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This winter, the Milwaukee Brewers have changed their approach to building up pitching depth

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There are a few common themes that can be identified by looking at the new group of arms.

MLB: AUG 29 Athletics at Angels
Michael Brady.
Photo by John Cordes/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Milwaukee Brewers officially added two more veteran arms to their bullpen mix yesterday. The most drawn out transaction of what’s been a slogging offseason was finally completed, as the signing of lefty Boone Logan was announced three weeks after initial reports emerged that he would be joining the Brewers. The club also agreed to a minor league pact with righty JJ Hoover, a familiar name who previously spent parts of five seasons pitching in the NL Central with the Reds.

Following those two additions, GM David Stearns intimated that his relief group was largely set heading into the 2018 season. Though he stated that his club would never shy away from an opportunity to improve, Stearns told reporters “we are getting to the point where we’re in a good spot” regarding the depth in the bullpen. When Spring Training begins, it looks as though Corey Knebel, Jacob Barnes, Josh Hader, Jeremy Jeffress, and Logan will have spots sewn up in the ‘pen and a host of other pitchers will be competing for the final two or three spots, depending on how many relievers the team elects to carry.

Thinking back on last offseason, it’s pretty apparent that Slingin’ Stearns and his staff have taken a different approach to building up their bullpen depth this time around. First, and most obvious, is the fact that there has been a much lower volume of transactions this winter. During the 2016-17 offseason, the Brewers brought some 20 different arms into the organization via free agent signing (MLB or MiLB), trade, or waiver claim. That number is down to only 13 hurlers this offseason, and four of those (Ortega, Dillard, Ramirez, Ventura) are players who re-signed minor league deals with Milwaukee after last season. The list also includes Dylan Baker, who was claimed on waivers but has since been DFA’d and traded to the Dodgers.

When looking at the types of arms that joined the team last year versus this year, it’s also not difficult to note the differences in profiles. The organization seemed obsessed with the split-finger last offseason; minor league signees Forrest Snow and Luke Barker, MiLB Rule 5 pick Matt Ramsey, and waiver claims Steve Geltz and Blake Parker (neither of whom made it through the winter with the org) all feature the pitch as a part of their arsenals. The team also targeted a couple of minor league vets with a history of outstanding peripheral results in Paolo Espino and Andrew Barbosa, both of whom lack premium “stuff” and had never made The Show. Veteran righties Joba Chamberlain and Ryan Webb signed minor league deals after injury-plagued 2016 seasons, but neither made it through spring training before getting released. Soft-tossing Tommy Milone was targeted as rotation depth and to potentially be a lefty out of the pen, and Neftali Feliz was the big ticket signing to come in and close. Groundball specialist Jared Hughes was inked in the days just prior to the start of the regular season.

Instead of supplementing their upper-level pitching depth by targeting more Espino and Snow-types in minor league free agency this winter, Stearns and company have to this point narrowed their focus to pitchers with prior major league experience, albeit limited in some cases. So far each of the outside arms that have been welcomed into the org on minor league deals since the end of the World Series - Michael Brady, Mike Zagurski, Erik Davis, Radhames Liz, and JJ Hoover - have gotten at least a cup of coffee in the big leagues. When you toss in the three major league contracts they doled out - Yovani Gallardo, Jhoulys Chacin, and Boone Logan - a clear trend can be seen among the group’s collective repertoires.

Last season it was the the splitter that was the en vogue pitch within the organization; with the exception of Davis, every outside addition to the franchise this winter relies primarily on a fastball-slider combination when attacking hitters. The Brewers watched Anthony Swarzak, Jared Hughes, and Jacob Barnes (and to a lesser extent in terms of usage, Josh Hader) all flourish in their bullpen while heavily utilizing their fastball-slider combos last season and appear to be set on building their relief corps around pitchers of that ilk this coming year. Beyond the new faces to the bullpen mix this spring, guys like Taylor Williams, Wei-Chung Wang, Tyler Webb, Freddy Peralta, and Marcos Diplan are present on the 40 man roster and considered “fastball-slider” guys.

Taking it a step further, arguments could be made that three of the seven pitchers brought on board - Gallardo, Chacin, Hoover - should consider shifting their pitch selection to include more curveballs. Pitching coach Derek Johnson coaxed Jimmy Nelson, Chase Anderson, and Zach Davies each into upping their Uncle Charlie usage in 2017 (among other adjustments), and perhaps not coincidentally all three of them enjoyed finest seasons of their respective careers. It stands to reason that the analytics department has identified Gallardo, Chacin, and Hoover as players who could enjoy similar boosts in effectiveness by wielding their benders with greater frequency.

Finally, the hoard of new hurlers helps confirm the organization’s shift from rebuilding towards competing for the upcoming season. Rather than fill their upper levels with intriguing long-time minor leaguers who are still hoping for their first chance at the big leagues, Stearns and company sought out pitchers who have been there, done that at the game’s highest level to supplement his current collection of big league relievers. A more proven stable of depth should help raise the collective floor of the pitching staff and provide better insurance throughout the course of a long season and a potential run into the October.

Milwaukee’s pitching staff was its greatest strength last season, and it appears that the franchise is hoping to double down on that success by altering the approach to building their depth for the 2018. Hopefully the guys identified by the scouting and analytics departments and signed by Stearns’ front office will help drive the Brewers’ first postseason berth in seven years during the upcoming season.

Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus