In case you missed it, the Brewers signed Francisco Rodriguez to a two-year deal on Thursday, reuniting the club with their dependable, veteran closer. The Brewers must make a roster move to accommodate their new closer, and Rodriguez needs to secure a work visa, so it is unclear how exactly the dynamic of the bullpen will change (will Rodriguez force another arm off the 40-man roster? Or will the 40-man move come from the infield? Given that the Brewers only have three catchers and six outfielders, it seems unlikely that a 40-man roster move would eliminate one of those players from MLB roster contention).
By my count, the Brewers already have 16 relievers or minor league starters on their 40-man roster, which indeed means that Rodriguez adds to an extreme level of pitching depth. Moreover, with Neal Cotts and Jonathan Broxton on the roster, the Brewers are going with a “veteran” look at the back end of the bullpen. Although pitchers like Will Smith, Jeremy Jeffress, and/or Corey Knebel could have back-end bullpen potential to lock down games, the Brewers’ deep veteran back-end bullpen will arguably move solid, young impact arms to the middle of the game. This bullpen reminds me of the mid-2000s Cleveland Indians bullpen, where Joe Borowski was pegged as the “standard closer,” and a group of high impact arms served elsewhere to lockdown wins for the Indians. I am sure there are other models of this type of bullpen, but the basic point is that working with these dependable, big-name veterans in the “standard roles” will give Runnin’ Ron Roenicke the chance to get creative with a set of young arms with better stuff.
Basically, if you think Jeffress, Knebel, or Smith could have closed at some point in 2015, and served as a high-impact reliever, the Brewers now effectively have a “closer by committee” set that can rotate throughout the 6th, 7th, and 8th innings, and a veteran group that could work in more typical, set roles. This type of radical bullpen depth could also help the Brewers address a lack of starting pitching depth by making the games shorter, and thereby requiring less from their starters.
With that, let’s take a look at the Brewers’ current bullpen depth, pending roster moves:
Veteran Aces: Cotts, Broxton, Rodriguez
The Brewers are quite familiar with Rodriguez, as Adam McCalvy wrote that the Brewers have gone out of their way to acquire the veteran a handful of times since July 2011. Rodriguez will depend on his biting off-speed pitches, as his fastball will not necessarily trick anyone into judging it as an elite closing pitch. However, Rodriguez does boast a “moving / riding” variety of fastball that he selected nearly 31% of the time in 2014, according to Brooks Baseball. That pitch effectively allows Rodriguez to change speeds on the same plane, as both his change up and sinker break in against righties; together, those pitches comprised nearly 3-of-5 selections for the closer in 2014. Rodriguez also provides an effective “change up” in sheer stuff, compared to Cotts and Broxton, who will give batters “traditional” Brewers approaches of sinker / slider offerings. Even if Broxton’s velocity is not what it once was, the big righty can still rush his fastballs to the plate around 93-94 MPH.
Middle Relief: Will Smith, Brandon Kintzler, Jeremy Jeffress
This trio of arms could serve as a “hidden benefit” of the Rodriguez and Cotts signings. Namely, as I mentioned above, if the Brewers employ their veterans in more “standard, traditional reliever” roles, they reserve some of their best bullpen stuff for more flexible outings. Smith’s low-to-mid 90s fastball / slider profile, and Jeffress’s extreme fastball / sinker / curve profile arguably offer a couple of the best approaches out of the pen for Milwaukee. Even Kintzler’s sinker can be effective when he’s at his best, and if Broxton and Cotts take up the 7th or 8th inning set-up roles, Kintzler could find a middle innings niche that allows him to find that effectiveness again.
If you can’t tell, I’m positively doing cartwheels about the potential of seeing Smith and Jeffress moved earlier into the ballgame. If the Brewers can use Jeffress and Smith as potential “lockdown” guys in the 6th or 7th innings, the back of their bullpen could see even more opportunities to produce victories in close games. There should be no question that seeing Jeffress’s 96-97 MPH rising and riding fastballs in the 6th, and then Rodriguez’s assortment of offspeed stuff in the 9th, could give opposing batters fits when those pitchers have their best command and stuff working. The Brewers bullpen not only has a set of younger, up-and-coming relievers to work in the middle of the game and potentially prove their ability to win a late-inning role, but they also offer variations in stuff and approaches that will give Roenicke flexibility to create great match-ups.
Injury Question Marks: Jim Henderson and Tyler Thornburg
Righties Thornburg and Henderson have served as extremely important relief arms for the Brewers at certain points during the last few years, and the development of both pitchers in 2014 appeared to signal the coming of a low-cost, controllable, and elite bullpen staff. Unfortunately, injuries plagued both pitchers, which raises questions about their readiness for 2015 (especially since Doug Melvin has acquired a handful of additional relievers entering spring training). If the Brewers are doubtful about either of these arms, I wouldn’t be surprised to see one of these righties provide the new roster spot for Rodriguez.
Minor League Depth: Knebel, Michael Blazek, David Goforth, Brooks Hall, Johnny Hellweg, Taylor Jungmann, Michael Strong, Wei-Chung Wang, Rob Wooten
More than half of the Brewers 17 relief-depth pitchers could have potential minor league options, with Blazek and Wooten the most likely candidates to be out of options (according to JSOnline, Blazek should have an option year in 2015; as commenter 2ndHS points out below, Wooten should also have an option in 2015). One of these pitchers may serve as the open roster spot for Rodriguez, but if Doug Melvin elects to keep these guys in the organization, he will have quite a group of pitching depth to work with. While it is unlikely for Wang to see MLB playing time in 2015, as the Brewers will work on his starting pitching development in the minors, each of these hurlers could serve as midseason replacements due to injury or ineffectiveness.