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Current v Former Brewers: Who wins in the bullpen?

Can a relatively inexperienced group of Brewers relievers outpitch their active former Brewers counterparts?

Stephen Dunn

What follows is part four of a likely five part series comparing likely members of the 2014 Milwaukee Brewers to active players who have appeared in at least one MLB game in a Brewers uniform. Last week we looked at the infield, and earlier this week we compared outfields and rotations.

I saved bullpens for near the end of this series for a couple of reasons:

  1. The Brewers haven't done much to tip their hand regarding what the 2014 bullpen will look like, given the present set of options.
  2. I'm still somewhat expecting this team to add to the list of bullpen candidates sometime between now and spring training.

However, neither of those issues have resolved themselves in the week I've spent working on this series. So we'll have to evaluate now with the acknowledgement that there's some conjecture here and a strong possibility of change.

Closer: Jim Henderson v Grant Balfour

Henderson has been a remarkable story in his brief tenure as a Brewer, coming out of relative obscurity following ten seasons in the minors to become an effective MLB reliever. He recorded 28 saves and posted a 2.70 ERA in 61 appearances for the Crew a year ago, and over 97 MLB outings he's struck out nearly 12 batters per nine innings.

Balfour resurrected his career in 2007 after missing two full seasons due to injury, and started that process with three pretty rough appearances as a Brewer. The Brewers sold early on him and traded him away, and in the six years since he's posted a 2.74 ERA over 383 relief appearances. He recorded 38 saves and was an All Star for the A's last season.

Balfour is older than Henderson (he turned 36 in December) and has a strange injury red flag, as the Orioles agreed to terms with him on a free agent contract this winter but then scrapped the deal over concerns with his physical. He's also made at least 57 appearances in four consecutive seasons with a combined ERA under 2.50, though, so I'd say he's a better bet to be a strong closer in 2014. Advantage: Former Brewers.

Setup man: Brandon Kintzler v John Axford

2013 was Kintzler's first full healthy season in the majors, and he took advantage of the opportunity. He appeared in 71 games, the second most on the team, posted a bullpen-best 2.69 ERA and walked just 16 batters in 77 innings. The Brewers may have gotten a steal when they signed this former independent leaguer.

Kintzler and Axford are near-polar opposites. While Kintzler gets results with a low strikeout and walk rate, Axford blows hitters away to the tune of nearly eleven strikeouts per nine but also has a walk rate up over four. Despite back-to-back rough seasons with Milwaukee, Axford still has a career ERA of just 3.29 and his 106 saves are the second most in franchise history. Also, it's possible he was tipping his pitches and has corrected the issue.

Kintzler has the potenital to be a great setup man, but it's worth noting that roughly 70% of his career relief appearances came in 2013. He just doesn't have Axford's track record yet, and it's hard to compete with Axford's dominance. Advantage: Former Brewers

Setup man #2: Rob Wooten v Mike Adams

This matchup is another tale of two opposites. Wooten came from relative obscurity to pitch well in 27 appearances for the Brewers in 2013, but his 27.2 innings of work represent his entire MLB career.

Adams, meanwhile, has appeared in almost 400 MLB games over nine seasons, and has a 2.39 career ERA. He had a rough, injury abbreviated campaign in 2013 with the Phillies but still made 28 appearances with a 3.96 ERA. Adams might be the best reliever in baseball that's never been used as a full-time closer.

There's a chance Wooten will turn into a great middle or late reliever for the Brewers. But there's also a strong chance he'll be replaced by a veteran option. Advantage: Former Brewers

Middle reliever: Tom Gorzelanny v Francisco Rodriguez

Rodriguez is still a free agent, and there's a chance he rejoins the Brewers and removes himself from the right side of this conversation. For now, however, he's a very formidable option for the F-Brewers. He has 304 saves across 12 MLB seasons but is still only 32, and despite a rough finish to the 2013 campaign with the Orioles he posted a 2.70 ERA for the season (right in line with his career mark) and struck out 10.4 batters per nine innings.

Gorzelanny was a nice addition to the 2013 Brewers and performed much better as a reliever (2.70 ERA over 33 appearances) than a starter (4.81 over 48.2 innings). He has two things going against him, though: One is that he's never been as dominant as K-Rod, and the other is that offseason shoulder surgery makes his availability to open 2014 a question mark. Advantage: Former Brewers

Remaining contributors

Instead of trying to guess where the rest of the Brewers bullpen will line up, I'll offer the likely possibility that each of these teams would use all of the following six pitchers at some point over the course of the season:

Current Brewers Former Brewers
Tyler Thornburg Jose Veras
Will Smith LaTroy Hawkins
Alfredo Figaro Burke Badenhop
Michael Blazek Jamey Wright
Donovan Hand Kameron Loe
Zach Duke Manny Parra

The group on the left here has a lot of potential, but at least four of the guys from the group on the right could pitch for just about any team in baseball. I think it's possible the bullpen would be the biggest strength for the F-Brewers. It might be the best in baseball. Advantage: Former Brewers

So there you have it: The current Brewers won both the infield and outfield, but the two sides tied in starting pitching and the F-Brewers swept every matchup in the bullpen. Where does this leave us?