COMMENTARY | If there's one thing the Milwaukee Brewers have learned, it's that they shouldn't bother splurging on free-agent relief pitching.
Especially when you play in a small market, and especially when you aren't expected to contend.
To the Brewers' credit, they did a great job of retooling their bullpen over the offseason and only spent roughly $7 million on four free-agent relievers. That's approximately 9 percent of their entire 2013 payroll, and when considering the in-season addition of Francisco Rodriguez, who was traded in July, these acquisitions as a whole were successful.
As mentioned before, K-Rod is gone, and so is John Axford. You can bet Milwaukee doesn't have much interest in bringing back Michael Gonzalez, either, as he is a free agent at season's end and has been horrific down the stretch.
What does that leave the Brewers' bullpen looking like in 2014?
See the seven pitchers who have the best chance to make the opening-day roster and who may be on the outside looking in come next April:
Jim Henderson (Chance: 95 percent)
Henderson has been an effective closer for the Brewers, converting 24 of 28 save opportunities this season. He's also still on his rookie deal, so Henderson comes cheap and would be a no-brainer to keep around. The soon-to-be 31-year-old may be looking for an extension this offseason, but his age makes a long-term deal unrealistic.
Brandon Kintzler (90 percent)
You'd be hard-pressed to find a better setup man in the league than Brandon Kintzler. He leads the team in holds with 22 and has only blown one lead all season. The 29-year-old righty also has the best FIP (2.63) among players who have logged more than 20 innings for Milwaukee out of the bullpen. He's arbitration-eligible following the 2013 season.
Tom Gorzelanny (90 percent)
Last winter, Gorzelanny was signed to a 2-year deal worth $5.7 million, so he is still under contract next season. Gorzelanny got some burn in the starting rotation for a stretch this season, but it soon became evident that he is best suited for the bullpen. He's also a lefty, and while he's not a specialist, it's still nice to have a left-handed hurler to turn to out of the 'pen.
Burke Badenhop (85 percent)
Like Kintzler, Badenhop is arbitration-eligible this offseason and has proved to be effective in middle relief. He has a 3.62 ERA (3.61 FIP) for the Brewers and relies on a sinker to get opposing hitters out. It's hard to imagine why Milwaukee wouldn't want to bring back the services of The Hopper.
Michael Blazek (75 percent)
The Brewers will want to give their return in the John Axford trade a chance. Blazek has a plus fastball that can reach 97 mph (of course he does -- he came from the St. Louis Cardinals), and he has the potential to grow into a late-inning reliever because of his arsenal of pitches.
Tyler Thornburg (70 percent)
Thornburg will be on the opening-day roster. It's just a matter of whether he'll be in the rotation or the bullpen. Milwaukee seems to like him out of the pen, although Thornburg is currently getting a shot in the starting rotation. Since we only gave him a 30-percent chance to make the starting five in 2014, he gets a 70-percent chance to begin next season as a long reliever.
Rob Wooten (55 percent)
A midseason promotion, Wooten has turned into a reliable seventh-inning option for the Brewers. Since Milwaukee views him as the third-most valuable reliever, we'll give him the benefit of the doubt heading into next season. In 19 appearances, Wooten has a 3.15 ERA with three holds and one blown save.
Donovan Hand (40 percent)
After receiving time both as a reliever and a starter this season, Hand was sent back down to Triple-A Nashville. Now a September call-up, Hand has struggled at times, but he was put in a difficult situation when the Brewers placed him in the starting rotation out of sheer desperation. Overall, his numbers (0-4, 3.62 ERA) are actually respectable, and he will be fighting for the final bullpen spot next spring.
Jesus Sanchez (20 percent)
Sanchez has been solid over the past few seasons at the minor league level, but there's just too much competition in Milwaukee when it comes to the bullpen. It was Wooten who got the call over Sanchez this season, and it will be an uphill battle to make the big league roster, at least right off the bat, in 2014.
Little to no chance (Alfredo Figaro, Kyle Heckathorn, free agent)
Figaro is only on a one-year deal and the long-ball has haunted him despite an upper-90s heater. Heckathorn, a supplemental first-round pick of the Brewers back in 2009, was converted to a reliever and could be a long-relief option, but, again, there's a lot of competition and he has yet to be added to the 40-man roster. He did put up good numbers (8-3, 3.60 ERA) with the Sounds this season.
Considering how Milwaukee signed five relievers last winter, it seems unlikely it'll bring anyone of note into spring training from outside the organization. There are also others from the minor league level we didn't mention that deserve a look, and it's already a crowded situation in the bullpen.
It's usually difficult to know what to expect from relief pitchers on a year-to-year basis, but the Brewers have plenty of options to mull over heading into 2014.
Dave Radcliffe is a resident of a little known Milwaukee suburb who is an avid follower of Wisconsin sports. He has contributed to JSOnline, as a featured columnist on other sites and publications, and been a guest on multiple sports talk radio shows.
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