Last season the Milwaukee Brewers bullpen posted the highest ERA of any major league team. As a group, their collective BABIP and their strand rate were both second worst, beating out only the Houston Astros and New York Mets respectively. The Brewers also posted the second most meltdowns in the league (only the hapless Rockies managed to have more, and they were in the stratosphere of awful, coming in with 102 meltdowns. Yes, 102. That isn’t a misprint). Despite their struggles, there is plenty of reason for hope for not just saves, but solid ratios from the Brewers pen this coming season.
If we lived in such a baseball world that only saves mattered when evaluation a reliever, then John Axford would have had a fine season last year. His 35 saves were the second most of his career and his 32 shutdowns were also good for second best in his career. Of course, looking at saves alone wouldn’t presenting an accurate — let alone fair — picture of everything. Axford actually posted the best K/9 of his career last season; unfortunately he simultaneously posted the worst BB/9 as well. A record high in innings pitched also brought along a record high in home runs allowed. While his 4.67 ERA last season looks brutal, his 3.29 xFIP is much closer to what his true talent level probably is, at least given his past performances. I’ll be grabbing Axford with confidence in plenty of drafts.
Following Axford down the shutdowns list is Francisco Rodriguez and Jose Veras. K-Rod is still a free agent and may eventually come back, but Veras has already signed a deal to join the Houston Astros bullpen. Replacing those combined 49 shutdowns will be a difficult task. Working under the assumption that Rodriguez won’t be back, the rest of the bullpen should still have plenty of value.
Right-handed reliever Burke Badenhop is an uninspiring if not steady reliever. He sports a high ground ball rate and pitches enough innings (over 60 for four straight seasons) for his ERA to come into play. With solid infielders behind him, expect Badenhop to get the nod to clean up the starting pitchers messes more often than coming into a clean inning.
His days as a starter may be over, but Tom Gorzelanny can hold his own as a LOOGY in his current form. Last year he held left-handed batters to a .233/.289/.398 line and allowed just three home runs to same handed batters. If that doesn’t work out, Michael Gonzalez is also joining the Brewers as a left-handed late inning option. I expect Gonzalez to see the majority of the critical situations. Gonzalez has the stronger strikeout rate and the better career peripherals like SwStr% and F-Strike%.
Even with these options, the most likely setup candidate is Jim Henderson. Last season he threw just 30.2 innings but racked up 45 strikeouts and had an electric 14.9% SwStr%. He is your typical reliever in that he throws a fastball-slider combo, but Henderson’s fastball averages over 95 and his slider comes in at a very strong 85-mph. The lack of a third pitch leaves him susceptible to left-handed hitters, but he is viciously effective against righties. With two quality lefties in the pen in Gorzelanny and Gonzalez, Henderson seems primed to be the go-to candidate when facing a string of right-handed hitters. If you are looking to handcuff Axford at all, I’d grab Henderson.
Someone who could sweep in grab a few saves is Michael Olmsted. He is going to be playing his age-26 season and hasn’t gotten a single frame of work in at the major league level. Olmsted has spend a season pitching Japan however, so high leverage situations shouldn’t faze him. He keeps the ball in the yard, gets more than his share of strikeouts and doesn’t kill you with walks. If he can stay healthy — and that is the key question, with a TJS already on his record — then Olmsted could earn his chance to stick in the big leagues.
Closer: John Axford
Setup: Jim Henderson
LOOGY(s): Michael Gonzalez and Tom Gorzelanny
Dark Horse: Burke Badenhop
Longshot: Michael Olmsted