For the eleventh time this season and sixth time in June, the Milwaukee Brewers bullpen blew a save opportunity on Saturday night. The next day in a tense scoreless affair, reliever Manny Parra allowed the game's only run in the tenth inning, sending the team to a series loss to the White Sox. The Milwaukee relief corp now leads the major leagues with a staggering 17 losses, and its ERA is third-worst. Lately the bullpen has been so bad that it's squandered both the rotation's and lineup's improvements, and is perhaps the main reason why the 33-40 Brewers cannot shed the "underachieving" label at 7.5 games back. Many doubt that this team can even make a run at .500 with this staff of relievers.
Is it time for trades? Maybe not yet—at this point, most every team is too far from the trade deadline and/or too close to contention to become sellers, so we don't have a very good idea of the market yet. Come July 31st, relievers are always some of the hottest commodities, and Milwaukee has added relief arms midyear in practically every season since 2005. Doug Melvin may very well do so again this year, but in the month between, the bullpen must improve in order for the team to win consistently and for the time being, the changes will have to be internal.
Let's group the options a bit, shall we?
John Axford—There's a lot to discuss here, but with Axford it all boils down to one element: command. In interviews, Ax was clearly frustrated with a recent inability to throw his fastball for strikes. It's great that he's isolated the problem, but we haven't seen much evidence of progress yet. His save last Friday night did present two reasons why he should remain the closer, though: 1) he can still handle the pressure of a sudden-death, one-run save opportunity and 2) he can bounce back to throw strikes. He demonstrated this against two of the AL's top hitters, striking out Adam Dunn and inducing the game-ending double play from Paul Konerko. He was able to throw his curveball and fastball for strikes of both swinging and looking varieties in each AB. This all came after an all-fastball, 5-pitch leadoff walk. Here's hoping the command issues are a fluke, and not chronic (also known as Derrick Turnbow Syndrome).
Francisco Rodriguez—We're well acquainted with K-Rod's wildness by now, and it was on full display over the season's first month (5.56 ERA, 8 BB over 11.1 IP). But since May 1st he's been terrific: his strikeout rate has risen significantly, he has yet to walk a batter in June, and he's stranding over 80% of baserunners. His status as Roenicke's "8th Inning Guy" is very safe, and he got two huge strikeouts after entering Sunday's tie game with two aboard and one out. K-Rod is still a very fine setup man, but given other relievers' struggles, he's getting less and less opportunities to protect leads. So why only use him while ahead, and in the 8th? He's less likely to make a one run deficit grow than most anyone else in the pen.
The Question Marks:
Kameron Loe—Always one of Ron Roenicke's favorite arms, the tall righty is again one of the team's most used players. He appears to be one of the team's most reliable relievers in 2012, the only with an ERA below 3.50. His peripherals suggest you take his 3.38 ERA with a grain of salt however: his K/9 is down significantly from last year while his BB/9 and HR/9 have risen, and as evidenced by the jump in his fly ball rate the sinkerballer may be struggling to keep his pitches down in the zone. Indeed, FanGraphs values his sinker at -2.6 runs, down from +6.5 last year. On top of this, Loe is still having trouble with lefties, who are hitting 85 points higher off him than righties. While that's nothing new, the new issues I mentioned above should serve as caution. Remember Jose Bautista's bomb off him last week?
Jose Veras—Talk about a tightrope walker. Veras is a real three-outcomes guy: he racks up Ks and BBs, but limits HRs. He has good velocity, but is fooling less hitters: his swinging strike rate down 1.7% (last year hitters swung through 8.6% of his pitches, which was the league average). Despite the shaky command, I would argue he's been more valuable than Loe. Opposing teams hit .243 with runners on base, a number which drops to .192 when the runners are in scoring position. He also has 1.29 ERA in June and strands 75.5% of runners, leading the bullpen. So far, the guy being counted on to replace Saito/Hawkins 7th inning duo is succeeding, but he could use some help. Similar success in high-leverage innings from Loe or another would go a long way toward improving the 'pen.
The Warm Bodies:
Manny Parra—By virtue of his handedness, the lefty will stay in Milwaukee (he is also out of minor league options). He has good strikeout numbers (9.55 K/9) and a decent 2.5 K/BB ratio, but surprise, surprise, he struggles in high-leverage situations. This was on full display during his appearances on Sunday and Monday. His opposing average jumps a whopping 99 points when runners are on base (.328, .318 when they're in scoring position). This might have something to do with a rather high opposing line-drive rate (25.8%, way above his career average) and reduced effectiveness in his strikeout pitch, his splitter (-.81 runs so far). It's probably best he enters games at the start of innings rather than with runners on until he can pitch better out of the stretch, or be used in games with a score differential greater than one run.
Tim Dillard—The sidearmer has thrown some of the most innings (32.2) out of the 'pen in 2012. He's already surpassed his 2011 IP total, when he bounced between AAA and Milwaukee as the mop-up guy/low-man-on-the-bullpen-totem-pole, often going over a week between appearances. Problem is, he's done little to show he belongs with the big league club. For someone who really should only be counted on against righties, they are hitting .274/.351/.405 off him. Not awful, but certainly not what you want from a right-handed specialist. He's also allowed runs in 7 of his last 10 outings. Dillard is also out of options but if he continues to struggle, his roster spot may be better used on a minor-leaguer with higher upside.
