have been all the Duke needed to improve. He ended last season with a 0.84 ERA over 10.2 innings with Cincinnati.
The southpaw is dominant against lefties and doesn’t walk many hitters. He doesn’t throw the ball very hard, but he boasts over 1000 innings of major league experience. If he can have a good spring, I see no reason why there may be a roster spot available for him.
The bullpen won’t have the experience like in recent years, and I think Duke has the résumé to bolster the roster and improve those around him. The shortage of lefties in the bullpen may lead to a call-up, but barring a solid spring training, he’ll likely begin in the minors.
RHP Michael Blazek:
Blazek was the “player to be named” in the trade that sent John Axford to St. Louis.
2013 was his first major league season and he put up mediocre numbers. He had a 5.71 ERA, 1.673 WHIP while striking out 7.3 per nine over 17.1 innings.
At 24 years old, Blazek is another young reliever that could spend time between the minor leagues and major leagues this season. We’ll have to see how he performs in spring, but a start in the minors is likely while the Brewers figure out exactly what they have in their pen.
Blazek throws a fastball in the mid-90’s and forces a lot of ground balls. He hasn’t shown yet that he’s vulnerable to the long-ball and he’s got good command. He could see an early season call-up, but should begin 2014 in the minors.
RHP Hiram Burgos:
Burgos is another one of Melvin’s prospects that saw major league time last season. In 2012, he was named the Brewers’ minor league pitcher of the year and was called up in early 2013 to fill Fiers’ starting spot.
The first three starts for Burgos went well. He paired a win with two no-decisions and showed he could start in the Brewers fifth spot. In those three starts, he had a 3.00 ERA while holding batters to a .197 average. All appeared well.
But shoulder issues and a lack of confidence led to his next three starts ending in disaster. He had a 11.91 ERA in just 11.1 innings pitched. He was chased in the third, fifth and third innings in those starts. Batters had a .667 slugging percentage and a .439 average against Burgos.
He was eventually sent to the disabled list in May with a shoulder injury. He completed a rehab assignment in Nashville, but re-aggravated the injury and was shut down for the remainder of the season.
He favors the fastball, but also has excellent movement on his curve-ball that keeps batters guessing. Burgos also throws the change-up and the cut-fastball (cutter).
Because of the short major league experience, the “prospect” label will still be on Burgos. Injuries will most likely see Burgos begin 2014 in the minors.
LHP Wei-Chung Wang:
Wang was the Brewers only acquisition in during Winter Meetings in December and doesn’t figure to have an immediate impact with the team.
He was selected from the Pirates in the Rule-5 Draft, meaning he must end 2014 on the Brewers roster, or they’ll have to offer his contract back to the Pirates.
A native of Taiwan, Wang is a 21-year-old lefty with just one year of experience in America. Melvin sees potential in the young arm, but Wang simply isn’t ready to face major league hitters.
He started 11 games for the Pirates Gulf Coast League (rookie) team, posting a 3.23 ERA and striking out eight batters per nine innings.
There is potential in him down the line, but Wang will likely spend 2014 in the minors.
RHP Rob Wooten:
Wooten worked his way up through the minor league system and finally found his way to the main roster last season.
He was counted on as a middle reliever, pitching more than one inning on three occasions in 27 appearances. Working mostly in the seventh and eighth innings, he put up eight holds with a 3.90 ERA.
Wooten, 28, favors the slider and two-seam fastball but isn’t known to have a strong arm. He can throw upper-80’s with good movement, but 25 pitches is his usual limit.
With K-Rod returning and the pitchers returning from injury, Wooten will most likely begin 2014 in the minors.
Here’s my list of bullpen pitchers and call up candidates:
- Closer: RHP Jim Henderson
- Setup: RHP Francisco Rodriguez/RHP Brandon Kintzler
- Long Relief: RHP Alfredo Figaro, LHP Tom Gorzelanny
- Middle relief: LHP Will Smith, RHP Tyler Thornburg
Call up candidates:
- RHP Mike Fiers
- RHP Hiram Burgos
- LHP Zach Duke
- RHP Rob Wooten
- RHP Michael Blazek
- LHP Wei-Chung Wang
The 2014 Brewers bullpen looks promising, but uncertain. There are a lot of young arms, coupled with veterans (K-Rod, Gorzelanny). The success of the pen will likely rely on the success of the starting rotation. Last season, Roenicke was forced to turn to the bullpen early on far too many occasions. If the Brewers can get five to six good innings out of the starter, there should be no problem covering the last three to four innings. I like the order of Kintzler in the sixth/seventh, K-Rod in the eighth and Henderson in the ninth.
If they can stay healthy, this years’ bullpen is an upgrade from last year. There are a lot of exciting young arms with high potential, but things could go south quickly if they’re forced to work extended innings from game-to-game.