The Milwaukee Brewers find themselves all alone in first place more than three weeks into June in a season that appeared at the outset more likely to end with them in the cellar than at the top of the NL Central Division. They boast a young and powerful offense that’s second in the National League in home runs and a better-than-expected starting rotation featuring a couple of late twenty-something breakouts in Jimmy Nelson and Chase Anderson.
With this level of unexpected success, an outside observer could easily be forgiven for being a bit surprised at the level of consternation among Crew faithful at the current state of their bullpen. After all, the Brewers are currently 11th in the National League in both ERA (4.47) and fWAR (0.9) and have enjoyed a true breakout campaign from 25 year old closer Corey Knebel (1.01 ERA, 15.9 K/9) so things aren’t all bad for the Brewers after starters retire for the rest of the game.
Part of the issue with the Brewers pen this year is the fact that after Knebel, basically every other reliever they’ve given any lengthy run has had at least one long period of failure, along with some extended periods of success. Over his first 31 games of the season, Jacob Barnes looked like an emerging compliment for Knebel, positing a 2.67 ERA, 32 strikeouts in 31 1/3 innings and a .178 batting average against. Since then, he’s seen his ERA balloon to an unsightly 4.28 while giving up runs in 3 of 5 appearances. Similar cases can be made for the much maligned Carlos Torres (2.08 ERA in May) and Jared Hughes (.549 OPS against since May 24th).
At this point, a discerning reader is probably saying something to themselves along the lines of “my, that’s a lot of small sample cherry picking going on.”
They’d be absolutely right. Torres and Hughes (and to a lesser extent Barnes) have both been really bad for runs this season and it’s totally unfair to pluck out just a small run of success to point to it. The problem is, though, that small samples are exactly what relievers give us to work with. They simply don’t pitch enough over even a full season for their numbers to more accurately find their level of true talent. So trying to guess what even a good reliever might do over, say two or three months is going to be basically impossible.
There is little question that the Brewers would like to upgrade their pen over the second half of the season. Just about every team (aside, perhaps, the teams tanking for draft position) would like to do this. The problem lies in actually accomplishing this feat. Teams facing bullpen struggles like the Brewers have essentially three options for finding midyear upgrades for their pen: promote from their own minor league clubs, pick up a player off of waivers, or make a trade. Let’s examine all three of these options for Milwaukee.
The Brewers have already used 15 different pitchers out of the bullpen this season, a number that is sure to jump as the season progresses. They’ve already promoted top prospect Josh Hader to pitch in relief, and while he’s yet to allow a run, he’s had trouble pitching in the strike zone and the jury is still firmly out on whether or not he can pitch in high leverage situations for a contending team at this point in his career. Taylor Jungmann and Brent Suter will probably get another chance to show what they can do before the year is over. Both have had brief big league runs this year that ended when they produced in a mediocre fashion.
AAA relievers like Wei-Chung Wang and Tyler Cravy could both find themselves back in the majors by seasons end, and some minor league starters like Michael Blazek, Jorge Lopez and Brandon Woodruff could see some run in either relief or in the rotation depending on how things go. What does this group have in common? Mostly, that they’ve not failed repeatedly at the big league level this year, at least not yet. They offer clean slates and chances to dream on success, but none of them have shown the ability to consistently work out of the big league pen and keep runs off the board. This doesn’t mean they should be ignored, but expecting that any one of them will step in an be an instant upgrade over someone already in the pen would be a mistake. Many will get chances, some will probably even succeed, but the uncertainty level is high in each case.
Speaking of uncertainty, the second option of finding people off of waivers is as fraught with it as trying to promote from within, if not more. Due to their success this year, the Brewers are currently well down the waiver list and any player who falls to them would have to get by a number of teams in even worse shape than them, many who aren’t really even trying to contend, so they can afford to take fliers and be patient. That makes this a tough route, but the current Brewers front office has shown again and again that they can find useful pieces in a number of ways, so it shouldn’t be dismissed entirely.
Finally, we reach the “they can trade for relief help!” portion of the program. If last summer and this past off season were any indicator, the price for relief help on the trade market is likely to be very high. One need look no further than former Brewers Will Smith, Jeremy Jeffress and Tyler Thornburg for a lesson on not only the high cost of acquiring a reliever with even a modest track record of success and good stuff, but also on how quickly those sorts of acquisitions can go south for a team. The chance of giving up good prospects and getting little in the way of a substantial upgrade is considerable.
Yes, the Aroldis Chapman’s and Andrew Miller’s of the world offered huge, season altering boosts to clubs last summer, but they came at amazingly high costs in terms of prospects. Can the Brewers justify such an expenditure, considering they’re looking down at a Cubs team that’s sitting around .500 and won 103 games last year with much the same young roster as they have this year? If the Cubs do get going, the NL’s second wildcard is currently held by the 44-26 Diamondbacks, who are a full 7 games up on the Brewers, which is an uphill climb all it’s own.
So what are the Brewers to do about their leaky pen then? The answer is probably that they’re going to do whatever they can to make upgrades at the margins and hope that some pitchers get hot. Some guys will get called up, some new players will probably be added to the organization and they’ll also probably stick with a number of the guys causing Brewers fans consternation at the moment, but big acquisitions are unlikely. If there are big changes, their likely to take the form of volume of moves rather than a big name being added.
Ultimately, good relief pitchers can be pretty bad over a few months. Bad relief pitchers can be pretty good in short stretches. Trying to predict who, what and when these things will happen remains one of baseball’s greatest mysteries. Bullpens are fickle, hard-to-tame beasts and yet they remain one of the great separators of clubs on a seasonal basis. All any general manager really can do is to get as many guys that offer some sort of set of positive skills together and hope that it doesn’t all blow up in their face. Hey, if the going gets too tough, they can always scapegoat the manager for using them wrong.