The Milwaukee Brewers have spent time, effort and money to address needs in the rotation (Matt Garza) and first base (Mark Reynolds, Lyle Overbay) this offseason.
But their bullpen remains largely untouched, unheralded and a major spot to watch next month in Maryvale.
The biggest move the Brewers have made towards adding pieces to their bullpen was acquiring left-hander Will Smith from the Kansas City Royals in a trade for Norichika Aoki. Besides Jim Henderson, Brandon Kintzler and Tom Gorzelanny, the 2014 Brewers bullpen could look unfamiliar to most.
First of all, keep in mind that last year's bullpen was pretty good (fifth in Major League Baseball in earned run average) despite ranking sixth in innings pitched). The organization's seemingly biennial turnover at closer continued in 2013 when Henderson took over the role from John Axford and was effective (28 saves, 11.25 K/9, 2.70 ERA).
Henderson, like John Axford and Derrick Turnbow before him, was plucked out of minor league obscurity and has stepped to the front of the line. But like those other out-of-nowhere additions, it's hard to project how long his flame-throwing right arm can be counted on at the back of the bullpen.
Kintzler (2.69 ERA in 77 innings pitched in 2013) and Gorzelanny (2.70 ERA as a reliever compared to a 4.81 mark as a starter) look to have spots locked up. But the rest is up for grabs.
Initially Smith was thought to be going to spring training as a starter, but the signing of Garza leaves the Brewers rotation pretty well set and Smith could make his mark in Milwaukee as a reliever. Last year in relief, Smith was tough on opponents, especially left-handed batters (2.45 ERA in 29.1 innings with Royals at big league level and struck out 27 of a total of 54 left-handed batters faced). A lot of his improvement can be linked to throwing more sliders (For more on Smith, see this piece by FanGraphs' Jeff Sullivan from December).
Beyond those four, Tyler Thornburg is another pitcher that could see a role in the bullpen after originally being thought of as a starter. The 25-year old Thornburg pitched well for the Brewers last year (although better as a starter than a reliever with a 1.47 ERA in 43 innings while starting compared to a 3.04 ERA in 23.2 innings). But Thornburg may be more suited for relief at this point with his fastball (averaged 92 MPH last season and could move up a tick or two with the move to the bullpen) and curveball being thrown over 85% of the time. Or, he could return to AAA Nashville if the team wants to continue having him start.
Otherwise, names like Michael Blazek (acquired from St. Louis for John Axford last season, 3.86 ERA in seven innings), Donovan Hand, Rob Wooten, Rule 5 draft pick Wei-Chung Wang, Alfredo Figaro, David Goforth and Zach Duke also figure to battle for those few remaining spots.
The vast majority of those players are hardly household names. But with a variety of players heading to spring training with a solid shot to make the squad, it makes the bullpen the spot to watch this spring for the Brewers.