The Less Mustachioed Brewers Bullpen

It’s a little… weird… writing about the Brewers closing situation without having to discuss whether or not the 17 homers John Axford gave up the night before are “any indication he’ll lose the job in the near future.” Maybe more nice than weird. While the Brewers return a fair number of their 2013 relief corps, a few fresh faces enter the mix. While far from the deepest bullpen in the league, the back end has a few guys who may perk the ears of fantasy owners.

The closer
Jim Henderson

A favorite of the Bullpen Report writers, Henderson finally gets to open a season as the bonafide closer in Milwaukee. After starting last year behind John Axford, he (again) ascended to the closer role as the calendar pages flipped by. His still elite K% dipped a bit (down to 30% from 34%) but it wasn’t all bad; his fastball velocity was up and he was able to cut his BB% down just a hair. His SIERA bounced from 2.37 to 2.83 partly due to the K% drop but mostly as a result of increased LD% and FB% rates (at the expense of GB%). While it would be nice to see him keep more than 27% of his batted balls in the wormburner category, it’s not as critical for closers to be proficient in the skill since they rarely come in with men on base. Mike Podhorzer pointed out some concerns with Henderson’s (very) poor 48.6% F-Strike%, although owners probably shouldn’t be terribly concerned until either his K% tails off more or that walk rate firmly entrenches itself in the double-digits. It’s Milwaukee, so he’s not a mortal lock, but Henderson shouldn’t be in the bottom third of closer security charts to open the season.

The setup guys
Brandon Kintzler
Will Smith

What Henderson lacks in ground-ball-inducing ability, Brandon Kintzler makes up for. Just three years removed from pitching in an independent league all-star game, the 29-year-old showed up on the big stage last season, riding a heavy sinker to a 2.82 SIERA and Milwaukee’s highest leverage situations. His 19% K% is no great shakes (albeit with a more solid 9.2% SwStr%) but a near 60% GB%? Now we’re talking. Resident Rotographs Brewers expert J.P. Breen pointed out his HR/9 was fifth among qualified relievers in 2013 so Kintzler not only keeps the ball on the ground but in the ballpark. If you need help in WHIP, ERA, and/or holds, Kintzler is a must-target at the very backend of drafts. He also is the handcuff for Henderson if you are in a deep league and want to make sure you are getting Brewers saves.

I’ll admit, I am still not really sure where to put Smith. The lefty was the key piece headed back to Milwaukee in the Norichika Aoki deal. He flourished in the Royals bullpen in 2013, posting a ridiculous 2.06 SIERA in 33.1 innings at the big league level. He split time between the bullpen and starting at Triple-A as well, also with stellar results. His velocity only ticked up a half a mph in combined work but his K% went through the roof, topping out at 33% in the majors. The brunt of those added strikeouts came due to gains in Smith’s offspeed stuff; the SwStr% on his slider jumped from 25% (2012) to 32% and his changeup saw an increase from 11% to 20%. While Smith was best against lefties last season (.245 wOBA, 50% K%), he wasn’t totally useless against righties (.291 wOBA, 21%) so there’s hope he’s not strictly a LOOGY. The big question for fantasy owners is whether or not he stays in the ‘pen. Originally slated to open the season in the rotation, the Matt Garza signing may have pushed Smith back into a relief role. He might be an interesting starter candidate, but would also have the potential to be a ratio-helping holds man in fantasy leagues.

Middle relief
Tom Gorzelanny (INJ)
Tyler Thornburg
Rob Wooten
Donovan Hand
Alfredo Figaro

For the fifth consecutive year, Gorzelanny split time between starting and relieving. While his ERA took a bit of a step back, his peripherals nudged up, helping him to career low xFIP/ERA marks. Likely destined for the same role again in 2014, the 31-year-old underwent a shoulder cleanup in December and has yet to start throwing. Publicly the Brewers say he’ll be ready for Opening Day, but he’s in a race against time. Could be a useful spot-starter in NL-only leagues if he gets the call against a soft team, but probably not terribly exciting fantasy prospects out of the bullpen.

Like Gorzelanny, Thornburg also split time between the rotation and ‘pen in 2013. While the team continued to note he would be considered for a rotation spot, the Garza signing has pretty much filled their rotation, so he’ll likely open the season as a right-handed swing man. He put up a nice 2.03 ERA last season, but it was buoyed by a low BABIP, high strand rate, and ridiculous 1.4% HR/FB%. Regression is coming, especially for a guy with a career 19% K% (not good) and 9% BB% (also not good).

Wooten began his big league career with a 0.69 ERA in his first 12 appearances last season, but the rates slid as the season wound down. A righty with a sub-90 mph fastball, he’ll only be truly useful if he can bump his GB% rate over 50%. Hand feels like he’s been around forever but only cracked the big league roster for the first time last year. Like Wooten, he possesses unappetizing strikeout rates and a not-so-hot fastball. While he put up decent peripherals at a few minor league stops, big league projections don’t love him. He should be a fungible low-leverage arm, but little-to-no fantasy relevance here. Figaro has firmly established himself as a guy with below-average stuff who doesn’t walk anyone. Same situation as Wooten and Hand.

Looking up the totem pole
Michael Blazek
Zach Duke

Blazek, the haul in the Axford trade last summer, has an intriguing arsenal. A middling starter prospect, his strikeout rate jumped significantly after a move to the bullpen in 2012. Unfortunately, he hasn’t done a good job of corralling his mid-90’s fastball, and his ugly walk rates (10-15% BB%) need to be fixed before he’s a legitimate major league option. Duke heads to his fourth team in the last five years. His career 4.33 xFIP implies he’s a passable big league arm, but with little strikeout ability and on the wrong side of 30, he’s probably destined to finish his pro career as a guy riding the Triple-A shuttle.

One name to file away
Wei-Chung Wang

Wang, a Rule 5 pick from the Pirates, may have some of the higher upside of any of the arms discussed beyond the setup tier. The 21-year-old Taiwanese lefty boasts a low-to-mid-90’s fastball with plus changeup and curveballs. While only rookie ball, he posted a 23% K% and a 10.5 K/BB in 47 innings last year, his first year back from Tommy John surgery. It’s unlikely he sticks with the Brewers, but if they like what they see in the spring, they’ll need to carry him (or play around with DL/rehab assignments) if they want to keep him long-term.

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There are few things Colin loves more in life than a pitcher with a single-digit BB%. Find him on Twitter @soxczar.

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Really minor thing, but something that still stands out to me as some who watches the Brewers: Figaro has great stuff but no idea how to pitch with it. Despite making 5 starts, he still averaged over 95 mph with his fastball and his slider had the 5th most horizontal movement while averaging 82.6 mph. He throws strikes by not worrying about hitting the corners.


yup, watched him many times last year and he was maddening for how good his stuff looked.