COMMENTARY | In Ron Roenicke's inaugural season as manager of the Milwaukee Brewers, his team won a franchise-record 96 games and reached the NLCS.
Clearly, he was doing something right.
The following season was a learning experience for Roenicke, but after falling to 52-64 on Aug. 15, the Brewers rallied to finish with a winning record and even crept back into the playoff race in late September.
One of the most scrutinized areas of a manager's job in baseball is how he handles his bullpen. Last season, Roenicke had nowhere to turn, as his closer blew nine saves and his 'pen lost 29 leads in all. To put things into perspective, his best reliever was a 29-year-old rookie who was called up midseason.
Still, Roenicke managed to lead his squad to an 83-79 record, arguably doing a better job than he did in his rookie year managing Milwaukee. With his "sophomore slump" out of the way, Roenicke enters his third season with a completely new look in the bullpen and starting rotation compared to opening day last season.
But he began the 2013 campaign without Corey Hart, and several other players landed on the disabled list to open the season, depleting Roenicke's bench. If that wasn't enough, Aramis Ramirez went on the DL during the opening homestand with a knee injury. Ryan Braun, Jean Segura and Alex Gonzalez have all missed time with injuries as well.
Roenicke made the decision to begin the season with 13 pitches because he needed to stretch out Kyle Lohse, but the decision wound up being costly. On April 7, the Brewers went to extra innings against the Arizona Diamondbacks with essentially three bench players due to Braun's neck spasms. With the game on the line, Roenicke was forced to use Lohse at the plate. Suffice it to say, Milwaukee lost and began the season 1-5.
That wasn't even rock bottom.
On April 9, Chris Narveson was placed on the DL, and while it brought the Brewers back to 12 pitchers and gave Roenicke more wiggle room with his bench, it didn't initially help. Milwaukee set a franchise record by going 32 consecutive innings without scoring a run, but ever since that infamous stretch mercifully came to an end, things have turned around for the Brewers.
How has Roenicke handled his bullpen this season? It may not feel like it, but he's actually pretty well. He pulled John Axford from the closer's role after just three appearances, inserting the above-mentioned 29-year-old (now 30) Jim Henderson in his place. It's paid off -- Henderson is 2-for-2 in save opportunities through April 17.
Because of how frequently he has had to turn to his bullpen, Roenicke hasn't had the chance to assign roles to the rest of his relievers, and this could help explain the recent signing of Francisco Rodriguez. But he is using relievers with the lowest FIPs more often when trying to hold onto a lead save for Axford, whom he wants to use in non-pressure situations as often as possible to get him back on track.
This is one area where Roenicke has made questionable calls, as he has overused Axford in tough spots and diminished his confidence. Again, it goes back to the overuse of the rest of the bullpen, but Roenicke has misused Axford on multiple occasions.
Of course, just like players needing time to shake off the rust, there is an adjustment period for the manager to figure out what he has at his disposal. It's difficult to blame Roenicke for the early offensive struggles this season because he didn't have much of a choice when it came to who he put on the field.
It basically comes down to the way Roenicke fills out his lineup card, and one glaring weakness has been in the cleanup spot. Since Ramirez was placed on the DL, Rickie Weeks has backed up Braun in the lineup, only to horrifically struggle. As the four hitter, Weeks has gone 2-of-34, watching his average drop from .421 to .189.
But who else do you place in the four-hole? Anybody other than Weeks, apparently, but Weeks is a veteran and Roenicke didn't want to place the burden of protecting Braun in the lineup on anyone else. Unfortunately for Milwaukee, Weeks' red-hot start to the season is no more, and Braun has gone through one of the worst stretches of his career in part to Weeks' incompetent approach at the plate.
Pitchers are still waiting to settle into roles in the bullpen, but they are beginning to perform better. Combine that with recent production from the bottom of the order, and the Brewers have managed to win three straight games. Of course, players doing their jobs always leaves the manager sitting pretty.
It appears Roenicke will continue to ride it out with Weeks in the cleanup while trying to get Axford back on track, but the insertion of Henderson at closer has paid off thus far. The imminent return of Ramirez -- and eventually Hart -- will only help to make Roenicke's job a whole lot easier.
Dave Radcliffe is a resident of a little known Milwaukee suburb who contains an unhealthy amount of knowledge about Wisconsin sports. He has contributed to JSOnline and as a featured columnist among other sites and publications.
You can follow Dave on Twitter @DaveRadcliffe_ .
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