Over the last several seasons, the bullpen has largely been a strength for the Milwaukee Brewers. The group ranked 6th in the NL last year with a collective 3.61 ERA, 5th in 2015 at 3.40, in the middle of the pack with a 3.62 ERA in 2014, and 3rd on the senior circuit in 2013 with a 3.19 mark. Having good bullpens also meant that the Brewers had plenty of trade bait down there when the rebuild began, however, and several of the stalwarts that lead those groups are now playing for different teams. Gone are the familiar arms of K-Rod, Will Smith, Jeremy Jeffress, and Tyler Thornburg, all dealt for prospects within the last two years. All that player movement has put the ‘pen into a bit of a state of flux heading into 2017, as the team looks to reconstruct its staff with several new faces.
Milwaukee did make one notable addition to their relief corps over the winter with the signing of Neftali Feliz. Best known for his run as the Rangers’ closer during the early part of this decade, Feliz saved 72 games during the 2010-11 seasons while posting a 2.74 ERA and 125:48 K/BB ratio across 131.2 innings (134 appearances). Arm troubles began for Feliz when Texas attempted to convert him to a starter during the 2012 season, and he wound up undergoing Tommy John surgery and missing most of the 2012-13 seasons.
Feliz struggled to return to form after the surgery, bouncing from Texas to Detroit before signing with Pittsburgh in 2016. It was only then, four seasons removed from his elbow reconstruction, that Feliz began to regain his pre-surgery velocity and produce stronger results on the mound. In 62 appearances covering 53.2 innings for the Pirates last season, Feliz logged a 3.52 ERA and 3.45 DRA, notching 61 strikeouts against 21 walks with a minute 1.14 WHIP. He did have a bit of an issue with the home run, though, allowing a career-high 1.7 HR/9. As BP Milwaukee explored earlier this winter, however, there’s not much in Feliz’s pitching profile or statistics to indicate that the problem was anything more than a random spike. Slingin’ Stearns and the Brewers obviously felt comfortable enough to give Feliz a $5.35 mil guarantee over a single season with incentives tied to games finished that could increase the deal to a total of nearly $7 mil. Neftali will presumably serve as Milwaukee’s closer when the season begins on April 3rd.
Beyond Feliz, a few holdovers from last season figure to break camp with spots secured in the bullpen. Carlos Torres returns for a 2nd season in Milwaukee after signing shortly before Opening Day 2016; he posted a strong 2.73 ERA across 82.1 innings last year while leading the team with 72 appearances. A 3.79 FIP and 3.55 DRA don’t necessarily back up that level of run prevention, but Torres still figures to be a useful cog in the bullpen while drawing a $2.175 mil arbitration salary. Corey Knebel had some injury issues and struggled out of the gates in 2016, but the 25 year old fire-baller was solid in the 2nd half and should see some high-leverage innings during the upcoming season. Jacob Barnes enjoyed an outstanding MLB debut season, posting a 2.70 ERA/3.29 DRA across 26.2 innings pitched with a 26:6 K/BB ratio and should also be in the mix for some important innings.
Beyond that quartet of hurlers, it’s largely anyone’s guess who will wind up filling out the rest of the bullpen. There is plenty of competition for the final three or so spots, including:
Jhan Marinez: posted a 3.22 ERA/3.98 DRA in 58.2 innings for Milwaukee after being purchased from the Rays early on in the year, working from low-leverage innings to more prominent situations as the season went along.
Michael Blazek: an integral part of the 2015 bullpen, Blazek dealt with an injury last year and never really looked right while struggling to a 5.66 ERA/6.00 DRA across 41.1 innings.
Tyler Cravy: a swingman for most of his minor league career, Cravy posted a stellar 2.86 ERA in 28.1 innings while pitching mostly out of the bullpen down the stretch last year. That was accompanied by a 4.39 FIP and 5.41 DRA, however.
Taylor Jungmann: a brutal start to last season lead to a demotion to Colorado Springs, where things got even worse before getting a mental health break in extended spring training. Jungmann righted the ship in AA, but he has been told he’ll need to make the roster as a reliever this spring rather than compete for the starting rotation.
Brent Suter: the lefty with the 83 MPH fastball, Suter posted a 3.32 ERA across 21.2 innings after being called up last August. The Harvard grad and former 31st-round pick relies on pitchability and generating soft contact, but a 4.43 FIP and especially an ugly 7.89 DRA don’t support his success from last season.
Rob Scahill (NRI): claimed off waivers from the Pirates last summer, Scahill posted a 2.45 ERA/4.08 DRA in 18.1 innings for Milwaukee. He was outrighted off the 40 man roster shortly before the season began.
Joba Chamberlain (NRI): it’s been a decade since the “Joba Rules” Yankees days, and Chamberlain spent part of last year with the Indians while posting a 2.25 ERA/3.26 DRA across 20.0 innings. A pedestrian 18:11 K/BB ratio ultimately lead to his release last June, and Joba elected to stay home with his family rather than pursue another job at that time. He’s in camp on a minor league deal.
David Goforth (NRI): he has yo-yo’d back and forth plenty from Milwaukee to Colorado Springs over the last two years, but he was outrighted off the 40 man roster after posting a 10.97 ERA in 10.1 MLB innings last year.
Andy Oliver (NRI): once a top prospect with Detroit, the lefty has bounced around in recent seasons while attempting to harness his control. He posted a 3.43 ERA/3.83 DRA in 86.2 innings last season for AAA Norfolk and is in camp on a minor league deal.
Forrest Snow (NRI): the Seattle native had spent his entire minor league career with the Mariners before signing with Milwaukee this winter. The splitter-throwing righty posted a 2.83 ERA between AA and AAA last season.
Ryan Webb (NRI): a veteran of parts of 8 MLB seasons, Webb was cut loose by the Rays last season after posting a 5.19 ERA/4.16 DRA in 17.1 innings. He didn’t make it back to the big leagues in 2016 and signed a minor league deal with the Brewers over the winter.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that the Brewers have competition in their starting rotation as well, with five pitchers (Jimmy Nelson, Wily Peralta, Matt Garza, Chase Anderson, and lefty Tommy Milone) competing for three spots behind Junior Guerra and Zach Davies. The two hurlers who wind up failing to crack the starting five could also be in the mix for a spot in the bullpen along with all the names mentioned above.
On the Farm
Damien Magnifico is on the 40 man roster and saw some brief time in the MLB last year, but has already been optioned to back to AAA this spring...Stephen Kohlscheen posted a 2.54 ERA and saved 23 games for AA Biloxi last season...Javi Salas, Tyler Spurlin, Josh Uhen, and Tayler Scott represented the Brewers in this year’s Arizona Fall League...Jon Olczak enjoyed a successful season in Brevard County...Quintin Torres-Costa, Scott Grist, Alex Farina, and Nate Griep lead a strong bullpen in Appleton in 2016.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball-Prospectus