Now just six days away real baseball we dive into the second of our three part look at the Brewers roster projections. Today's topic is the bullpen. It was looking pretty good a few weeks ago. But that was before injuries ripped through Brewers camp. Yhonathan Barrios is reportedly waiting for a second opinion on his shoulder which is terrifying. Zach Jones and Sean Nolin will start the season on the disabled list with various ailments. And then there's Will Smith who tore his LCL taking off his shoe. He's seeing the team doctor today and we'll find out if he need surgery or just rehab after that appointment. That's all very sad news. But there is still some good news. The back-end of the Brewers bullpen looks solid and the front end has a familiar face.
Closer: Jeremy Jeffress
Okay, so closers aren't things in the sense that there isn't some special voodoo that separates them from other good relievers. But they are things in the sense that teams still seem to value the closer title and bestow it upon one reliever. The word from camp was Smith and Jeffress were going to share that role at the start of the season. I expected Smith to eventually win the role, but now that he's going to be on the DL for an indeterminate time period, it appears as those it's Jeffress' to lose. And I don't think he's going to lose it.
Jeffress sort of came out of nowhere after the Brewers signed him as a minor league free agent in 2014. I thought it was a nice move to help out a former farmhand experiencing some hard times. Turns out it was a very savvy baseball move. Because Jeffress has completely rewritten the book on himself.
He always had a big fastball and solid slider. But his command really limited his upside. That's not been an issue at any point since returning to the Brewers. He induces a lot of ground balls and gets just enough strike outs that I'm pretty confident in his high leverage capabilities.
High Leverage: Michael Blazek
Here we have another pitcher who was held back by command. But he seemed to take a small step in the right direction between the AAA rotation and bullpen in 2014. Then he was assigned to the major league bullpen last year and seemed to take another step forward. He doesn't strike out guys like one might expect from a high leverage reliever though. And I'm still a bit concerned about his command. It's not that I necessarily think he can't maintain his gains. I'm just not sure if those gains are real or a small sample size illusion. And because his K% is just around league average, if the walks go up he's probably more of an average reliever than a high leverage one.
High Leverage: Corey Knebel
As a former top SS prospect Luis Sardinas grabbed most of the headlines in the Yovani Gallardo trade last year. And Marcos Diplan is an intriguing pitching prospect in his own right. But it might very well be Corey Knebel that turns out to be the gem of that trade. Drafted in 2013 he made his major league debut the following season. Then pitched in 50 solid innings for the Brewers the year after that. He's still learning on the job and that inexperience is the only thing holding me back from suggesting he's the best reliever in the bullpen. At some point he's probably the Brewers closer. But it likely won't be this year. I still expect good things from him though and he'll probably have the highest strikeout tally of any Brewers reliever.
(EDIT: Since the writing of this article Knebel has gone on the disabled list with an intercostal strain. In response the Brewers signed free agent RHP Carlos Torres.)
Middle Innings: Tyler Thornburg
If there's anyone with more boom/bust potential in this bullpen I can't see it. Tyler Thornburg looked like he might become a solid rotation candidate as he made his way up through the minors. That was in the stars for him though, and I thought he might be the next "Wade Davis" type failed starter to have an impact in a bullpen role. Unfortunately injuries kind of derailed his career for a time.
He actually tore his UCL. Usually that results in Tommy John surgery. Instead he chose PRP therapy and rehab. It seems to have worked so far and he came back to pitch a total of 34 innings for the major league team last year. If he's healthy and back to full strength, I think he could be an excellent three pitch reliever. But I can't help but be worried about health. Of any reliever in the Brewers system none has a higher injury risk.
Middle Innings: Ariel Pena
The last man standing in the Greinke to LAA trade hasn't been told that he's made the roster. But my guess is he makes the cut. He has a fastball in the mid to upper 90's and a solid slider. The command has always been the problem. I'm not sure what to expect out of him, but perhaps one inning stints will help hide some of his warts. The stuff is good enough to get outs. If the command can't come around, he could be a mid-season DFA candidate.
Low Leverage: Blaine Boyer
I was mildly surprised to learn that Boyer made the cut. But it's actually not that surprising when you consider all the injuries. Boyer adds a reliever capable of getting ground ball outs and that's about it. But that's good enough from a guy that's probably not long for this team. I expect he's a leading candidate to be moved to make room for one of the injured relievers once they're ready to return. But who knows when that will be?
Low Leverage/Long Relief: Chris Capuano
Yesterday it was (unofficially) announced that Capuano had made the team. I remember when he was an exciting young starter for the Brewers so I'm really pleased he's getting one last hurray. He's the only lefty in the pen so he'll probably see a lot of action vs LHH. He's also a guy capable of eating innings. His role will probably be pretty similar to Tom Gorzelanny's a couple years ago. And if the Brewers need someone to make just one spot start, it'll probably be Capuano. Though Pena did start last year and could be in the mix as well.