The Brewers learned the hard way just how volatile bullpens can be in 2012 — after playing a large role in the Brew Crew’s division title run in 2011, the pen imploded in 2012. Milwaukee ended the year leading all of baseball with 29 blown saves, and spent much of the offseason rebuilding one of the worst-performing pens in team history. Now, they’re back to where they were a few years ago before trading for Greinke and Shaun Marcum: a killer offense mixed with low-ceiling pitching.
Depth Chart (as of 3/6)
C: Jonathan Lucroy
1B: Taylor Green/Hunter Morris/Alex Gonzalez
2B: Rickie Weeks
SS: Jean Segura
3B: Aramis Ramirez
LF: Ryan Braun
CF: Carlos Gomez
RF: Norichika Aoki
SP: Yovani Gallardo
SP: Marco Estrada
SP: Mike Fiers
SP: Wily Peralta
SP: Chris Narveson
CL: John Axford
It would have been easier for Doug Melvin to chalk up last year’s bullpen problems to everyone having a bad year at the same time, but that likely would’ve resulted in a PR hit. Melvin had to do something, so he did. He traded minor league outfielder Raul Mondesi, Jr. to Tampa Bay for groundball specialist Burke Badenhop. Then he signed lefties Tom Gorzelanny and Michael (don't call him Mike anymore) Gonzalez. And aside from a few minor league free agents with live arms, that was it for the Brewers’ offseason — effective, even if it was a bit boring.
Of course, to build a new bullpen, Melvin needed to completely demolish the old one — basically everyone from last year’s group except for John Axford and Jim Henderson were sent packing. Jose Veras (now with Houston) and Kameron Loe (in camp with Seattle) were outrighted rather than offered arbitration and elected free agency. Manny Parra (now in Cincinnati) was non-tendered. As a free agent, Francisco Rodriguez (still unsigned, but pitching for Venezuela in the World Baseball Classic) was allowed to walk away without an effort to bring him back, as was Shaun Marcum. Nyjer Morgan was also outrighted, elected free agency, and is currently bringing Beast Mode to Japan as a member of the Yokohama BayStars.
Wily Peralta has struggled with command throughout his minor league career, but kept those issues in check during his September call-up last year, when he walked 11 and struck out 23 in 29 innings. The only Brewers prospect in most Top 100 lists this offseason, Peralta has a good shot at making the rotation out of spring training. If he can’t keep a handle on his walks, things could get ugly (especially at hitter-friendly Miller Park), but he also has the stuff to be the second-best starter in the rotation. Hunter Morris — the Brewers’ 2012 Minor League Player of the Year — could also make an impact if he can win the first base job while Corey Hart recovers from knee surgery.
Not only do the Brewers have six starting pitchers with a realistic chance at making the rotation, but behind Yovani Gallardo, the order of the entire rotation is also up for grabs. The final spot in the rotation likely comes down to Mark Rogers vs. Chris Narveson — Rogers is out of options; Narveson is coming back from a torn labrum and rotator cuff, but would be the only left-hander in the rotation. There’s also the matter of who will play first base with Hart out for the first 1-2 months of the season and Mat Gamel already out for the year after re-tearing his ACL. Morris is a possibility, but the front office has also said the likes of Alex Gonzalez, Bobby Crosby and Taylor Green will get a shot at the job. Not exactly an inspiring group.
One of the biggest injury concerns (Gamel) has already been lost for the year, so there’s that. There’s also Narveson coming back from the torn labrum/rotator cuff combo in his left (throwing) shoulder — it’s tough for pitchers to come back from an injury like that and be effective, especially those who were fringy 5th starter types to begin with. The other candidate for the 5th rotation spot, Rogers, has an injury history a mile long — the 134 total innings he threw last year were the most he’s thrown in his 7-season, 9-year pro career (he missed 2.5 years from 2006-2008 with labrum and scar tissue problems). If Rogers were to win a rotation spot, his innings would have to be monitored closely.
Can the Brewers compete with such inexperienced starting pitching?
In a perfect world, the young starters don’t hit a wall in August and actually finish the year strong, while the offense continues to be one of the best in the NL. The rebuilt bullpen also proves they’re able to hold a lead, and the Brewers work their way into the playoffs for the second time in three years.
The starting rotation — Gallardo included — struggles to work efficiently, leaving the bullpen too many innings to cover, leading to another bullpen meltdown. Oh, and MLB finds enough evidence in their Biogenesis investigation to suspend Ryan Braun for the first 50 games of the season, which combined with Hart’s absence and Aramis Ramirez’s struggles in April and May leaves the Brewers without their top three offensive threats for the first two months. That would be the start to a 90-loss season.
Most of the over/unders on the Brewers have been between 79 and 81 wins, and without any way of knowing how the starting pitching is going to hold up, that seems just about right. Pitching — from both the rotation and the bullpen — could be a roller-coaster ride this year, but the bats will keep them in just about every game they play.