In 2014, the Brewers had nine pitchers make at least 20 appearances out of the bullpen. Those were: Tom Gorzelanny, Jeremy Jeffress, Marco Estrada, Rob Wooten, Tyler Thornburg, Brandon Kintzler, Francisco Rodriguez, Zach Duke and Will Smith.
Of those nine, three (Gorzelanny, Rodriguez, Duke) are free agents. Another, Estrada, may join them if the Brewers choose to nontender him rather than go to arbitration and pay him more than the $3.33 million he earned in 2014. Meanwhile, one additional reliever, Jim Henderson, should be returning next year after missing basically all of this past season.
That leaves the Brewers with a weak bullpen moving forward. Duke and Rodriguez were arguably the two best relievers in the bullpen all year. Gorzelanny, after returning from his own injury, posted a 0.86 ERA over 21 innings to help carry the pen in the second half. The remaining players on the roster all had mixed results in 2014 for the Brewers:
Is there anyone among that crowd that you trust to lead a bullpen? Henderson has been a closer, but is coming off a lost season and is no guarantee at all. Thornburg and Smith both started incredibly well but fell off as the season wore on (and in Thornburg's case, just before he got injured. Estrada was certainly better out of the bullpen than he was as a starter with shorter stints quelling his home run total, but he would start the year as a long reliever if he's with the team. Wooten, Kintzler, Jeffress -- they've shown flashes but nothing sustained yet.
The only player on the roster with a proven major league track record of success is Jonathan Broxton, acquired in August from the Reds. He's the assumed closer heading into 2015 having posted a 2.30 ERA overall in 2014. He appeared in just 11 games with Milwaukee this past season, but will be relied on as the most consistent veteran option among the group.
The Royals are proving this year what a good bullpen can get you as they are currently battling the Giants in the World Series. The story for Kansas City all year has been a shutdown relief corps, great defense and speedy baserunners. Three of their key receivers had ERAs under 1.50 this past year. Overall, Kansas City relievers had a 3.27 ERA, an 8.7 K/9, and allowed opponents to OPS just .648.
First base is obviously where the Brewers should focus this offseason. Third base is also a big decision, though the odds are that Aramis Ramirez comes back one way or another. After that, however, it seems the bullpen may be the most important position to upgrade. The team's 2014 closer is likely gone, though with Francisco Rodriguez seemingly liking Milwaukee we can't rule out a return. A top three of Thornburg-Smith-Broxton is risky.
Should Milwaukee cough up the money to bring back in higher-priced relievers, though? Bullpen arms are notoriously fickle and hard to predict -- the last thing the Brewers would want to do is spend a fair amount of money on a pitcher who ends up being a bust in 2015. Fortunately, the team has also had fair success recently bringing in free agent relievers on fair contracts: Duke, Gorzelanny, and Rodriguez are all examples of guys being signed to reasonable deals and performing well.
The Brewers won't be able to afford players like David Robertson or Koji Uehara. Someone looking for a prove-themselves type year like Andrew Bailey could work, though. Players with former success like Chris Perez, Jason Motte, and Jim Johnson. The good news is there are always plenty of relief options on the market each year. Zach Duke came in on a minor league deal and turned out to be perhaps the Brewers' best reliever in 2014. The Brewers could get lucky again in a similar manner.
One thing seems certain, though: The Brewers will have to look to the free agent or trade market to bolster their bullpen, or at least find players who, like Duke, could turn out to be steals. The current staff can't be depended on without competition and there's little coming through in the upper levels of the minors.
I'm normally against spending money on the bullpen. Again, it can be so hard to predict: You may get Zach Duke, you may get Eric Gagne. But if the Brewers hope to compete in 2015, they'll need to replace key production in the bullpen one way or the other. Jonathan Broxton is alright at the top, but after him there's a mess of players who can't quite be trusted yet.
The bullpen isn't a sexy place to spend money, but the Royals proved in 2014 how valuable a good crew of relievers can be. After figuring out their corner outfield spots, the Brewers may need to find some aid in the form of late-inning pitching this offseason.