In the early going last season, it looked the bullpen was going to be the Achilles heel for the Milwaukee Brewers. It didn’t take long for Neftali Feliz, the man who was signed as a free agent to be closer, to falter and get released. Jhan Marinez had a rough go of it before getting DFA’d. Tommy Milone struggled and was let go. Jared Hughes and Carlos Torres got off to slow starts. But the tide began to turn in mid-May, when the move was made to install young Corey Knebel in the closer’s role.
Knebel obviously became a dynamo pitching out of the pen for Milwaukee last season. He set an MLB record for most consecutive games with a strikeout to start a season (45), and the 14.92 K/9 mark that he finished the season with was the highest in franchise history. He was also the first reliever in club history to record 100+ strikeouts in a season. On the whole, Corey made 76 appearances, logged an even 76.0 innings, and posted a outstanding 1.76 ERA and an eye-popping DRA- of 52. He recorded 126 strikeouts against 40 walks and allowed only six home runs all year. Knebel locked down the save in 39 of his appearances and was credited with another 11 holds while he was pitching as a set-up man.
Everything else began to fall in line once Knebel was moved to the ninth inning. Josh Hader was called up in June and posted a 2.08 ERA across 47.2 innings as a fireman. Jared Hughes picked things up and ended the year with a 3.02 ERA in 59.2 innings. Jacob Barnes had a couple of rough stretches, but his 4.00 ERA belies his outstanding peripherals - he whiffed 80 batters in 72 innings and DRA graded him as 28% better than the league average performer. Anthony Swarzak and Jeremy Jeffress were acquired at the deadline and became key arms down the stretch; Swarzak logged a 2.48 ERA and Jeffress a 3.18 ERA in the second half. Overall, the Brewers 'pen ended the year with a cumulative ERA of 3.83 and 4.8 total fWAR, both of which ranked ninth in all of baseball.
Swarzak, Hughes, and Torres all hit the open market this past winter and ultimately left Milwaukee, but the Brewers’ relief corps should still be a strength once again in 2018. Knebel will reprise his role as closer and Hader will once again work as a fireman. The club appears to feel pretty good about Barnes’ run prevention catching up to his peripherals, and he figures to serve as the main set-up man. Jeffress will return once again and probably work as more of a middle reliever, at least to start the year.
The Brewers have added two useful arms on inexpensive deals from the free agent market, too - righty Matt Albers and lefty Boone Logan. Albers has posted an ERA of 3.14 or lower in five of the last six years, and a DRA- of 86 or better five times in the last six seasons, as well. He pitched to a sparkling 1.62 ERA in 63.0 innings with Washington last year and could be a set-up man alongside Barnes to start the season. Logan, on the other hand, missed much of last season with a lat injury and pitched only 21.0 innings across 38 appearances. The left-handed specialist has compelling “stuff” - including a fastball that averaged 94.3 MPH and a wipeout slider that he has utilized more than 50% of the time in each of his last three seasons. The results haven’t always lined up with the raw stuff, though, and Logan owns a career 4.47 ERA and an exactly league-average 100 DRA-. But he’s struck out more than 11 batters per nine innings in each of the last six seasons and has held same-handed hitters to a .672 OPS throughout his career, giving pitching coach Derek Johnson a base to work with as they try to improve Logan’s bottom-line results.
With six spots in the bullpen essentially sewn up between Knebel, Hader, Barnes, Jeffress, Albers, and Logan, that leaves only two spots available this spring for a wide-ranging field of competitors. It’s very likely that one of the players battling for the starting rotation (Guerra, Suter, Miley, Gallardo, Wilkerson, Woodruff) also secure a bullpen spot, so there might actually be room for only one more arm in Craig Counsell’s eight-man bullpen. That may make it tough for someone like Taylor Williams or Tyler Webb to crack the roster, as both have options and can begin the year in the minors. Oliver Drake spent almost all of last season in Milwaukee after getting purchased for Baltimore in April and was carried on the 40 man roster all winter. The fact that he is out of options could give him a leg up on that final spot, although he’s struggled thus far in the Cactus League. JJ Hoover, who is a non-roster invitee to camp, already has nearly 300 MLB appearances under his belt and has worked a few successful seasons, but he’s struggled mightily with walks the last couple of years. The other NRIs - Erik Davis, Michael Brady, Ernesto Frieri, and Radhames Liz - may be more likely to start the year as minor league depth.
According to the spreadsheets, Milwaukee’s bullpen figures to be a strength once again in 2018 as it last season. Both ZiPS and PECOTA feel that the relief corps as currently assembled will be highly productive, and depending on how the starting rotation shakes out, that could be a key to getting into the postseason for the Cream City Nine this season. We’ve seen Counsell get pretty creative with how he deploys his relievers, and with several arms capable of throwing multiple innings, it wouldn’t be much of a surprise to see him have quick hooks for his starters and turn the game over to his ‘pen earlier in the game than some fans may expect, or even be comfortable with.
In the Minors
As mentioned above, it seems plausible that both Taylor Williams and Tyler Webb begin the year as depth somewhere in the upper levels of the MiLB. The club has said Adrian Houser will be stretched out as a starter coming off of Tommy John surgery, but if that doesn’t work out his fastball/curveball combo could give batters fits out of the bullpen. Bubba Derby worked a successful campaign as a swingman last season, and former 21st-round pick Tristan Archer is right on the cusp at AAA as well. Nick Ramirez, Mike Zagurski, and Josh Uhen (among several others) are also arms in the upper minors that could get a shot at the big leagues with Milwaukee this season.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference, Fangraphs, and Baseball Prospectus
All things considered (performance, MiLB options, etc), who should get the final spot in the bullpen to start the year?
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