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Milwaukee Brewers 2021 preview by position: Bullpen

Plenty of versatile arms are present, and flexibility will be needed with an increased workload in 2021.

Arizona Diamondbacks v Milwaukee Brewers Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images

Pitching has been the hallmark of David Stearns-built teams ever since he took over as the lead decisionmaker for the Milwaukee Brewers. To this point, the executive has proven capable of putting the necessary pieces in place to churn out successful big league arms from a variety of sources — prospects graduated to the game’s highest level, waiver wire acquisitions, reclamation projects, overseas imports, and lower-tier free agents and trade pieces. A full variety of backgrounds will be on display in this year’s bullpen, which once again figures to be among the game’s best, led by two of the most dynamic arms in all of baseball.

Josh Hader arrived in the big leagues as a true fireman and won back-to-back Relief Pitcher of the Year awards in 2018-19 while averaging more than an inning per appearance. There has been a lot of discussion about his arm and how it recovers and how often he can be used over the years, and over the last year and a half Hader seems to have settled in as a more traditional one-inning closer, a role that he will continue in to begin this season according to manager Craig Counsell. Hader was characteristically dominant to start last season but one bad outing skewed his numbers across the small sample year — he allowed a total of eight earned runs across 19.0 innings, with four of those coming against the Cubs in one inning on September 12th. His walk rate was a little higher than it’s been (4.7 BB/9) but he was as unhittable as ever (3.8 H/9), though three of the eight hits he did allow on the year went over the fence. Hader’s strikeout rate of 14.7 K/9 was outstanding, as usual, and after reduced velocity at times last season, his stuff has looked good so far this spring and he’s talking once again about working in a changeup with more regularity.

Speaking of changeups — or screwballs, or “Airbenders” — the ascendance of Devin Williams is a big reason why the team can afford to let Hader stick to pitching the ninth inning. Last year’s NL Rookie of the Year and Relief Pitcher of the Year winner, Williams authored a near-perfect season, allowing one earned run in 27.0 innings covering 22 appearances. He flummoxed batters to the tune of a 17.7 K/9 rate while capably demonstrating that he can cover multi-inning, high-leverage situations. Williams was slowly worked into action at the start of camp as he recovered from the shoulder issue that ended his season last year before the Wild Card series, but is on track for regular action as the regular season begins.

Other multi-inning candidates include lefty Brent Suter and right-hander Drew Rasmussen, who were both stretched out to cover multiple innings this spring. The affable Suter has become a fixture as a swingman on the pitching staff over the last five years, and in 2020 he started four times out 16 appearances and logged a total of 31.2 innings with a 3.13 ERA. Despite his mid-80s fastball, Suter averaged over a strikeout per inning for the first time in his career in 2020. Rasmussen, on the other hand, is capable of hitting triple-digits with his heater and flashed at time as a rookie last season, though he ultimately ended with a 5.87 ERA across 15.1 innings pitched. Josh Lindblom, too, will open in the bullpen and figures to pitch multiple innings when he is deployed. He will also make starts and seems destined for something of a fluid role, perhaps along with Freddy Peralta, who will begin the year in the rotation.

Filling out the final few spots figure to be some combination of Eric Yardley, JP Feyereisen, Angel Perdomo, Phil Bickford, non-roster invitee Brad Boxberger, and recently outrighted Ray Black, likely in some sort of interchangeable fashion. Justin Topa and Bobby Wahl will both begin the year on the injured list but should factor into the mix at some point later in the season. Alec Bettinger, Dylan File (when healthy), Zack Brown, Aaron Ashby, Miguel Sanchez, and Luke Barker are prospects who could feasibly debut as relievers at some point this season, and minor league signees Hoby Milner and Blaine Hardy should provide some MLB experienced depth in the upper levels to begin the season.

In the Minors

We already covered some of the advanced depth as the Brewers are likely to cycle through a significant amount of arms during the course of this season, but some other interesting guys to watch include lefties Quintin Torres-Costa and Clayton Andrews, and right-handed indy ball veteran Jake Cousins.

Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference