Welcome to Rounding the Bases, a weekly column where writers Ryan Topp and Steve Garczynski participate in a discussion on one baseball topic. This week, the two tackle the Brewers’ bullpen. You can follow @RyanTopp and @SteveGarczynski on Twitter.
I’m going to get the thoughts on Kyle Lohse out of the way. Lohse makes the starting rotation better than it would have been by bumping everyone under Yovani Gallardo down a spot in the rotation. He had a career year in 2012, throwing a career high 211 innings and posting a career best 2.86 ERA. He might duplicate the innings, but the ERA will probably be at least a full run higher in 2013. This would have been a decent signing for a team that is right on the playoff bubble. The Brewers aren’t that team, so it looks like another Mark Attanasio vanity signing.
The Milwaukee Brewers bullpen was historically bad in 2012, so Doug Melvin did his best to bandage the wound in the off season. Gone are Francisco Rodriguez, Kameron Loe and Manny Parra, and Melvin raided the Nationals to sign lefties Tom Gorzelanny and Michael Gonzalez. The best way to demonstrate the difference between the two is that Gorzelanny threw 72 innings in 45 appearances, where Gonzalez threw 35.2 innings in 47 appearances.
The pen is anchored by John Axford. The Axe Man was incredible in 2010 and 2011, and a gas can in 2012. If I were a betting man, I’d say that his 19.2% home run to fly ball rate doesn’t carry over to 2013. That is an insane number, and guy that’s striking out over 10 batters per nine innings shouldn’t get hit that hard again. It would be nice to see him get his walk rate back under 4 BB/9.
Ryan, do you think Doug Melvin did enough to fix the bullpen? Do the new arms matter, or is it addition by subtraction?
I can’t really argue with anything you’ve said about the Lohse signing. You buy a guy with unremarkable stuff who relies on command at the age of 34 for 3 years and you’re basically just praying the bottom doesn’t fall out too soon. The fact that his FIP was a half a run higher than his ERA, and his xFIP was a full run higher tells me that you can add fears of regression to the obvious age issue. The fact that future clubs will have to pay the price for this for the next half decade makes it even less appetizing, as does the loss of the 17th pick in the Rule 4* Draft this year. As GM Doug Melvin has said repeatedly, teams in markets like Milwaukee can’t afford to give up first round picks.
*Steve incorrectly wrote “Rule 5” when editing this piece. Ryan would like everyone to know that he wouldn’t make that mistake.
Anyway, moving back to the bullpen and your question, I have to just be honest and say I haven’t the foggiest idea of whether or not Melvin “fixed” the bullpen. Going into last year, I thought the pen was set up to be really good, and they completely imploded, so I’m getting out of the bullpen projection business. I think they have some arms that could gel into a successful unit, but exactly how that might unfold I’m not going to presume to know.
As for Axford, I really do think you’re onto something when you point to his home runs. I don’t think that is remotely likely to continue, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the walk rate dropped a bit accordingly. It seemed that at times Axford became afraid of coming over the plate, which is only natural. I don’t know that we’ll ever again see the Axford of 2010-11, but I also don’t think that the 2012 version is all we’ll ever see again.
Jim Henderson was a pleasant surprise for the team in the second half of 2012. He’s a hard thrower who punched out 13.21 batters per 9. That number won’t hold this season, though he could still be a 9+ K/9 pitcher out of the pen. Projections are all over the place for Henderson, ranging from a 3.63 ERA from Steamer and a 4.94 ERA from ZiPS. His BB/9 and HR/9 are going to go a long way toward determining how useful he’ll be to the Brewers.
Hey, did you remember that the Brewers traded Raul Mondesi Jr. for Burke Badenhop back in December? Badenhop is a sinker baller who should add depth to the pen. There aren’t many interesting facts about Badenhop. He does have a career .69 HR/9, so maybe he’ll do a decent job of keeping the ball in the park, especially in Cincinnati and in the summer in Chicago when Wrigley turns into a launching pad.
Really, this is just another bullpen and as noted, it’s a fool’s errand to try and predict the success or failure of a bullpen before the start of the season. Small samples sink season stats, and in reality, the production of the bullpen is dependent on the number of innings that a starting rotation is able to cover. A well rested bullpen can dominate, and the same bullpen looks like they’ll never hold a lead if they’re called into the game before the 7th every night.
Yeah, it’s tough to talk about a bullpen, because every assumption you make seems just about as likely to be right as wrong. For instance, I think Badenhop is essentially the new Kameron Loe. Both are sinker guys with some platoon issues, who can be useful at times but will also become hit prone at others. But what does that mean for this year? In 2010, Loe was really good for the Brewers. In 2011 he was less so and last year he got even worse. Will Badenhop look like the 2010 version of Loe, the 2012 version or none of the above? Who knows? The vagaries of the small sample are just too much to be very certain about anything.
Going back to some previously mentioned guys, the two new lefties in the pen, I get why they added Gorzelanny. He can get out lefties and righties with some effectiveness and is capable of eating innings, and the price was OK. What I don’t get is what use Gonzalez has at this point. He’s dynamite against left handed batters, but isn’t really useful anymore against the right handed. That plays in the playoffs and with managers who like to play matchups, but over the course of the long season I question whether Roenicke will make enough use of him to make him worthy of the roster spot.
Finally, I wanted to talk a little about the young guys. Brandon Kintzler is going to get his first full shot at MLB, and he seems to have the stuff to be an effective middle reliever if his health holds. Beyond him, there is a real chance that we could see Tyler Thornburg in the MLB bullpen if the team finally gives up on starting him or if options run low. Johnny Hellweg is in the same sort of boat, though maybe a little further away. Beyond them, there are some guys like Kyle Heckathorn and Michael Olmstead who could easily get a look if they pitch well. Care to venture any guesses as to who we’ll be talking about coming off a big year in 2013 this time next year?
If someone is going to breakout in that group on raw stuff, I’d have to go with Hellweg. The Brewers are going to give him every chance to fail as a starter before putting him in the bullpen though. Thornburg is the most intriguing potential bullpen piece. He could be more of a workhorse reliever that eats multiple innings in a game and gets pulled before he has to make another turn through a line up. I’ll admit that it’s wishful thinking that major league managers will start using their bullpen arms in that way.
Overall, this unit of relievers should be an improvement over 2012, if only because their awful luck is unlikely to haunt the Brewers for a second consecutive year. I’m inclined to be a little more optimistic in guessing a win total for Milwaukee this year, giving them an extra couple wins from a bullpen that holds close to a league average number of leads.
Win total predictions will have to wait until Opening Day.