The New Guy:
Livan Hernandez–He pitched to a 4.94 ERA in mop-up/long-man duty for the Braves this year, which is the role many expect him to fill out of the Brewers pen this year too. At this stage in his career, that's about all you can count on him for, but that identity also fits Parra and Dillard. So on a team that already has two mop-up/long men, why not give Hernandez a chance in high-leverage innings, like in last night's 8th? Parra and Dillard have proven they can't handle such work. Hernandez didn't have an opportunity to pitch meaningful innings in Atlanta—that work went to stud Braves relievers like Jonny Venters, Kris Medlen, and Eric O'Flaherty. I'm not suggesting the guy will revive his MLB career as a setup man, but given the troubles Milwaukee has had bridging the gap to K-Rod/Axford he's worth a look.
The Minor League Help (ranked in order of preference):
Jim Henderson—Here's a guy I can get behind, despite zero MLB experience. The 29-year-old flamethrower has given up just 8 ER through 35.1 IP for Nashville, began the year with a 24-inning scoreless streak, and has struck out 38 against 16 walks. He might just have the highest and most consistent velocity of anyone in this group, which would be welcome in Milwaukee where only Veras and Axford can crack the mid-90s. Henderson is one of two in this group not on the 40-man roster though, meaning someone would need to be outrighted for him to get his shot.
Wily Peralta—He's taken the Mark Rogers route and is now an ex-pitching prospect (6.40 ERA at AAA, 63/45 K/BB), but unlike Rogers has no injury concerns and is 23. The club views him as a starter and is likely to be in the 2013 rotation, but until then I can't see how a little major league relief work would hurt. He can reach the mid- to upper-90s with his fastball and has a solid three-pitch mix. Many starter prospects see their first MLB action as relievers, and while Peralta won't be an Adam Wainwright or David Price, I consider him Milwaukee's second-best minor league option.
Tyler Thornburg—I haven't taken sides in the ongoing "is Thornburg ultimately a starter or reliever in the majors" argument, but in the short term I see him as a good bullpen fit. Though he topped out at 96 on the gun during last week's quite-satisfactory emergency start, the concern with Thornburg has always been maintaining that velocity throughout a start. That's one reason he could be very effective out of the 'pen, another being the lack of scouting reports opposing clubs have on him. Toronto hitters were able to adjust to him the third time through the lineup last week, so facing just 4–6 hitters every few days could work well for the time being. Might be best for him to actually make his AAA debut first though.
Mark Rogers—This is an interesting possibility. He's put up poor numbers in AAA (5.65 ERA in 13 starts, 45/38 K/BB), but the ex-top prospect still has some upside. Recent reports on his velocity are good: he hit 97 on the gun recently, the type of velocity the Milwaukee bullpen could certainly use. His impressive 2010 call-up had a lot of people talking about him as part of the future rotation until carpal tunnel surgery limited him to under 50 IP in the minors last year. Perhaps he could find similar success to 2010 as a reliever in 2012.
Mike McClendon—He was sent down after last night's game to make room for Marco Estrada. At times McClendon has been the first guy up from Nashville in the spring but hasn't been given much of a chance to prove himself in the majors (42.2 MLB IP) despite good minor league numbers (3.56 career ERA). The team doesn't seem too keen on his skills in the majors and found guys like Vinnie Chulk and Juan Perez to be more attractive options. I would rather see the high-upside guys get their shot before him anyway.
Brandon Kintzler—His brief stints in Milwaukee prior to injury were promising last spring, but this year he has remained in AA after his rehab assignment ended and is struggling: 6.08 ERA in 13.1 IP, 5 K, 4 BB, a far cry from the 3.68 ERA, 15 K, 3 BB line he posted in 14.2 MLB innings. I've read his velocity is low-90s which is in line with his career norms, but that he's also not fully recovered from his forearm surgery. All things considered I doubt he'll pitch in the bigs anytime soon, which is really too bad: he had the look of a productive Brewers reliever for seasons to come.
Claudio Vargas—Though his last MLB action came in his second Brewer stint in 2010, he was in the mix for last Wednesday's spot start. Now in his third stint with the organization, he has a 4.83 ERA through 7 starts for the Sounds with a 28/12 K/BB ratio. Of the minor league options he's the least attractive, but he's sooner to get a chance than Chulk or Perez. This would be digging pretty deep, assuming the younger guys get calls before he does. He was pitching in the Mexican League before the Brewers signed him, after all.
The Ships That Have Sailed:
Vinnie Chulk, Juan Perez—Break glass only in case of emergency.
Solution:Like Nick, I don't actually think the Brewers' bullpen is as bad as we've seen lately. Of the current relief corps, five were with the team last year when the' pen was perhaps the team's biggest strength. That kind of performance is unsustainable year-to-year, so in 2012 we've of course seen the exact opposite.
I could see this group reversing the trend if Roenicke gives Parra and Dillard's high leverage innings to Veras, K-Rod, and even Hernandez. The offense has enough trouble digging out of holes and those two "warm bodies" have a knack for digging said holes deeper.
If that doesn't work, Henderson, Peralta, Thornburg, and even Rogers would be fine choices to try and right the ship. Maybe it's the optimist in me, but I could see one of those four becoming a solid reliever for this year's team. Even a short-term success story could go a long way toward helping this team win more consistently.