COMMENTARY | On Feb. 13, we honored the inaugural day of Milwaukee Brewers spring training by projecting how the team's starting rotation would shape up after it's all said and done. But that's not the only area of uncertainty 60 feet and six inches away from home plate for the Brewers.
If anything, it's a more settled situation than Milwaukee's bullpen, which features a grand total of one returning player from the 2012 opening day roster. That man is John Axford, the Brewers' troubled closer who blew nine saves and had an ERA linger around five for a majority of the season.
Axford, who did finish strong and will retain the closer's role, is one of five players who appear to be locked into the bullpen. He will be joined by:
RHP -- Jim Henderson (3.52 ERA, 13.21 K/9) -- a setup man who was a midseason call-up for the Brewers and a 29-year-old rookie last season.
RHP -- Burke Badenhop (3.03 ERA, 3.50 K/BB) -- a middle reliever acquired by trade from the Tampa Bay Rays.
LHP -- Michael Gonzalez (3.03 ERA, 9.84 K/9) -- a lefty specialist signed as a free agent after spending last season with the Washington Nationals.
LHP -- Tom Gorzelanny (2.88 ERA, 7.75 K/9) -- a long reliever who can spot start and was also a member of the Nationals prior to being signed via free agency.
The numbers for those four don't look too bad considering how little the Brewers will pay each of them in 2013, especially considering the miserable hand Milwaukee was dealt last season with the bullpen. Unlike the philosophy general manager Doug Melvin used with the starting rotation, Melvin chose to look outside the organization for help in the 'pen, likely because the price for relievers is not nearly that of starting pitchers.
Still, Melvin found some solid discounts on the market, helping the Brewers in their quest to slash unwanted payroll. But there are still two spots up for grabs, and that's where some players from inside the organization could claim a role. Here are the players vying for those roles as we project which of them make the opening day squad.
RHP -- Brandon Kintzler (3-0, 3.78 ERA)
He's the king of the late-season call-up. For the past three years, Kintzler has pitched less than 17 innings in a season with the big league club while bouncing between Double-A Huntsville and Triple-A Nashville, and at 28 years old, the Brewers are hoping for a Jim Henderson-like revelation. Kintzler's problem hasn't been putting up good numbers -- it's been staying healthy. If he is able to do just that in spring training and pitch like he has in the past, he should snag one of the openings.
Projection: Middle relief, Brewers
RHP -- Jesus Sanchez (7-3, 1.63 ERA in Huntsville, Nashville)
Sanchez is only 25 and has made a pretty quick rise through the minor league ranks. And those numbers -- they're pretty good. His turnaround following a rough 2011 season can be attributed to better command, and now it's just a question if he can apply that at the big league level. Any other year, it's a no-brainer that Sanchez gets more seasoning in the minors, but not this year. He could very well be a closer-in-waiting if things go awry in Milwaukee once again.
Projection: Late relief, Triple-A
RHP -- Johnny Hellweg (7-11, 3.29 ERA in Huntsville, Double-A Arkansas)
Hellweg was previously a starter, but after coming over in the Zack Greinke trade, he was moved into a relief role and found immediate success thanks to his electric fastball. At 24 years old and a towering 6'9", he is one of the organization's top prospects and should eventually be a contributor for Milwaukee, maybe even at some point during the 2013 season. For now, he needs a little more time to develop like Sanchez as a potential Axford replacement or setup man.
Projection: Late relief, Triple-A
RHP -- Tyler Thornburg (0-0, 4.50 ERA, 8 G)
The Brewers aren't really sure what will become of Tyler Thornburg. He started and came out of the bullpen last season, and his stuff appears better suited for the 'pen, but Milwaukee isn't ready to give up on the 23-year-old as a starter just yet. He appears destined for a minor league stint in 2013 to work on his secondary pitches, but perhaps he'll get some looks out of the bullpen in spring training, because it doesn't look like he's in the mix for a rotation spot.
Projection: Starter, Triple-A
RHP -- Michael Olmsted (1-4, 1.52 ERA in A-plus Salem, Double-A Portland)
Coming over from the Boston Red Sox organization, Olmsted didn't give up a single earned run in 20 innings with Portland. That caught the eye of Melvin, who brought him over and placed him on the 40-man roster. Like Hellweg, Olmsted is tall (6'6") and hasn't pitched above the double-A level, but he will still get a long look in spring training.
Projection: Late relief, Double-A
RHP -- Kelvim Escobar (18-7, 3.40 ERA in '07)
That is not a typo. The last full season Escobar pitched was 2007 with the Los Angeles Angels, but then shoulder issues derailed his career and he hasn't pitched in the big leagues since 2009. Melvin signing Escobar, who was previously a starter, to a minor league deal is a low-risk, potential high reward move, and these types of transactions have paid off in the past for the Brewers. Escobar performed well in the Venezuelan Winter League, earning him an invite to spring training, and the lack of experience around him will benefit Escobar in the end.
Projection: Long/middle relief, Brewers
Dave Radcliffe lives in a little known Milwaukee suburb and is a self-proclaimed Wisconsin sports expert who has contributed to JSOnline and as a featured columnist among other sites and publications.
You can follow Dave on Twitter @DaveRadcliffe_.