Starters: Brandon Kintzler, Francisco Rodriguez
Backups: Will Smith, Jim Henderson
AAA Depth: Michael Blazek, Rob Wooten, Johnny Hellweg
The future: Kevin Shackelford, Wei-Chung Wang, Barrett Astin
Yesterday, Tim previewed the closer role for the Brewers. He talked about Canadian closers, eccentric personalities, and Brandon Kintzler’s awesomeness. There isn’t much more I can add to the guys he covered in his post–most comprehensively Henderson, Kintzler, and Rodriguez.
Henderson comes into the season as the clear anchor to the Brewers bullpen. It’s a position he, by all means, earned last season, doing what closers are asked to do: getting lots of empty swings and finishing off games. He struck out 11.25 batters per nine innings (well above league average at 7.57). One thing that often comes with closers that rely heavily on strikeouts is excessive walks. Henderson, compared to other high-strikeout relievers, did a good job of limiting walks at 3.60 BB/9. His control early in counts can be a problem at times and get him in trouble. He threw first pitch strikes 48.6 percent of the time (nearly 10 points lower than league average for relievers).
Behind him in the setup role are two viable options for Ron Roenicke and the Brewers.
Kintzler is a different breed of late-game reliever from what we’ve become used to encountering. He’s not the hard-throwing, intimidating reliever that comes in and shuts the game down by gassing the ball by hitters; he’s the kind of reliever that gets married in a drive-thru wedding with his dog in a tuxedo in the backseat and considers getting ground balls one of his favorite pasttimes.
Over the last two seasons, Kintzler has shown the Brewers he is a reliable option in the bullpen. He’s struck out around 19 percent of batters and walked under ten (a remarkably-low 5.3 last season). Just because he’s not striking out thirty percent of batters and growing out a huge mustache hasn’t made him any less effective. As Tim alluded to in his post, Kintzler gets 3.12 ground balls to each fly ball while limiting his walks (3.63 K/BB). He relies primarily on a fastball with sink and a sharp slider down in the zone to induce weak contact.
The other man the Brewers will utilize in the 8th inning is everyone’s heart rate’s favorite, Francisco Rodriguez. It’s never easy and not always a fun excursion, but he, more often than not, gets the job done. Between Milwaukee and Baltimore last season, Rodriguez posted a K/9 of 10.41 and a career-low BB/9. His peripherals are a bit surprising and it’s easy to forget how effective he actually was. He posted a 2.70 ERA and 3.04 xFIP. In the instance of a Henderson implosion, Rodriguez has shown to be the Brewers next option. It’s probably the whole closer resume thing that’s not really a thing but we’ll act like it is.
Lefty Will Smith could fill in nicely in the back of the Brewers bullpen. He features a devastating slider and, as primarily a reliever last season struck out 11.61 per nine innings to go along with a nice little K/BB of 6.14 NO BIG DEAL. To begin the season, it will be interesting to see how he is used, whether it’s in late-game lefty vs. lefty scenarios or as a middle reliever.
After that, the Brewers have a few options in AAA that could work their way up to a setup role.
Michael Blazek was the player to be named later in the August trade of John Axford to St. Louis. He’s a hard thrower that struggles with command, which is why he’s opening the season in the minors. A little fine tuning and some nice results in Nashville and BAM Michael Blazek is a viable late-game reliever.
Wooten was the final pitcher to miss the cut from the Opening Day roster. But, as we know, the initial roster is never how it looks come season’s end. In 27 appearances with Milwaukee last season, his strike out totals were low, but he was great at keeping the ball in the park (0.33 HR/9, 43% GB). He has the experience in a major league bullpen and could work his way up the ladder if things go awry.
Johnny Hellweg is an interesting case. He’s 6-foot-9 and has a closer’s firearm but hasn’t had command or success at the big league level. For him to work his way into the Brewers bullpen this season, he will first have to improve on first-pitch strikes and ensuing free passes that get him into trouble.
As for the future, it’s difficult to look at the prospects emerging in the system and say, “Hey, that guy sure looks like he’ll be a nifty setup man in 3 years.” But, for this preview’s sake, there are a few current minor leaguers that can have parallels drawn to past Brewers setup men.
Kevin Shackelford was added to the Brewers 40-man roster and is designated to start the season in AA. A converted catcher, the 6-foot-5 Shackelford had an impressive performance in the Arizona Fall League last season after posting a 0.92 era in 29.1 innings with AA Huntsville. He was in discussions–albeit modest–to make the big league bullpen, but the Brewers are set on honing his skills as a relatively new pitcher.
The Brewers signing of Wei-Chung Wang via the Rule 5 draft this winter was quiet and easy to glance over at the time. After an impressive spring, Wang, who has never pitched higher than rookie ball, is on the Opening Day roster in the bullpen. If he continues to work his way up, the setup role isn’t too far from his grasp. He will turn 22 this April.
You won’t hear much from Barrett Astin for a couple of years, at the least. The Brewers 3rd round draft pick out of Arkansas in 2013, Astin was a dominant reliever in college and performed well in his first short stint as a professional. He features a low-90s fastball and good movement on his changeup, though reports on his slider are that it needs work. Expect him to develop through both levels of A ball this season.
Best Case Scenario: If all plays out well, Jim Henderson will hold the closer’s role for the season, leaving Kintzler and Rodriguez to hold down the setup job. The back end of the Brewers bullpen becomes the team’s strongest asset. Any lead after six innings is secure (much like it was with the Saito-Rodriguez-Axford connection in 2011) because of the dominance of the setup men and Henderson. Kintzler is able to keep his HR% down while raising strikeout numbers. Rodriguez is comfortable splitting time with Kintzler in high-leverage situations, continuing to decrease his walk rate. The Brewers are able to use either Kintzler or Rodriguez in late-game situations because they, essentially, have three closers.
Worst Case Scenario: It begins with a Jim Henderson implosion that carries over to the rest of the bullpen. Kintzler’s freakishly-low home run numbers (0.23 HR/9, 4.9% HR/FB) give into standard regression and jump up to league average, exposing his reliance on getting grounders. His BB/9 jumps over 3 and his K/9 doesn’t improve at all. Eventually, the back end of the bullpen is a circus wheel, with parts rotating in and out. Everything is bad.
Rick Kranitz gets fired wait that’s not the worst thing that could happen.
Most Likely Scenario: Brandon Kintzler remains awesome and Rodriguez experiences both highs and lows, but they create a formidable seventh/eighth inning combo. Combined, they walk under 2.50 per nine innings, get ahead of around 60% of hitters in the count, work in and out of trouble, and get lots of grounders with their off-speed pitches. Rodriguez will evidently get more saves than Kintzler, but, overall, Kintzler will have the better year of the two.
Projections: Check Tim’s post from Tuesday.
The series so far:
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.