The Brewers definitely need a shortstop. Third base and first base are kind of mysteries, sure. The bench is going to need some help, absolutely. But what about the bullpen? It's talked about every now and then, but the Brewers 2012 relief seems like the forgotten problem.
Right now, Brewers.com has the Brewers bullpen as John Axford, Kameron Loe, Marco Estrada, Brandon Kintzler, Manny Parra, and Tim Dillard. Six players currently listed at a spot where the Brewers carried seven. Also on the 40 man roster are Zack Braddock, Frankie De La Cruz, and Mike McClendon along with players the Brewers might want to keep starting in the minors like Michael Fiers, Cody Scarpetta and Wily Peralta.
Axford is fantastic, no doubt. Loe has been a very solid pitcher for the Brewers. Everyone else has had their share of ups and downs with the Brewers. Unfortunately, there have been a few too many downs than ups. Many of these players, like Kintzler and De La Cruz, we haven't seen enough of to really get a gauge on what kinds of players they can be.
I just don't feel at all comfortable with that bullpen. Maybe we were just spoiled with last year's bullpen having Axford, Rodriguez, Saito and Hawkins. Four players with significant closing experience at the top of a bullpen is fantastic. Milwaukee will no longer have that luxury, but it would be nice if they could take measures to improve their current situation.
We've talked ad nauseum about the Brewers' likely having roughly $10 million in salary to spend for 2012. A good chunk of that is going to end up being given to a shortstop. I doubt the Brewers feel comfortable with slotting Mat Gamel as the first baseman of the future, at least without competition, so give another chunk to a first baseman. The team has a couple of bench spots open. They'll need an outfielder and potentially an infielder. They could re-sign Jerry Hairston, Jr, who was excellent for the team last year and can play just about anywhere. Overall, dependant on the quality of shortstop the team signs, they are looking at roughly $7-8 million dollars amongst all those spots, if they go cheap for 1B competition and non-Hairston bench spots.
So, with maybe $2-3 million left over, is there really much Milwaukee can do to improve their bullpen? They couldn't re-sign LaTroy Hawkins, unless he takes a significant pay cut. Hawkins made over $4 million last year. They certainly can't re-sign K-Rod. I think there is a good possibility Milwaukee will re-sign Takashi Saito, who made $1.75 million in 2011. However, Saito was showing his age some last year. Despite the second best ERA of his career, he also dropped significantly in his K/9 rate. His FIP was also the second worst of his career (though that's somewhat misleading as he still had a very good 3.40 FIP).
There are plenty of free-agent relief pitchers, but likely none the Brewers can afford that will help turn the bullpen back into a team strength. They could potentially afford a guy coming off injury like David Aardsma, but I'd be willing to bet some team would be willing to pay more for a "proven" closer. Heath Bell, Francisco Cordero, Jonathan Broxton, etc. will all be too expensive.
The free agent market is chock full of Miguel Batistas and Manny Delcarmens. But guys like that are probably only marginally better than what the Brewers already have and likely wouldn't be worth the cost. Milwaukee has been tied to Frank Francisco, but at $4 million last year he is another guy who would have to take a pay cut to join the team.
The Brewers have their share of holes to fill this winter. It's pretty clear that the main concern is and should be finding a shortstop. But I'm concerned that the focus on offensive players will preclude the team strengthening the bullpen. I know that overpaying for a bullpen arm is a terrible idea. Nobody in their right minds would think the Phillies signing Jonathan Papelbon to the contract they did is a good idea. But the current arms the Brewers have are underwhelming at best. Axford is outstanding and Loe will be fine. Everyone else is enigmatic, though. Milwaukee's starting pitchers aren't known for pitching deep into ball games, and had just one complete game last year. With plenty of innings available, it would be nice to have a strong bullpen again. Unfortunately, with the financial constraints, that looks like a near impossibility.