Last season, the greatest strength of the Milwaukee Brewers was the bullpen. Craig Counsell’s oft-used ‘pen stacked up 614.0 innings pitched by the end of the regular season, second-most in the National League. The group was baseball’s fifth-best unit by ERA (3.47) and fourth-best by FIP (3.57). Only the relief corps for the Yankees and Astros finished with a higher strikeout rate than Milwaukee’s 10.38 K/9. The bullpen finished seventh in K/BB ratio (2.91) and eighth in WHIP (1.25).
Led by the “electric dudes” of Josh Hader, Corey Knebel, and Jeremy Jeffress, the bullpen figured to be Milwaukee’s strongest asset once again in 2019. Life has a funny way of throwing a wrench into even the most well thought-out plans, though, and such has been the case with the Brewers’ relief pitching this spring.
First it was Jeffress. He worked a career-high 73 games and 76.1 innings last regular season, eventually taking over as closer and recording 15 saves with a 1.29 ERA and 89:27 K/BB ratio. He added another eight appearances to his ledger in the postseason, though struggled a bit after dealing with a recurrence of his epilepsy on the final day of the regular season. After shouldering such a heavy workload last season, Jeffress’ shoulder wasn’t quite up to snuff when he reported to camp. He’ll begin the season on the injured list as he works to build up strength and stamina, though the belief is that he’ll be able to return to active duty by mid-to-late April.
An All-Star in 2017, last year was an up-and-down one for Knebel. A hamstring injury during the first week of the season cost him nearly two months of game action. He wasn’t in top form upon his return, as command issues led to home run problems and an eventual demotion from ninth-inning duties. He was even optioned to the minors in late August for a “mental break.” When Knebel returned in September, however, he quickly became paramount in the team’s successful playoff run. He made 16 scoreless appearances during the final month of the season and then pitched nine times in Milwaukee’s 10 playoff games, allowing only one run in 10.0 innings. Knebel looked primed to keep the ball rolling during his first several spring outings, once again flashing his dominant stuff. But he’s been pitching with a slight tear in his UCL dating back to 2014, and the injury flared up again during Cactus League play. There is no timetable for his return as he and the team consider all surgical and non-surgical options, but Tommy John is a very realistic possibility in this scenario. That would cost Knebel the entire year.
That leaves Josh Hader as the only intact electric dude. He was deservedly named as the league’s top relief pitcher last season after setting a record for most strikeouts by a left-handed reliever in a season, 143 of them in only 81.1 innings. Josh was nearly unhittable, yielding only 30 base knocks in 55 appearances (4.0 H/9), and he showed some more consistency with his control while cutting his walk rate down to 3.3 BB/9. It all added up to a 2.43 ERA and 2.23 FIP for Milwaukee’s pitching unique weapon, who threw multiple innings 33 times out of the ‘pen last season.
Hader did spend some time closing last season, racking up 12 saves, including seven of the multi-inning variety. But his versatility makes it difficult to pigeonhole him into a ninth-inning role, leaving an open question as to who Craig Counsell will trust to close out ballgames in the season’s early going.
There is Junior Guerra, who reinvented himself as a fastball/curveball relief ace down the stretch last season after losing his spot in the starting rotation in September. Alex Claudio has some closing experience, but since he’s the only left-hander besides Hader in the ‘pen, he needs to be available for situational scenarios. Matt Albers has plenty of later-inning experience and is now fully healthy, but he’s looking to bounce back from a nightmare 2018 season. Jacob Barnes, Taylor Williams, and Jake Petricka all have the raw “stuff” to be high-leverage arms, but have yet to find the consistency they need in order to truly thrive at the big league level. Maybe Chase Anderson gets a crack now that he’s been relegated to the bullpen.
The injuries to Jeffress and Knebel (and to reliever Bobby Wahl) have also precipitated some outside additions during camp, including Alex Wilson, who will join the bullpen right away. The cutter specialist has generated solid bottom-line results since debuting in the big leagues back in 2013, but doesn’t have the bat-missing ability that manager’s tend to prefer in the later innings. Josh Fields and Michael Tonkin are also experienced MLB vets who recently signed minor league deals, and both will begin the season in Triple-A.
Speaking of Triple-A, there are plenty more arms down there who could find themselves pitching for the Cream City Nine at some point this season. Adrian Houser and Aaron Wilkerson are gearing up for another season as shuttle-relievers in that revolving final bullpen spot. Maybe this is the year Bowdien Derby or Cody Ponce finally breaks through to the big league ‘pen. Burch Smith, Deolis Guerra, and Jay Jackson all have MLB experience and signed minor league deals. And then there’s top pitching prospect Zack Brown, who won the org’s minor league pitcher of the year award last season. He could follow in the footsteps of the previous two winners of the award — Corbin Burnes and Brandon Woodruff — by coming up to The Show to first get his feet wet in the bullpen at some point later on in the summer.
With Jeremy Jeffress and Corey Knebel on the shelf for undetermined amounts of time, the bullpen for the Milwaukee Brewers stands on tenuous ground. Josh Hader should once again be a stalwart, but Craig Counsell and Slingin’ David Stearns will be relying on a few of their less-proven arms to successfully step up into pivotal roles in the early part of the season. Rumors continue to persist in regards to a possible union with Craig Kimbrel, but until that actually happens, fans are left crossing their fingers that the current in-house depth can overcome.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs
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