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Brew Crew Ball Mailbag #22: Who makes the Opening Day bullpen?

Opening Day is around the corner. Who will make the cut?

MLB: Spring Training-San Diego Padres at Milwaukee Brewers Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

Happy Friday, everyone! Opening Day is less than a week away, and the Brewers have some roster decisions coming up in the final days of spring training. Let’s dive straight into your burning questions ahead of the 2023 season.

leche10 asks:

Give me your grade/thoughts on the current state of the bullpen? Are we confident? Concerned? Optimistic we’ll work it into shape? Pessimistic that this might be a pain point this year? What are we thinking

I’m more optimistic than most. Devin Williams will be fine in the ninth inning, and I like Matt Bush and Peter Strzelecki in high-leverage roles. Javy Guerra is my pick to break out and establish himself as a bona fide option in the late innings. Jake Cousins, Cam Robinson, Elvis Peguero, and Abner Uribe have electric arms and will be impactful pieces at some point.

If I had to guess, I’d say there may be some bumps in the road early on as Craig Counsell finds the best way to mix and match with this group, but there’s enough talent here for the bullpen to stabilize and back up a strong starting rotation.

taylorbolden asks:

Is Gus Varland making the opening day roster? If not, is he being sent back to the Dodgers or will the team work out a trade to acquire him?

Varland has had an impressive spring, striking out 50% of hitters faced and issuing just one walk, but I can’t see him making the roster as a Rule 5 pick. The Brewers value flexibility, and Varland is one of many non-optionable relievers competing for a bullpen spot. It’s tough to hand a roster spot to Varland over someone like Guerra, Joel Payamps, or Bryse Wilson, all of whom have big-league experience.

That’s not to minimize what Varland has done in camp. Counsell recently said that he had put himself on the team’s radar, and his showing demonstrates that his stuff is good enough to play against big-league hitters. I think the Brewers will try to work out a trade with the Dodgers. That would keep Varland in the organization while shedding his Rule 5 status, allowing the Brewers to option him to the minor leagues.

ThadBosley asks:

Is it going to be an issue for the Brewers that no one in the bullpen can really be optioned to the minors without clearing waivers first? Wilson, Guerra, Payamps, Bush, Varland(if he makes the team), and Houser are out of options. Only Williams, Milner, and Strzelecki can be optioned.

I don’t think Varland makes the team out of camp, nor do I expect Wilson to last very long if he makes the cut. Houser will move to the rotation if another starter hits the injured list, opening up another optionable slot in the bullpen. At least one more optionable slot will open up in the bullpen sooner than later.

It’s also worth noting that even if the Brewers have fewer optionable relievers in the bullpen at one time than in the past, they have a larger “shuttle” group to utilize. Rotating up to seven pitchers—Cousins, Peguero, Robinson, Uribe, Ethan Small, Janson Junk, Tyson Miller—through one or two roster spots affords plenty of flexibility.

drezdn asks:

Which position is your biggest concern?

I’m not sure how much offense this team will receive from either second or third base. Depending on where Luis Urias plays, Brian Anderson, Abraham Toro, and Brice Turang are set to receive much of the playing time at one of those openings against right-handed pitching. I’m not especially confident in any of those bats.

KDean75 asks:

Which of these is most likely with Taylor hurt. Anderson starting at 3B with Urias at 2B, Brosseau starting at 3B with Urias at 2B, or Urias at 3B with Turang starting at 2B?

None of the above. Allow me to make a somewhat bold prediction: Joey Wiemer will start in right field on Opening Day and get an extended look in Taylor’s absence.

@johnweber23 asks:

Why does it seem like the Brewers insist on giving every outfielder except Frelick a chance to start the year? He seems so clearly the best option, yet Mitchell seemed to have the inside track for whatever reason, and now there’s whispers of Wiemer (just because he’s right handed I guess?). Frelick seems like a guy who could put up a Kwan type season if everything broke right. What am I missing?

I’m with you in believing that Frelick projects as the best big-league player right now among the Brewers’ outfield prospects. That said, I’m sure a combination of factors is at play here.

The keys to center field are Mitchell’s to lose, mainly due to his glove. I have serious concerns about the bat, but Mitchell has the potential to be an elite defender up the middle. While Frelick has the speed to handle center, some scouting reports have expressed concern over his first step and reads in center field. As you alluded, Wiemer would help fill the need for a right-handed bat in the outfield. More importantly, he has maintained a reduced strikeout rate in camp after flashing improvement in that area in Triple-A last season.

Service time manipulation is at play as well. The new CBA rewards teams with an extra draft pick if they roster a top prospect for at least 172 days and he wins the Rookie of the Year Award. While Frelick’s plate discipline and bat-to-ball skills give him a high floor, his lack of power gives him a lower ceiling than other prospects. If he were to post a 110 wRC+ as a rookie, he probably wouldn’t be a serious contender for the award. As such, the Brewers may see more value in playing the service time game and waiting until they have secured another year of control before promoting Frelick.

WiscoJoe asks:

Is the Brewers having a lot of reverse platoon players on their roster some sort of a strategical decision or is it just a coincidence?

The Brewers seemingly believe that reverse splits are fluky and mean little for projecting a player’s future production. I think these acquisitions are somewhat strategic, but one could say they are coincidental based on the strategy.

Milwaukee often makes their free-agent signings later in the winter, eschewing the big fish on the market in favor of waiting to see which players fall through the cracks. Perhaps other teams look past some of these hitters due to their splits, allowing the Brewers to swoop in with cheap short-team deals.

@Qbaseball1969 asks:

Hiura provides more value as a Triple-A depth piece than a lottery ticket trade return would bring, but that’s likely a moot point anyway. It’s unlikely that the Brewers could sneak him through waivers if he fails to make the roster. There’s a good chance Hiura will be in another organization by this time next week.

Dow Jones asks:

Comparing the 2022 team 1 year ago to this current team coming out of ST, would you say this 2023 version of the club is better, worse or about the same as last years team breaking camp?

The 2023 team enters the season with different strengths and weaknesses than the 2022 team did a year ago. This year, the Brewers will kick off with more starting pitching depth but less stability in the bullpen. They project better offensively at catcher and designated hitter but worse in the outfield and one of their infield positions. If I had to pick one, I would give a slight edge to the 2022 team, but I think the teams’ capabilities are very similar on paper.

It might seem to some like a greater difference because the expectations are different. There was more optimism surrounding the 2022 team, but in hindsight, those expectations were inflated by the Brewers returning essentially the same roster that won 96 games in 2021. A lot went right on the pitching side that season, and a lot went wrong in 2022.

A year later, the foul taste of missing the postseason lingers, and roster turnover and lack of free-agent spending dampen some enthusiasm surrounding this group. While the Brewers did a strong job addressing the lack of starting depth that burned them in 2022, the rest of their offseason concentrated on maintaining the same level of competitiveness more efficiently. Efficiency is good on paper, but it’s not exciting.

Thanks for your questions this week!