COMMENTARY | Often times, what happens in spring training is overblown when trying to judge a player. It could be a promising young prospect who hits the seams off the baseball or someone coming off a career season that is struggling to make contact.
The fact of the matter is that spring training is just that - training. Training for the upcoming season and getting back in baseball shape. That doesn't mean there can't be competition, and in the camp of the Milwaukee Brewers, there is plenty of scraping and clawing for the few remaining positions that aren't already locked down.
The starting rotation is garnering the most attention this spring, but not far behind is the bullpen. There are one, maybe two spots up for grabs in the 'pen, and the Brewers did quite a lot this offseason to revamp the unit and bring in some fresh faces. It's hard to dislike the new acquisitions, but there were a few players that returned who haven't been getting the job done this spring.
Two players expected to reprise their roles as closer and setup man respectively were John Axford and Jim Henderson, the only two relievers returning from last year's team that saw extended time with Milwaukee. Axford blew nine saves in all coming off an outstanding 2011 campaign, but he closed out the season strong. Henderson, who was a 29-year-old rookie, was steady all season following his call-up and finished 2012 with a 3.52 ERA.
Both had performed well enough as of late to earn an invitation to the Canadian national team for the World Baseball Classic. Each of them faltered late in ball games, perhaps costing Canada a chance to advance past the group stage. Henderson registered an astronomic 45.00 ERA and picked up a loss while Axford's 5.40 ERA didn't help matters, either.
Aside from the WBC, neither has performed well in exhibition play down in Arizona with the Brewers. Both have pitched over three innings this spring are failing to keep their ERA below 9.00. Kelvim Escobar, who hasn't pitched since 2009, is the only reliever with a higher ERA that entered camp with a legitimate opportunity to make the ball club.
Other relief pitchers, like Tom Gorzelanny, Burke Badenhop and Brandon Kintzler, who all appear destined to make the team, have ERAs under 4.00. But it's supposed to be Henderson and Axford closing the door on opponents in 2013, and that wasn't exactly a full-proof plan last season.
It's nice for Milwaukee to see some newcomers find success this spring, as well as some off-the-radar guys like Michael Olmsted and Johnny Hellweg make an impression, even if they don't wind up making the opening day roster - Hellweg has already been optioned to Triple-A Nashville. In that regard, the Brewers have to feel good about most of their contributing pieces as well as the arms of the future.
Judging by the overhaul following last season, the Brewers aren't going to stand for much tomfoolery in the bullpen. Should the struggles of Axford and Henderson leak into the early part of the regular season, fans shouldn't be surprised to see them get a quick hook from their current roles, especially with the stuff - and velocity - Olmsted and Hellweg have shown.
What's concerning about the Ax Man and the 30-year-old sophomore Henderson is that pitchers are supposed to be a step ahead of hitting this time of year. They have shown to be the exact opposite. Again, what we see in the spring shouldn't completely dictate our perception of a player, but Axford and Henderson need to prove their worth, and prove why they were essentially the only ones to return from the Brewers' bullpen last season.
Was Axford a one-hit wonder? Should the fact that Henderson took nine years to reach the big leagues be cause for concern? Milwaukee sure hopes not, but if their spring woes continue, it will have to mix and match in late-game situations, which is something a team that plans on contending for a playoff spot doesn't want to have to do.
We're just a few weeks away from April 1, opening day for the Brewers. With an inexperienced starting rotation and the absence of Corey Hart from the lineup, Milwaukee can't afford to have the bullpen sport a 4.66 ERA. It needs Axford and Henderson to regain the form that put them in the position they're in - or else.
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_ .