After rough year, rebuilt 'pen aims for anonymity
Of Brewers' Opening Day 2012 relief corps, Axford lone returning member
This is the second of a series of stories that will take you Around the Horn with the 2013 Milwaukee Brewers. Up first: The rotation. Up next: The bullpen.
PHOENIX -- Burke Badenhop would prefer these be the first and last words written about the Brewers' rebuilt bullpen. He learned early in his career that the best bullpens are the anonymous ones.
"If I'm on TV after the game, it's probably not a good thing," said Badenhop, one of a slew of new names populating a rebuilt bullpen.
Milwaukee's relievers were on TV a lot in 2012, to the tune of a Major League-high 29 blown saves and a 4.66 relief ERA. John Axford and Francisco Rodriguez each held, and lost, the closer role. Bullpen coach Stan Kyles was dismissed. After the season, Kameron Loe, Manny Parra, Rodriguez and Jose Veras -- each of whom worked at least 62 games last year -- were all let go.
New arms are taking over.
There's Badenhop, the sinkerballer acquired in early December from the Rays. There's Tom Gorzelanny and Michael Gonzalez, left-handers who were Nationals teammates last year and were acquired via free agency. There's Jim Henderson, who made a splash as a 30-year-old rookie after a midseason callup.
There are potential breakthrough candidates in Johnny Hellweg and Michael Olmsted, twin towers who will get long looks in camp. There are bounce-back candidates like Brandon Kintzler, who missed the cut last spring because of an elbow injury, and Kelvim Escobar, who is trying a comeback after years of shoulder issues.
Then there's Axford, the closer. He is the only member of last year's Opening Day relief corps to be back in the bullpen on April 1, when the Brewers begin 2013 against the Rockies at Miller Park.
"All you can do is get the pieces," Badenhop said, "and then see from Game 1 to 162, where those pieces fit and how things shake out."
Manager Ron Roenicke expected last season to shake out much differently, considering the Brewers had made it to Game 6 of the National League Championship Series the year before with a lights-out bullpen that returned largely intact.
But the first sign of trouble came May 11, when Axford suffered his first regular-season blown save in more than a year, snapping a run of 49 consecutive conversions that ranked as the fourth-best streak since the save became an official statistic. No worry. The Brewers won that game against the Cubs in extra innings, and Axford made it memorable by leaving a note for reporters explaining his postgame absence. His pregnant wife, he explained, was having contractions.
But as the bullpen trouble continued into the summer, it was not funny anymore. Axford took a break from closing duties in July only to see Rodriguez & Co. suffer three consecutive blown saves in a dismal series in Philadelphia. Everyone seemed to struggle at once.
By early August, a frustrated Roenicke told reporters, "It's tough for us to watch, too."
He's banking on the rebuilt relief corps faring better in 2013.
"You have fluke years," Roenicke said. "And I bring this up: Look at how good the offense was last year [the Brewers led the National League in runs and home runs]. But think of the first month or two of the season last year -- it wasn't very good. So to just say that our relievers were the problem, that's not fair, I don't think.
"At times, our starters were not good. At times, our offense really was not good. So I think you have different stages that you go through. Hopefully you don't have it where the whole group [struggles] all at once."
The Brewers are debating whether to carry seven or eight relievers on Opening Day, and five spots appear set: Axford is the closer, Henderson and Gonzalez are penciled in to share setup duties, with Gorzelanny and Badenhop somewhere in the sixth or seventh innings. Another slot will probably go to one of the five starting pitchers competing for four spots in the rotation behind Yovani Gallardo.
That still leaves room for someone like Kintzler, a right-hander who missed the start of 2012 with an elbow issue, but had a 3.78 ERA in 14 late-season appearances with the Brewers. Or Hellweg, the 24-year-old acquired last summer from the Angels in the Zack Greinke deal.
"I'm going to go in there, show off, show them what I've got and try to steal a spot," said Hellweg, at 6-foot-9 the tallest player in camp.
He's been impressive.
"That's a 100-mph arm," catcher Jonathan Lucroy said. "That guy can freaking throw. You have to keep an eye on him."
The good news for young pitchers like Hellweg is that innings will be plentiful. The Brewers have 15 participants in the World Baseball Classic, including six pitchers from the 40-man roster. To compensate for those losses, the club invited 20 non-roster players to camp, including 10 pitchers.
"At the end of camp when you make decisions, it may have used to be that a guy came in and you sent him down or released him and he said, 'Well, I only got in two ballgames,'" Roenicke said. "Well, that's not going to be the case. He's going to be able to get in games and show us what he can do."