In 2012 the bullpen was one of the Brewers’ major weak points. In 2013 it was quite a bit better. But, if one thing is true above all else in baseball it’s that bullpen are volatile and the 2014 version figures to look very different. Gone are the veterans (Axford, K-Rod, Gonzalez) and in their place is a solid core of young (-ish in the case of Henderson & Gorzelanny) mostly home grown talent. The ultimate make-up of the bullpen is yet to be decided, but I think the Brewers are in a strong position. As of right now, I’ll bet 5 spots will be taken by Jim Henderson, Brandon Kintzler, Rob Wooten, Tom Gorzelanny, and Donovan Hand. That leaves 2 spots left to be filled. The question becomes how to fill those spots. Fortunately, the Brewers have a bevy of options.
I know a lot of people that are against singing free agent relievers and want the Brewers to simply build from within. I understand where they’re coming from but I think they’re wrong on a couple of different levels. Depth is an important, and all too often overlooked, aspect of any bullpen. The Brewers should already be using at least 5 of their best in-house relievers. That leaves Michael Blazek, David Goforth, Alfredo Figaro, Kevin Shackelford, MikeFiers, Hiram Burgos, Michael Olmsted, and Jose De La Torre in AAA as back-up. It is possible Johnny Hellweg, Jimmy Nelson, and Ariel Pena could serve in a relief role at some point, but they’ll undoubtedly open the season as starters in AA/AAA. Goforth and Shackelford are new 40-man roster additions. Making the jump from AA to the majors is much easier for relievers than starters, but they’ll likely need some time at AAA to finish polishing their stuff. If the final 2 bullpen spots were filled from with-in, that would leave 6 to 9 relievers in reserve. Five of them (Goforth, Shackleford, Hellweg, Nelson, & Pena), however, wouldn’t be available immediately so now we’re talking about 4 back-up relievers. In 2011 the Brewers used 18 relievers. In 2012 they used 18 again and in 2013 they used 16. Filling the bullpen from in-house options only would leave the Brewers with a total of 16 obvious relief options. That’s cutting it too close.
As I hinted at before, there is a seemingly ever growing contingent of Brewers fans that believe signing free agent relievers is always a bad idea and especially now since the Brewers are a long shot to compete. They’re not entirely wrong, it’s just a bad idea to treat every reliever and every contract the same. One doesn’t even have to go back further than the 2013 season to see what I’m talking about. Despite my misgivings about Francisco Rodriguez the man, signing K-Rod the reliever turned out to be a very savvy business decision by Doug Melvin. At the trade deadline the Brewers were able to turn a reliever that had no future with the club, into a fringe prospect with the ceiling of an average third base regular. That’s HUGE. They were also able to trade Axford for what is arguably a younger (ie. cost controlled) and less polished version of himself. That’s not quite as big of a deal, but it’s still valuable. It’s exactly these types of intelligent moves the Brewers should be striving for and why I think they should target relievers that offer a chance to be traded mid-season. I think I’ve identified three.
RyanMadson has shown in the past he has the stuff to pitch in high leverage situations. He also hasn’t pitched since 2011 due to elbow injuries. That’s a huge red flag and very scary. It’s also why he’ll be very cheap. The Angels decided to take a chance on him in 2013, signing him to a 1 year $3.5 million contract, which ultimately did not pay off. That tells us whichever team signs him will do so for less than that. It’s possible he could sign a deal similar to K-Rod’s which was a minor league deal with an opt out if he didn’t get put on the major league roster by a certain date. Even if they give him a guaranteed MLB contract, the cost will be low enough, that were he to never pitch an inning for them, they wouldn’t be out very much. The upside is two-fold. Should the Brewers end up competing he could serve as another high leverage reliever. Should the Brewers fall out of contention early enough, he could be traded before the trade deadline. Even if all they get is another reliever prospect like Blazek it’s worth it.
JesseCrain is another buy low, high upside reliever. He was much sought after at the 2013 deadline and even though he was injured (shoulder), the Rays still traded for him. He never did throw a pitch for them and as a result will carry that stigma with him into spring training. Unless a team decides it’s worth the risk to overpay and sign him to a multi-year deal, it’s highly likely that he’ll want to sign a one year deal to re-establish his value for next offseason. He’ll cost more than Madson, but he’s more of sure thing. He offers the same upside as Madson as well. I’d wager he signs for something like 1 year $2-4 million with incentives. That’s something the Brewers can easily afford.
It’s been reported that the Brewers are looking for another left-handed reliever to pair with Gorzelanny. I’m against the idea of left-handed specialists (LOOGY) and I’m not sure it’s necessary to have more than 1 left-handed reliever in general, but specifically in the case of the Brewers. Brandon Kintzler dominated left-handed hitting in 2013. So, with Gorzelanny, that’s two guys they already have to handle LHH. In any case, if they do sign one I’d prefer he not have an extreme platoon split. I’d sign Eric O’Flaherty. While he has been more effective against lefties (7.43 K/9, 2.09 BB/9, 0.33 HR/9, with a slash line against of 198/262/269, and a 2.84 FIP), he wasn’t bad against righties (6.50 K/9, 3.92 BB/9, 0.55 HR/9, with a slash against of 264/350/367, and a 3.89 FIP). The caveat is, he’s coming off of Tommy John surgery and likely won’t be ready to pitch until around June. This of course means he’ll be very cheap. The Brewers have enough depth to carry an injured pitcher until mid-season. It’s a slight risk, but one that could pay off big if he’s healthy. Clubs are always looking for left-handed pitching and if the Brewers can sign him to a cheap one year deal with a team option they might be able to trade that at some point for something interesting.
One other place the Brewers could find a piece for the bullpen is in the Rule 5 draft which will be held at the end of the winter meetings on December 12. This article from Milb.com identifies 3 potential relief targets. I’m no expert on minor leaguers so I can only go by what I’ve read. Still, there’s not much to lose by drafting one of these guys. If they don’t work out then the Brewers are only out a few thousand dollars which, in context of major league baseball, truly is nothing. Taking a flyer on one of these guys could act as a bridge for when Goforth or Shackelford are ready for their call-ups or when O’Flaherty is ready to come off the DL. Then they’d have two options. They could keep the flyer and send down Hand or someone else that has an option and may not be doing well. Or, they could give the flyer back to his original team. These types of pick-up don’t often work out. There’s a reason these players are available in the first place. Still, the chance that one of them could be a solid reliever or even a spot starter isn’t out of the question. It’s something to consider and with the recent trade of Burke Badenhop, there is an open spot on the 40-man roster.
It’s possible the Brewers could swing a trade like they did last year to get Badenhop, but I don’t think that’s in their best interests. They have enough low to mid leverage relievers. Also, a high leverage reliever would cost too much in prospects. The last place they can find relievers would be by claiming them on waivers. In fact, they’ve already done that with Jose De La Torre this year and Michael Olmsted last year. If they do that player would have to be put on the 40-man roster. I’d prefer they sign one of the free agents I mentioned.
Bullpens are volatile and relievers are fungible. It’s often a bad idea to sign them long term. Still it’s important to have depth and while the Brewers do have a number of interesting arms, they’ll need a couple more to keep that depth intact. The right free agent reliever on the right contract can be very valuable. They’ll need to be careful filling the 2 open spots, but if they’re smart about it, and creative enough, with a little luck and some money they could improve the club now and in the future.