PHOENIX — Bullpens are like children. Just when you think you’ve got them figured out and everything is going smoothly, one of them goes off the rails.
Or two of them. Or three.
In 2011, the Milwaukee Brewers’ bullpen was a strength of the club. In particular, closer John Axford was nearly perfect, converting his last 43 save opportunities as the club roared to the National League Central crown.
Though general manager Doug Melvin believes relief pitchers come and go in general, he wasn’t going to mess with success. He brought back his bullpen virtually intact for the 2012 season, locking in each one with big-league deals.
“The one mistake we probably made is not having any flexibility,” said Melvin. “They all had guaranteed money.”
The wheels started coming off when Axford began blowing games in the middle of the season. Veteran Francisco Rodriguez, once one of the top closers in the game, was Plan B in the ninth inning but, wouldn’t you know it, he went south as well.
No lead was safe. In late July, the Brewers were swept in a nightmarish three-game series in Philadelphia, blowing multiple-run leads as Rodriguez completely melted down. Team morale hit bottom.
The nadir came July 29 against Washington at Miller Park. The bullpen blew leads of four runs in the eighth inning and two in the ninth before losing the game, 11-10, in the 11th.
Bullpen coach Stan Kyles was fired the next day. Was the ongoing meltdown his fault? Of course not, but a sacrificial lamb was chosen in attempt to awaken the walking dead in the bullpen.
Nothing cuts the heart out of a team more than a bullpen that can’t protect leads. But, to their credit, the Brewers recovered to make a run at the playoffs, albeit too late. Not coincidentally, Axford got his act back together and Rodriguez also found his bearings.
By season’s end, however, the pile of incriminating evidence had stacked too high. The Brewers’ bullpen led the majors with 29 blown saves and 33 losses, and its 4.66 earned run average was the worst.
Melvin decided to keep Axford and setup man Jim Henderson, the dark horse who emerged in the middle of the year after a 10-year journey in the minors. But Rodriguez, Jose Veras, Kameron Loe and Manny Parra were shown the door.
Veras actually pitched well down the stretch but frustrated manager Ron Roenicke with unnecessary walks. Loe’s sinker had stopped sinking. Parra’s years of inconsistency and underachieving finally caught up with him.
With the deconstruction complete, Melvin began the reconstruction, looking to successful bullpens for his plunder. Filling an obvious void, he signed veteran left-handers Tom Gorzelanny and Michael Gonzalez, both coming off nice years in Washington. Burke Badenhop, a Loe-like sinker-baller who had a big 2012, was acquired in a trade with Tampa Bay.
So, the Brewers have Axford, Henderson, Gorzelanny, Gonzalez and Badenhop set. If Brandon Kintzler stays healthy, I’m guessing he’s a keeper as well.
If Roenicke keeps seven relievers — and that’s the way he’s leaning at present — that leaves one spot to be won. The fun part about that situation is that several viable candidates are vying for that spot in camp, led by a pair of hard throwers, Johnny Hellweg and Michael Olmsted.
But will there be a relief job to be won? If Mike Fiers, Wily Peralta and Chris Narveson are chosen to fill the starting rotation behind Yovani Gallardo and Marco Estrada, that would leave Mark Rogers as the odd man out. Rogers is out of minor-league options and arms like that rarely clear waivers, so the Brewers could opt to move him to relief duty to begin the season.
However it shakes out, Melvin believes he has put his relief corps in position to succeed. Of course, that’s what he thought last spring, also.
Bullpens can fool you.