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Milwaukee Brewers to stick with “only” 7 relievers, for now

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Craig Counsell says he wants 8 relievers in the bullpen, but will try to get by with 7 arms for the time being

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MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Milwaukee Brewers Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Like a growing number of teams across baseball, the Brewers fully intended to carry 8 relievers this season.

A combination of the early season schedule, injuries to a rotation candidate and a projected member of the bullpen, and a desire to keep Jesus Aguilar as long as possible have caused the Brewers to carry “only” seven relievers to this point in the season, assuming you count Brandon Woodruff as a fifth starter who just had his first turn in the rotation skipped.

With Woodruff expressing his distaste for pitching out of the bullpen and the fifth starter being needed more frequently starting later this week, the Brewers are hoping to “get by” with “just” seven relievers in the bullpen, according to Tom Haudricourt and Todd Rosiak of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

Don’t expect this crazy idea to go on all season, though.

“At some point, we will have to get to eight relievers,” manager Craig Counsell said. “I don’t know when that’s going to be, kind of depending on games. If we can get through the home stand and get on the road, it’s much easier to consider seven relievers on the road. But getting through an early April home stand with seven relievers, it’s going to take a big effort from our starting pitching.”

It’s easy to mock the idea that the Brewers “have to” go to an 8-man bullpen eventually this year, but short starts may make it necessary in a couple weeks, if only to keep everyone fresh. To this point, Chase Anderson is the only Brewers starter to successfully complete 6 innings of work, and he couldn’t get there in his second start.

While the starting pitching hasn’t been great so far, even when it is, we might be getting close to the end of the days of seeing starters work beyond 7 innings -- especially if the Brewers’ bullpen is going to be as effective as it’s been to start the year.

The Brewers are far from the only team that announced their intentions to carry 8 relievers this year. That includes the St. Louis Cardinals, who brought 8 relief arms to Milwaukee this week. Counsell says that’s because it’s simply harder to work deeper into games these days, when nearly every batter is trying to stretch out at-bats.

“One of the differences is 90 pitches is not getting you as far into a game as it used to. We are probably throwing less pitches with our starters, but if you look at the numbers it’s not drastic.

The at-bats are going longer; it’s harder to get more outs and deeper into the game.”

That suggests even when the Brewers’ starters find their groove, Counsell may still have a quick hook once he gets his fully-stocked bullpen. Who that 8th reliever will be remains to be seen (and will likely be a revolving door, just to keep arms fresh), but as the Journal-Sentinel duo notes, the last two relievers cut this spring were Taylor Williams (on the 40-man roster) and J.J. Hoover (not on the 40-man roster).

To this point, the Brewers’ bullpen has been excellent, holding opponents at bay after disappointing outings for the initial out-getters and giving guys like Ryan Braun a chance to win the game in the final at-bat. The bullpen has an ERA of 1.50 through the first 5 games (4 runs in 24 innings), second only to the Cubs’ collection of former All-Star closers at 0.69.

The assumption is that Jesus Aguilar will eventually have to be exposed to waivers to make room for that 8th bullpen arm, but it’s probably worth keeping this desire in mind if (or when) a position player gets hurt and lands on the disabled list -- in other words, if Lorenzo Cain goes down tomorrow, it might be Williams getting the call-up, and not Keon Broxton or Brett Phillips.

The David Stearns-era Brewers have consistently tried to delay tough decisions for as long as they can. But it’s not necessarily an aversion to making those hard calls -- it’s more about trying to preserve depth for as long as possible, because why cut loose an asset before you have to? Because of that, they’ll just have to try to eek out the next few weeks with a “short” bullpen that carries seven arms.