Here we are in mid-June, and the Milwaukee Brewers remain in first place in the National League Central. Granted, they are only two games over .500 at 34-32 overall and 5-5 over their last ten games, but it’s not Milwaukee’s fault that the Central has been the worst division in baseball this season. Most fans and pundits alike assumed that this would be yet another rebuilding year for the Milwaukee Nine, but today David Stearns gave another indication that that may not be the case if things stay if the team that he’s assembled continues to play above expectations.
The young GM admitted defeat earlier this afternoon when he designated his big offseason pitching addition, Neftali Feliz, for assignment to make room for Matt Garza’s return to the roster. Stearns was willing to write off Feliz’s home run issues from last season in Pittsburgh as an anomaly when he signed, but as it turned out the flamethrowing righty had even bigger issues with the gopher ball upon joining the Brew Crew. Feliz coughed up 8 dingers in just 27.0 innings pitched this season, which along with a subpar 21:15 K/BB rate lead to a 6.00 ERA and 5.58 DRA during his time in Milwaukee. He quickly lost his handle on the closer’s role and could never find any sort of groove this season, even though he is averaging a career-best 96.4 MPH with his heavily used fastball. Feliz had surrendered at least one run in four of his last five appearances, including giving up a solo home run in his final appearance with the team yesterday against St. Louis.
Stearns was quite frank when asked about the choice to move on from Feliz:
On Feliz’s problem, Stearns said it wasn’t “for lack of effort” on Feliz’s part and the coach’s part.— Tom (@Haudricourt) June 14, 2017
David Stearns on DFA of Feliz. "Time to get a couple of new arms in there." Espino will stay to pitch in 'pen.— Adam McCalvy (@AdamMcCalvy) June 14, 2017
Stearns on what went wrong with Feliz: "If we knew exactly why and how to fix it, we wouldn't be having this conversation now."— Adam McCalvy (@AdamMcCalvy) June 14, 2017
For now, Paolo Espino will get a shot to prove he can stick in Milwaukee’s bullpen. The right-hander has pitched almost exclusively as a starter during his lengthy professional career, spanning the last 11 seasons though he only just recently made his MLB debut. Espino has allowed 5 earned runs in 8.0 innings during two big league starts, but he should be able to provide some length in a swingman capacity and facing hitters only one time could benefit the junkballing vet.
Espino is only the latest rookie pitcher getting the chance for what may be an extended audition in the bullpen, joining recently recalled top pitching prospect Josh Hader. The team cutting ties with its highest-paid reliever means that other well-compensated underperformers like Carlos Torres and Wily Peralta (and maybe even Matt Garza if he struggles coming off the DL) probably shouldn’t feel too comfortable, though Stearns has indicated that Peralta will get at least a little bit longer to try and figure things out as a reliever.
The bullpen as a whole has been a rather glaring issue for our beloved local nine as of late, and as a group they rank 20th in the league with both a 4.51 ERA and 4.41 FIP. The relief corps has collectively worked 237.2 innings, the second-highest total in the MLB, with Jacob Barnes (34), Corey Knebel (33), and Carlos Torres (33) all ranking among the league’s top 10 in appearances.
Just last month during an appearance on 105.7 FM the Fan in Milwaukee, Slingin’ Stearns said that “[i]f we’re in a spot where we get to, whether it’s July or August past the non-waiver trade deadline and [trading for a player] is the prudent thing for the organization to do, we have to consider it.” He reiterated those sentiments again this afternoon:
Stearns said he is aware of high rate of bullpen usage and monitoring it. Might look outside later in season if circumstances warrant it.— Tom (@Haudricourt) June 14, 2017
We are probably a good month or so away from trade talks really picking up in earnest around baseball, and fortunes could certainly change for the Brewers between now and then. Should Milwaukee be in a position to be buyers in July, however, Stearns certainly has plenty of ammunition with which to work with. Milwaukee is in the process of adding some 40 new prospects to their top-5 farm system during the ongoing MLB draft, and the club also has the league’s lowest payroll at just a shade over $60 mil. If we look at examples of past trades the franchise has made (such as the K-Rod deal in 2011), there should be upgrades that can be made at a relatively minor cost. They should have no trouble absorbing a contract from a team looking to cut costs, which could mitigate the level of prospect they’d have to yield. Even fringey prospects like Michael Reed or Kyle Wren may be able to bring back a decent middle relief arm in the right deal.
In the meantime, however, the Brewers have no shortage of interesting bullpen candidates that are performing well down in the minor leagues. One compelling idea may be to give Jorge Lopez the Josh Hader treatment; that is, call him up and let him pitch out of the bullpen, even though the org surely hopes his long-term role is in the rotation. He’s had trouble limiting runs at AA Biloxi, sporting a 5.16 ERA through 61.0 innings, though he’s striking out batters at a career-best rate and has improved his disastrous walk rate from last season. DRA (4.13) and FIP (3.23) are quite a bit more bullish on Jorge’s work this year. Lopez’s plus fastball/curveball combination should play up in a bullpen role and pitching an inning at a time would likely help mitigate the control issues that have plagued him at times throughout his time as a prospect.
Beyond Lopez, other internal candidates at the AA and AAA levels could include (but aren’t limited to):
LHP Wei-Chung Wang (1.78 ERA in 30.1 IP)
RHP Bowdien Derby (2.36 ERA in 49.2 IP)
RHP Tayler Scott (2.43 ERA in 37.0 IP)
RHP Matt Ramsey (2.66 ERA in 23.2 IP)
RHP Forrest Snow (3.27 ERA in 41.1 IP)
RHP Aaron Wilkerson (3.36 ERA in 64.1 IP)
RHP Taylor Jungmann (3.42 ERA in 47.1 IP)
RHP Angel Ventura (3.43 ERA in 57.2 IP)
RHP Michael Blazek (3.43 ERA in 42.0 IP)
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus