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The Milwaukee Brewers bullpen: “Knowns” and unknowns

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John Axford

Milwaukee Brewers' John Axford throws during a spring training baseball game against the San Francisco Giants, Sunday, March 4, 2012, in Phoenix.

The bullpen for the Milwaukee Brewers in 2012 was bad.

Really bad.

The Brewers bullpen led Major League Baseball in blown saves (29, two ahead of Colorado) and had the worst earned run average (4.66) in the big leagues.

Chance was needed and it appears change has arrived. Gone are Jose Veras, Kameron Loe, Manny Parra and Francisco Rodriguez.

Here are Tom Gorzelanny, Michael Gonzalez, Burke Badenhop and a host of other lesser knows to battle for those newly-opened spots.

But the Brewers bullpen won’t be all new. Closer John Axford avoided arbitration last week, inking a 1-year deal to return to the club as its ninth inning man.

Lesser-known holdovers Jim Henderson and Brandon Kinzler return after pitching well out of the bullpen in 2012 and are in line to become solid contributors.

But how will this mix of new and old faces shake out? Before we can figure that out, it helps to learn about those faces that will be competing for the jobs in spring training.

“Knowns”

I put knowns in quotes because bullpens often have high turnover. Year-to-year production in relief is valuable, but not always predictable.

Coming off a stellar 2011 season (2-2, 1.95 ERA, 46 saves and over 3-to-1 K/BB ratio), it was hard for John Axford to follow up a season of that caliber. But the formally long-haired Milwaukee closer struggled in 2012, seeing his BB/9 rate jump by two walks per nine innings and his ERA jump nearly three runs. He briefly lost his closer job during the season, but regained it and finished the year with a 5-8 record and 35 saves. There’s no reason to expect that Axford won’t start the year as Milwaukee’s closer, but it’ll be interesting to see where the 2013 version of Axford lies. Is he closer to his 2011 effort or his 2012 performance?

Henderson and Kintzler didn’t spend the full 2012 season in the bullpen, but were successful while they were there. Henderson quickly moves his way up to a setup role by season’s end, using good velocity (He averaged 95 MPH on his fastball) with a sharp slider, leading to a 13.21 K/9 rate in just over 30 innings. Like Axford, Henderson made it to the majors not as a highly-touted prospect, but rather a less-heralded fireballer who took advantage of opportunity.

Kintzler posted a 3.78 ERA in 14 appearances for Milwaukee in 2012 after spending much of the season battling a right arm injury. Like Henderson, Kinzler showed good velocity (92.7 MPH) and should be in the mix for a bullpen spot.

If Axford, Henderson and Kinzler are the three returners in line to battle for a bullpen spot, who are the new names and faces?

Unknowns

I only put lefties Michael Gonzalez and Tom Gorzelanny and Burke Badenhop in the “Unknowns” category because they may be unknown to Brewers fans, but certainly they are unknown as far as what they can provide.

Gonzalez, a 34-year old lefty who signed a one-year deal with the Brewers earlier this offseason, brings a career ERA of 2.94 and high career strikeout numbers (career 10.29 K/9) to Milwaukee. He is a legitimate lefty specialist, a weapon that Ron Roenicke hasn’t had during his time as manager in Milwaukee.

Gorzelanny, also a left-hander, is a former starter but has found his niche as a middle reliever. Last year with the Nationals, he had a 2.88 ERA in 72 innings and signed a 2-year deal with the Brewers.

Badenhop, acquired in a trade from the Tampa Bay Rays, is a sinkerballer that has posted an ERA below 4.00 in three of the past four seasons, including a 3.03 ERA with a 3-2 record in 62.1 innings last year.

Those three, along with the prior three “Knowns” figure to be on pretty sure footing to grab bullpen spots. Meaning that could leave one spot up for grabs amongst a group of lesser-knows like Fautino De Los Santos, Johnny Hellwig, Michael Olmsted, Josh Stinson and others.

Olmsted is a sleeper, in my opinion, and someone to keep an eye on. He has good size (6’6, 245 pounds), has had success in the minor leagues (ERA of 2.29 or lower in four minor league stops with the Red Sox) and also has the kind of back story that makes you want to root for him.

Bottom Line

The optimist says the Milwaukee Brewers bullpen can’t be as bad as it was last year. But with the team relying on more young starters in 2013, that will also require the bullpen to at times carry some of the burden. The team has brought in many new faces to compete and hopefully bring the bullpen back to respectability, a place it was at in 2011 when the team made a postseason run. Not saying the Brewers are close to doing that again in 2013, but if they have any hopes of competing in the NL Central, a fixed bullpen is a must.

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