2014 Position Previews: Left-Handed Relief | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

We'd like to go to the Playoffs, that would be cool.

Starters: Will Smith, Zach Duke, Wei-Chung Wang
AAA Depth: None, really
Disabled List: Tom Gorzelanny
The future: Jed Bradley

Left-handed relievers seem to befuddle the Brewers. Every year, they’re rumored to be looking at veteran lefties. Every year, they get that lefty. Every year, they misuse that lefty, claim that lefty is broken, and try to find a new one the next year.

Last year, they brought in Michael Gonzalez and Tom Gorzelanny. Gorzelanny, to his credit, was good — at least until he was actually broken, and now he’s going to start this season on the disabled list. Gonzalez was pretty much a disaster, putting up a 4.68 ERA in 75 outings, predictably getting bludgeoned by right-handed hitters to the tune of a .929 OPS, and not even pitching well in lefty-on-lefty situations. In 2012, Manny Parra was allowed to face too many right-handed hitters in pressure situations, and the results were predictable. In 2011, none of Zach Braddock, Mitch Stetter or Danny Herrera found much success, either.

Maybe the Brewers just don’t know how to use them. Maybe they just stink at picking which lefties they bring to Milwaukee. Whatever the reason, the recent results here have not been good. We’re a long way off from the Brian Shouse era.

The Brewers are hoping this year is different. Yes, Gorzelanny is hurt to start the year, but he was an asset in 2013. How he comes back from a shoulder injury is anyone’s guess, but at least there’s someone with some recent success in this bunch.

Will Smith also had some success last season in Kansas City, although he only appeared in 19 games. Facing 54 lefties in 2013, he held them to a .157/.204/.353 line. His slider is especially devastating against them, and with that kind of short-inning stuff, it isn’t all that surprising that the Brewers see him as a possibility in the 8th inning, at least when matchups warrant it. Of course, the problem with fully trusting Smith in that role is that you truly don’t know how it will go. Relievers are tough to predict to begin with. Young relievers with less than 30 innings in that role are impossible to predict.

If we’re still unsure on what to expect from Smith, then we’re extremely unsure what to expect from Wei-Chung Wang. The Brewers picked Wang out of the Pirates’ system in this winter’s Rule 5 draft, and he’s going to be on the Opening Day roster despite having never pitched above Rookie ball. You’re going to have a hard time finding anyone making a bigger leap than that — even Johan Santana had pitched in the Midwest League before debuting as a Rule 5 player with the Twins. It’s probably safe to say that Wang is no Johan Santana, and it’s fair to question just how much the Brewers should trust him with this season.

Wang did have some impressive outings this spring, but nobody should go around making predictions based on performance in the Cactus League. He probably won’t be trusted with a small lead in the middle innings this year, at least not until he proves himself to Ron Roenicke. He has at least flashed the stuff that caught the Brewers’ eye, which could lead one to believe he’d at least fare well enough as a LOOGY. The problem is the Brewers may still see him as a starter down the line, and may want to make sure he at least pitches enough innings this season to keep that possibility open for next season. If that’s the case, then he’s probably the guy coming in to pitch a few innings after Yovani Gallardo has another one of his clunkers against the Cardinals or closing out the last couple innings of a 10-run lead.

Then there’s Duke, one of the many non-roster players to make the team out of camp this year. Duke’s fallen a long way since his breakout rookie year in 2005, and now he’s just trying to hang on as a situational lefty. Roenicke says he’s noticed a difference in Duke as a reliever as opposed to a starter, which may be true, but we don’t exactly have a lot of recent data to back up this claim — he’s only pitched in a combined 45 big league innings over the past two seasons, and (in an admittedly small sample) has actually had some pretty alarming reverse platoon splits. The guy the Brewers are labeling as their LOOGY heading into 2014 allowed lefty batters to go 17-of-50 (a .340/.353/.400 line) last year. That may just be bad luck in a small sample. It may also just be a bad pitcher giving up a ton of hits.

Duke figures to be the one to go once Gorzelanny is ready to be activated, but stranger decisions have been made. It should be noted that Smith does still have options remaining, and the Brewers could always give the Pirates something for the ability to send Wang down, too, if Duke impresses Roenicke enough to warrant sticking around.

Best Case Scenario:
The improvements that Smith showed last year in Kansas city after a full-time switch to the bullpen are for real, and the Brewers have a lefty they can trust to take a full inning in the 7th or 8th, instead of just using a roster spot on a strict LOOGY. Gorzelanny is able to come back and fill a similar role to what he did in 2013, taking a couple innings at a time if needed. Wang is able to pitch enough (and well enough) to warrant using a roster spot on him.

Worst Case Scenario:
Injuries make it hard to justify using a roster spot on Wang, and the Brewers have to offer him back to Pittsburgh or give up something to a division rival in a trade to keep him in the minors. Duke does his best Michael Gonzalez impression while being allowed to face way too many right-handed hitters.

Most Likely Scenario:
As a whole, the group of lefties performs better than we’re used to seeing the Brewers’ lefties perform (although that won’t be too hard to do). Smith may not end up being the late-inning set-up option they’re hoping for, but is at least able to do what Gorzelanny did last year.

Smith ZiPS projection: 137 IP, 4.25 ERA, 4.10 FIP
Smith PECOTA projection: 117 IP, 4.49 ERA, 4.43 FIP

Duke ZiPS projection: 87 IP, 5.23 ERA, 4.96 FIP
Duke PECTOA projection: 70 IP, 4.60 ERA, 4.48 FIP

3/10: Ryan previewed the catcher position

3/11: Curt previewed first base

3/12: Jonathan previewed second base

3/13: Steve previewed third base

3/14: Vineet previewed short stop

3/17: Adam previewed left field

3/18: Alex previewed center field

3/19: Ryan previewed right field

3/20: Jaymes previewed the top of the  rotation

3/21: Nicholas previewed the back of the rotation

3/22: Curt previewed the team’s rotation depth

3/25: Tim previewed the closer role

3/26: Curt previewed the setup men

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