No bullpen took more losses (33) or blew more saves (29) than the Brewers’ relief unit last season. A total of 18 different relievers pitched to a combined 4.66 ERA, the worst mark in the big leagues. Unsurprisingly, GM Doug Melvin set out to remake the team’s bullpen this offseason, and that process started by jettisoning Francisco Rodriguez, Jose Veras, Manny Parra, Kameron Loe, and a handful of others. The only notable holdovers are hard-throwing right-handers John Axford and Jim Henderson.
Melvin has tackled his bullpen rebuild in a number of ways. It started with a pair of De Los Santoses late last season — Fautino was acquired from the Athletics (for George Kottaras) and Miguel was scooped up off waivers. Right-hander Arcenio Leon was claimed off waivers in early-November and a few days later minor league free agent Michael Olmsted was given a big league contract. Melvin acquired non-tender bait Burke Badenhop from the Rays in early-December, and in recent weeks he jumped into free agency to sign a pair of former Nationals southpaws: Tom Gorzelanny and Mike Gonzalez. Several others (Jim Hoey, Zach Kroenke, Frankie de la Cruz, Travis Webb) were given minor league deals along the way.
Of the guys I just named, only three are known quantities at this point. Badenhop, 29, is a ground ball machine (career 55.3%) and pretty close to a right-handed specialist (.288 wOBA in 2012). The 30-year-old Gorzelanny has settled into a multi-inning role these last two years thanks to a pair of offspeed pitches — a slider that keeps lefties in check (.266 wOBA and 24.2 K%) and a changeup that generates pop-ups from righties (10.6 IFFB%). Gonzalez, 34, is the sometimes erratic, sometimes dominant lefty matchup guy. All three will join Axford and Henderson in the Opening Day bullpen barring injury. They’re the boring, uninteresting guys. The rest of Melvin’s pickups are where things get fun.
Olmsted, 25, has an interesting back story that includes a stint in the minor leagues … in Japan. The Red Sox gave the 6-foot-7, 245 pounder a shot two years ago and he responded by pitching to a 1.47 ERA with 39.4 K% and 7.0 BB% in 91.2 relief innings across four levels, topping out at Double-A this past season. WEEI.com’s Alex Speier reported in November that Olmsted can run his fastball into the mid-90s with a “wipeout slider,” yet Boston couldn’t keep him because they didn’t have room on the 40-man roster. In addition to the power stuff, Olmsted gives the Crew plenty of flexibility — he has all three minor league options remaining.
Fautino, the elder of the two De Los Santoses at 26, was part of the trade that sent Nick Swisher to the White Sox prior to 2008. He pitched to a 4.32 ERA (3.54 FIP) with 30.1 K% in 33.1 innings for Oakland just a year ago, but this past season he posted an ugly 7.25 ERA in 36 innings for their Triple-A affiliate before the trade. His peripherals — 3.03 FIP with 24.7 K% and 9.2 BB% — were encouraging, however. PITCHf/x data from the last two seasons confirms he still has the huge arm that made him such an intriguing prospect so many years ago, sitting in the mid-90s and flirting with triple digits. Unlike Olmsted, De Los Santos is out of options and will need to clear waivers to go to the minors next season. He doesn’t have the flexibility, but he has the big arm and strikeout ability.
Miguel is the younger of the De Los Santoses at 24, and he’s coming off an underwhelming season-and-a-half at Double-A with the Rangers — 6.13 ERA in 86.2 innings with a big strikeout rate (28.4%) and a big walk rate (13.4%). He has yet to pitch above that level, but just a year ago Baseball America ranked the right-hander as the 29th best prospect in Texas’ system. Two years ago he was number ten. Prior to last season, the publication said De Los Santos sat in the 89-94 range with his fastball and backed it up with a “Bugs Bunny changeup with tornado action and two-plane depth.” Tornado action alone was worth the $50,000 waiver fee. The walks are an issue but De Los Santos has some time to work on that — he’s between Olmsted and the other De Los Santos on the flexibility spectrum with one minor league option remaining.
The rest of Melvin’s bullpen pickups to date are minor league contract guys like Hoey, Kroenke, de la Cruz, and Webb. Hoey, 30, is probably the most recognizable of the bunch as a former top Orioles prospect who’s blown out his arm a few times. The 28-year-old de la Cruz spent some time with the Brewers in 2011 (2.77 ERA and 3.26 FIP in 13 IP) and stands out for his general portliness and funky delivery. Those two along with Kroenke and Webb are the types of signings every team makes during the offseason. They’re notable only because Milwaukee had major bullpen issues a year ago and figure to exhaust every avenue to improve their relief corps in 2013.
The Brewers have a dynamite lineup and still lack an established starter to slot between Yovani Gallardo and their various back-end arms (Marco Estrada, Chris Narveson, Mike Fiers, etc.), but the bullpen was clearly priority number one this winter. They paid K-Rod, Veras, Parra, and Loe and combined $13.375 million last season, or roughly 13.6% of their Opening Day payroll. Badenhop, Gorzelanny, and Gonzalez project to cost the team just $6.45 million in 2013, and the rest of Melvin’s additions will earn something close to the league minimum (less when they spend time in Triple-A). He used trades and free agency to add established arms and was aggressive with minor league contracts and waivers. Most importantly, he added plenty of depth and flexibility. If someone gets hurt or is just plain ol’ ineffective, he’ll have a number of bodies from which to find a replacement.
Milwaukee received just 1.9 WAR out of their relievers last season, and more than half of that came from the 30.2 innings provided by Henderson (1.0 WAR). Axford finished strong following a brutal first half and we should expect to see some more improvement next season as his 19.2% HR/FB rate returns to Earth. Relievers are volatile and bullpen things can unexpectedly go wrong in a hurry, but when Dan Szymborski releases his Brewers ZiPS projections in the coming weeks, expect the system to paint a much rosier picture for the team’s bullpen following the exodus of last season’s relievers and Melvin’s influx of arms this winter.