A Different Look for the Brewers Bullpen in 2016
As the 2016 season approaches, there are several questions about the Brewers relievers. Every bullpen in baseball is going to have turnover from year to year. Before the 2015 season even ended, RHP Jonathan Broxton was traded 7-31-15 to St. Louis and LHP Neal Cotts was traded to the Twins on 8-21-15. Several former members of the major league bullpen have moved onto other teams this offseason. Here is a list of guys who have pitched in the big league bullpen for the crew at one point in 2014 or 2015 that are now signed by other teams: Brandon Kintzler: (Twins) Preston Guilmet: (Tigers) Rob Wooten (Braves) and Jim Henderson: (Mets). RHP Josh Roenicke pitched in AAA for the Brewers in 2015 and is a free agent. While Johnny Hellweg was not considered a bullpen pitcher by the Brewers, he did make one bullpen appearance for the Major League Crew in 2013 aside from his starts. After his Tommy John surgery and his comeback attempts, he has signed with the Padres for 2016. Kyle Lohse pitched out of the pen for a while in 2015 and he is a free agent.
Most notable among the offseason activity was the trade of Francisco Rodriguez on 11-18-15, leaving an opening at the closer position. Now the question is who is going to be the new cost effective closer for a rebuilding team?
One of the first names that come to mind to close for the Brewers is Will Smith. 26 year old Smith has been a very good left handed pitcher in the Brewers bullpen for two seasons, but in each of those two seasons, he has had a second half fade. In 2015 for example, Will had a 1.87 ERA in the first half, but it ballooned to a 3.64 ERA in the second half of the campaign. He pitched four less innings in the second half than he did in the first, but he still seemed to run out of gas down the stretch.
One name that has emerged as a closer candidate in addition to Will Smith is Jeremy Jeffress because he throws hard. His fastball and two seam fastball have averaged 95 miles an hour in 2015, but have been known to touch 98. According to Fangraphs, he also has a curveball around 80 mph and change up around 89 mph that he can go to. After resurrecting his career in Milwaukee and straightening out his marijuana problem, 28 year old Jeffress now is one of the primary guys who could be the Brewers closer.
Other Returning Pen Members
There are several guys who pitched out of the major league pen in 2015 who are on the 40 man roster as of right now.
Michael Blazek pitched well out of the major league pen in 2015, contributing a 2.43 ERA in 45 appearances. He did get hurt eventually with a fracture on his pitching hand and he hopes to get off to a good start to the 2016 season. If healthy, he can be a key part of the 2016 pen as a right handed option for Craig Counsell.
24 Year Old RHP Corey Knebel made 48 big league appearances and had a 3.22 ERA in 2015. You have to be pleased with the job he did when asked to go out there. He looks to crack the team out of camp as a near lock.
Tyler Cravy did not have success in the big leagues for the crew in 2015, either as a starter or a reliever, taking eight losses and compiling an ERA near six. The 26 year old righty has only ever pitched 18 games in AAA, meaning he just should get a bit more seasoning and stability. In the minors he has made 68 starts and 71 relief appearances, for a commendable ERA of 3.73. While Cravy is still on the 40 man, I would not think he would be a guy who makes it to the final spring training cuts.
Yes, Tyler Thornburg is still around. Although he has been a very good starter in the minors, the Brewers have almost always used him out of the pen at the big league level. He has taken the ball whenever he has been asked to, but truthfully it seems that he would rather start and stay a starter. All told, 27 year old Thornburg has made 10 major league starts and 67 relief appearances for an era of 3.18 while starting 83 games in the minors and only relieving three times for an overall ERA of 3.80. Injuries have slowed his major league progression. As of now he appears healthy. He has been all over trade rumors in the past. If the Brewers do not consider him part of the rotation, he will be dealt.
27 year old RHP David Goforth made 20 big league appearances for the crew in 2015, picking up one win and having a solid ERA of 4.01. He has shown consistency in the minors, having a career ERA of 4.44 in 127 relief appearances and 46 starts. My prediction is that he will be back and forth between AAA and the bigs in 2016. He may not make one of the spots out of camp, but he will probably log some big league service time this season.
Ariel Pena made just one relief appearance in the bigs for the crew in 2015, and his minor league history does show only 45 relief appearances versus 168 starts. He has promise, with an overall ERA of 3.76 in nine years of minor league work, and possibly could make the team as a long man if he is not considered one of the starting five. At age 26, he could get some major league time for a team looking at its future.
24 year old RHP Tyler Wagner remains on the Brewers’ 40 man roster. Tyler has made a handful of relief appearances in 2013 and 2014 in the minors and the Arizona Fall League, but he most likely will NOT appear in the 2016 bullpen and seems ticketed to start the year at AAA.
22 year old RHP Jorge Lopez has not pitched in relief since 2012 when he did it at Class A. Like Wagner, he is most likely to remain a starter and should be starting the year at AAA.
Yhonathan Barrios is just 24 years old and he made five scoreless relief appearances for the big league team in 2015. The righty was acquired when the Brewers dealt Aramis Ramirez on 7-23-15. In the minors he has made 100 relief appearances with an ERA of 3.12. Having only spent 13 games at the AAA level, he will almost certainly start the season there, but I would not rule out a Barrios call up to pitch in the pen at some point.
Like Barrios, 22 year old RHP Adrian Houser got a cup of coffee in the bigs in 2015. He had two scoreless appearances in the bigs, but over 75% of his minors work has been a starter. He has never pitched at the AAA level, so he seems certain to begin the year there.
Mike Strong was a top Brewers prospect but he is now gone as the Marlins claimed him off of waivers on 12-7-15. After that, the Marlins took him off their roster, and this time the Twins picked him up off of waivers on 1-22-16.
Jacob Barnes is a 25 RHP on the Brewer’s 40 man roster. He has never pitched above AA, but has 48 starts and 81 relief appearances to his minor league credit, with a total ERA of 3.50. Like the others, he is probably going to begin the year at AAA Colorado Springs, but he could receive a big league call at some point.
Damien Magnifico is another highly regarded prospect in the Brewers system. In the minors he has made 41 starts and 53 relief appearances, with an overall ERA of 3.65, but the 24 RHP has also never been above AA. He should start the season as a member of the team at Colorado Springs, and like many others, could be considered for a callup at some point in 2016 if all goes well.
In the offseason, the Brewers acquired Zach Jones in the Rule Five Draft. Because he was selected in the Rule Five Draft, the 25 year old RHP must remain on the big league roster all year or be offered back to the Twins. When talking about the names of guys who could pitch in the pen at some point, Jones seems highly likely to sustain a spot in the 2016 pen. He has never pitched above AA, but in the minors he has had 112 relief appearances with an overall ERA of 2.83!
In the Adam Lind trade on 12-9-15 this offseason the Brewers acquired 18 year old RHP Carlos Herrera, who has only been a starter and has yet to touch any minor league affiliated ball, because he has only pitched in the Dominican Summer League. Needless to say his chances of making the pen for the Brewers are about the same as winning Powerball.
The other guys acquired in the same Adam Lind trade were RHP Daniel Missaki and RHP Freddy Peralta. Missaki is a 19 year old RHP pitcher who has never pitched above Rookie Ball, and he has a projection as a starter as of right now. Freddy is a 19 year old right handed pitcher who has been mostly a starter. He has never pitched above A ball. That’s right folks; we traded the last somewhat commendable first basemen we have had in years for three guys who are pitchers under the age of 20 who will most likely not be a Brewer in 4 years anyway!
When Jason Rogers was traded to the Pirates on 12-17-15, the Brewers got RHP Trey Supak in return along with a centerfielder by the name of Keon Broxton. As we are looking at pitching and who MIGHT see time in the Brewers relief corps, I of course wanted to look at Trey. Trey is a right hander, and he is 19 years old and he has never advanced above Rookie Ball. Needless to say, he will NOT be part of the 2016 Brewers Bullpen.
Tim Dillard is a 32 year old guy I personally remember from my time as an intern with the Beloit Snappers. I am so happy that he has continued to sign a contract and pitch in affiliated baseball as a right handed pitcher. I always feel like a guy who is still playing has a chance to make it big. In the past, Tim has been in the majors, last appearing in the big show in 2012. He has been a Brewers farmhand for a long time, and he has started, relieved, and even pitched sidearm. As of now he has signed for 2016 to be a member of the AAA roster when he inked that contract on 12-17-15. Personally I would love to have him make it back to the majors this year and you know he is trying for it. We will see what happens, as he is NOT on the 40 Man Roster.
Jim Miller was signed on 11-18-15. He is a 33 year old RHP who has pitched in the majors for four teams. He has made 50 relief appearances in the majors with an ERA of 3.48, yet in the minors he has had 541 relief appearances for an ERA of 3.41. My guess is he doesn’t crack the Brewers Squad out of Spring Training, but if he hangs around AAA long enough and the Brewers are desperate, he might get a chance. I have seen stranger names get called up before. Vinnie Chulk anyone?
28 Year Old RHP Hiram Burgos has made just 21 minor league relief appearances in his career against 110 minor league starts. He did make 6 major league starts in 2013 for an overall ERA of 6.44 before battling injuries. As of now, Hiram is on the 40 man roster, but he is a long shot to be considered for the major league rotation or even for a bullpen role.
Junior Guerra was claimed off waivers from White Sox on 10-7-15. He is an age 30 RHP who has been mostly a reliever in his career. In 2015, he made three major league relief appearances for the White Sox but got touched up a bit, with an ERA of 6.75. In the minors, he has a commendable career ERA of 3.58 in 11 starts and 56 relief appearances. Junior is well seasoned, having served stints in the Independent League for Wichita, while also routinely participating in Winter Ball in Venezuela. In all his years playing for the La Guaira team, he has compiled an ERA of 4.57 in 35 starts and 61 relief appearances. As you can see, Junior likes to be an active pitcher competing, and he doesn’t care where. You always seem to pull for a dark horse candidate like this, and since he is on the 40 man roster, he could see some time in the Brewers pen at some point, but I do not think he will break camp with the team on Opening Day.
Non Roster Invitees
Pat Misch is a left handed pitcher who just signed with the crew on 1-8-16. He is 34 and has been primarily a starter in the minors, but primarily a relief guy in the majors. He is on a minor league contract and has an invite to big league camp. You just never know with lefties. Maybe he makes the team out of camp and complements Will Smith.
26 year old Daniel Tillman is also a non roster invitee to camp. A right hander, he has made 210 minor league relief appearances but has never even pitched in AAA. He could get a call sometime in 2016, but not right away.
Nick Hagadone is a 30 year old left handed pitcher who was a non roster invitee to camp, but his contract was voided due to injury concerns. Should he still be available and healthy later on in the season, maybe the Brewers will take another look at the veteran lefty.
LHP Cesar Jimenez pitched in 16 major league games for the crew in 2015 after being picked up off of waivers from the Phillies. After compiling a 3.66 ERA as a Brewer, the 31 year old was a free agent after the season, but the Crew has now signed him to a minor league contract for 2016 with an invite to camp. Because Will Smith could use another lefty to complement him in the pen, Cesar remains a very viable option.
Chris Capuano is a familiar name to Brewer fans, as he made 120 starts and 19 relief appearances for the big league club from 2004 through the 2010 season. Now 37, the lefty who has a career 4.34 ERA as a big league Brewer may just see more major league time. Chris also has a minor league contract with an invite to camp. While he is not an accomplished relief pitcher, there is a chance he could make the team as a long man out of the pen. To me, it seems unlikely that Capuano makes the rotation as the rebuilding Brewers will want to get a good look at some of the younger guys, but you never know. If there is an injury or a player is dealt, Cappy could get a chance to start. Another scenario is that Capuano could be cut loose towards the end of spring so that he could try to gain major league legs with another team.
At AAA or AA worth mentioning
While I have looked at the returning guys who were a member of the Brewers’ 2015 pen, as well as other top prospects and even the new acquisitions, there always seem to be guys who toil down in AAA or AA who can get a callup with a good performance. Here is a quick breakdown of some of the names on the minors rosters:
• Jaye Chapman spent time in the minors for the Brewers in 2014 and is back again for another year. He is a RHP who has a minors ERA of 3.95 in 307 relief appearances, and is 28 years old. Jaye is not on the 40 man roster, so if he is to see any big league time, some maneuvering would have to be done. He did make 14 relief appearances for the major league Cubs in 2012 with a 3.75 ERA.
• Mitch Lambson is a LHP who is 25 years old and he has made 166 minor league appearances all in relief for the Astros and Braves organizations with an overall ERA of 2.72. Even though he currently does not have a 40 man roster spot, I do not see how the Brewers could keep this guy down in the minors for long. With his relatively young age, past performance, and the fact that he is left handed, I would certainly hope he logs some big league time for the 2016 crew. If he tastes the bigs for one day, it will be his debut.
• Austin Ross is a guy who has only ever been a Brewer, and he is now 27 years old. A RHP, he has made exactly 65 starts and 65 relief appearances in the minors for an overall ERA of 4.28. Like Lambson and Chapman, he is not on the 40 man.
• Kender Villegas is a RHP who is only 22 years old. He was previously a member of the Cardinals organization. In the minors, he has made 13 starts and 102 relief appearances for an ERA of 4.87. While that may not be the most impressive career ERA known to man, I am sure the Brewers will keep him around for a year or two in their system given his young age.
• Wei-Chung Wang did make 14 appearances in the majors as a reliever in 2014, but his ERA while doing so was almost 11. Since then, he has been down in the minors for the Brewers working on becoming an effective starter. For his complete minors career, he has now posted an ERA of 3.24 in 43 starts and two relief appearances. At age 23, the left hander most likely will not be called up to participate in the Brewers bullpen in 2016.
• Brent Suter is a 26 year old lefty who has only ever been a Brewer. He has done well, with an overall minors ERA of 3.35. At this point, he has made 69 minors starts and 23 relief appearances, making him seem like an unlikely candidate to touch the major league pen in 2016.
Big Brewer fans have most likely heard about prospects such as Jed Bradley, Drew Gagnon, Josh Hader, Brooks Hall and Hobbs Johnson. All of these guys have been on the radar as guys to watch at some point. The thing they all have in common is this: They are on the AA roster, they have NEVER pitched in the big leagues, and they have shown through their careers to be mostly starters. None of these guys is on the 40 man roster. Bradley is a fallen prospect who has not developed as fast as draft mate Taylor Jungmann. Gagnon and Hader are pretty highly regarded by the crew. Hall is coming off of an injury which he has been trying to rehab. Johnson is probably not the most “enticing” name you think of when you rattle off guys who are a part of the future plans, but he could turn heads if given a callup. Jorge Ortega is another guy to remember on the AA roster. The 22 year old righty should stick around in the Brewers’ chain for a while. He has always been a Brewer, and has compiled a 3.96 ERA in 65 starts and 13 relief appearances.
While I mentioned some somewhat familiar names of guys down at AA, there are others who are on the AA roster but not the major league 40 man roster who have been projected as mostly a reliever in their career.
•Tanner Poppe is a RHP pitcher who is at a reasonably decent age of 25. He has made 55 minors relief appearances and owns a very nice career ERA of 2.88.
•Martin Viramontes is a RHP pitcher one year older than Poppe. He has also always been a Brewer. The difference with Martin is that he has made 99 relief appearances and 4 starts in the minors, but his ERA is a less than stellar 5.09. You can keep this name in mind, but he is very unlikely to become a part of the 2016 Brewers bullpen in the majors.
At most, the major league team has eight relievers on their active roster at one time. The ideal 25 man roster in the National League would look like this if I was in charge:
•Five Starting Pitchers
Of course, if I was the General Manager, I would want some of those infielders to also be able to play the outfield. Another plus for the team would be if one of the infielders or outfielders could also catch a major league inning or two if needed. In the National League, managers almost never use their backup catcher as a pinch hitter, but in the course of the season, injuries and extra inning games come up. If you go with this formula for the roster that means the bullpen carries eight guys. Sometimes it is done, and sometimes only seven are carried so that the outfield has more depth or the roster has three catchers. One thing is certain though. Over the course of the season, many different relief pitchers are used due to injury, complete ineffectiveness, trades, or even suspensions or other things such as bereavement leave or paternity leave. In 2015, the Brewers used 19 different guys in their bullpen. As you can see, there is a good mix of people to consider as we march toward the 2016 season. There are returning and established guys, top prospects who the team would like to get a look at, aging veterans who are dying for a shot, and “dark horse” guys who signed a minor league or non roster invite deal. While I do not think that the club will plow through 19 major league names in 2016, I do think that a rebuilding team like the Crew will certainly look at who has an upside and who deserves to be part of the future.