The Milwaukee Brewers were counting on the bullpen to be a strength when the 2018 season started. And it did end up working out that way, but certainly not in the fashion that most fans and analysts figured it would at the outset of year. Last spring, the belief was that 2017 All-Star Corey Knebel and breakout rookie Josh Hader would anchor the ‘pen, and then a few other arms from the large group of relief depth assembled by David Stears would step forwards and seize roles. Included in that cache of pitchers were the likes of Matt Albers, Jeremy Jeffress, Dan Jennings, Jacob Barnes, Boone Logan, Taylor Williams, Oliver Drake, Tyler Webb, and JJ Hoover, among others.
That plan was tossed to the wind almost immediately when Corey Knebel blew out his hamstring during the first week of April. Drake, Webb, Hoover, and Logan quickly flamed out as well. But a handful of hurlers did rise to the occasion. Most notable was Jeremy Jeffress, who arose from the ashes of a near non-tender during the 2017-18 offseason to become an All-Star for Milwaukee in 2018. His 1.29 ERA in 76.2 innings was the second-lowest by a qualified reliever in franchise history. Dan Jennings became a versatile and durable piece while posting a 3.22 ERA in 64.1 innings. Jacob Barnes authored a 3.33 ERA in 49 appearances while riding the bullpen shuttle back and forth from Triple-A. Even Matt Albers worked to a 1.08 ERA in 25.0 innings before a shoulder injury ruined his season. Hader, of course, was the NL Reliever of the Year, but every already expected him to be good.
Other important pieces were added to the fold along the way, too. Prospects Brandon Woodruff and Corbin Burnes each provided a significant boost and played pivotal roles down the stretch and into the postseason. Joakim Soria was brought in from the White Sox in a midseason trade. And Knebel eventually returned, struggling for awhile before becoming basically unhittable when the Milwaukee’s playoff fate was on the line.
Corey Knebel had 32 strikeouts and no runs allowed in 15.1 IP last September and is one of two pitchers in the modern era – “since 1900” – to pitch 15+ innings in September with at least 30 strikeouts and 0 runs allowed. Orel Hershiser in 1988 is the other. @EliasSports— Jon Heyman (@JonHeyman) March 30, 2019
The relief corps was once again expected to be the greatest strength of the team when Spring Training began in 2019. That the newly-dubbed “Electric Dudes” of Jeffress, Hader, and Knebel were lined up to finish off games led second baseman Mike Moustakas to conclude that each contest would essentially be a race to the sixth inning. Alas, those feelings of confidence were dashed with less than a week to go before the start of the regular season when it was learned that 2⁄3 of the Electric Dudes would start the year on the Injured List.
The outlook is more positive for Jeremy Jeffress, who has been building up strength after dealing with an atrophied muscle group in his shoulder area. He’s throwing regular bullpens now and barring any setbacks, could be back to active duty by the middle of April. As for Knebel, he’ll miss the rest of 2019 — and likely a chunk of 2020 — after he undergoes Tommy John Surgery this coming week.
So for now, Craig Counsell finds himself in the familiar position of having only one reliever he knows he can count on — Josh Hader. The absences of Jeffress and Knebel mean there is a lot of added pressure now placed upon the group of depth arms amassed by Slingin’ Stearns over the winter. It may take a little bit to sort through everyone before the roles get settled, but the history of the club’s bullpen performance under the current regime should be at least some cause for hope going forward.
Bullpen performance under Stearns
So who among will morph into 2018 Dan Jennings? Or 2017 Jared Hughes? Or the 2016 versions of Tyler Thorburg, Carlos Torres, or Jhan Marinez? There is certainly no shortage of compelling options. Our Hero, Junior Guerra, was the first man that Craig Counsell called out of his bullpen to protect a lead in 2019. Both the manager and front office spoke glowingly about his relief potential all spring long. Jacob Barnes and Taylor Williams both have off-the-charts “stuff,” and Williams specifically was someone that almost everyone was universally high on when he was a top relief prospect entering last year. Will those two finally take the necessary steps forward and consistently produce the top-level performances they’ve shown glimpses of being capable of? Can Matt Albers bounce back from an injury-riddled second-half, or Chase Anderson after being bounced from the starting rotation? And what of new additions like Alex Claudio and Alex Wilson?
We are sure to start seeing players filter up from the minor leagues and be offered opportunities, too. Hard-throwing Jake Petricka was the last man cut from the bullpen mix this spring and figures to be one of the first hurlers to get a chance along with Adrian Houser. MLB vets Josh Fields and Michael Tonkin were added on minor league deals near the end of camp. Non-roster invitees Deolis Guerra, Burch Smith, and Jay Jackson each offers one or more reasons to think they could be good. And once we get deeper into the summer, top prospects like Zack Brown, Trey Supak, Braden Webb, Miguel Sanchez, Jon Olczak, Angel Perdomo and others could become viable options.
Adding to the group from outside the organization is all but inevitable, too. It simply remains to be seen whether that means signing Craig Kimbrel, or if it’s something less splashy like past midseason trades for Soria or Anthony Swarzak. There’s always the chance that Stearns finds someone he likes on the waiver wire, as well.
The Milwaukee Brewers appear to have figured out how to develop and improve their pitchers more effectively under the Stearns regime than at any time in the history of the franchise. So while the club currently lacks the certainty that the trio of Hader/Knebel/Jeffress provide when healthy, there is reason to stay optimistic about the bullpen’s performance going forward, even if things aren’t off to the most promising start. It may be frustrating to watch at times until the pitchers who are ultimately going to step identify themselves to us and to Counsell and the front office. But if recent history means anything, then things should end up being just fine over the course of a 162 game season.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs