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What Return of K-Rod Means for Roles in Milwaukee Brewers’ Bullpen Moving Forward

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COMMENTARY | Only the most devoted Milwaukee Brewers' fans lasted the duration of their team's shellacking at the hands of the Pittsburgh Pirates on May 16. It wrapped up another disappointing series for the Brewers, as the Bucs took three of four to send Milwaukee to a 16-23 record and last place in the National League Central.

But if you were one of the rare Brewer supporters that suffered through the final game of this series, you got to see the 2013 debut of Francisco Rodriguez. In the bottom of the eighth, K-Rod came on in a 7-1 game in his first day back in a Brewer uniform, and wouldn't you know it -- he pitched a 1-2-3 inning with one punch-out and no walks.

Granted, this appearance did come in a stress-free situation. You know, the only circumstance a certain player who wears No. 59 should enter a baseball game?

Somehow, the Brewers managed to find a silver lining in this mess of a game in which their offense squandered the few opportunities it had. It was the perfect time to see how Rodriguez, 31, would react to his first big league outing of the season, and it also gave Mike Fiers a chance to build some confidence. Fiers wound up throwing 1 2/3 scoreless innings without allowing a single hit or walk.

As of May 17, Milwaukee has eight pitchers in the bullpen after sending Blake Lalli to Triple-A Nashville in exchange for K-Rod. We shouldn't expect this to last much longer, as the two most likely pitchers to be designated for assignment appeared to be John Axford and Fiers before the Brewers copped out and sent down a position player.

Timing also forced the Brewers' hand because of the deadline to call-up Rodriguez, which was May 15. Otherwise, K-Rod could opt-out of his deal and become a free-agent all over again. Instead, the one-time setup man is back whether Brewer fans like it or not.

While Rodriguez may be back in the picture, neither he nor Axford are in the roles they previously held over the past year and a half. As it currently stands, the Ax Man may very well be the next pitcher to go once the Brewers choose to go back to 12 pitchers, and it was only out of desperation that manager Ron Roenicke inserted him in the eighth inning with a one-run lead on May 14 against the Pirates.

Never mind that Roenicke mishandled his bullpen rather poorly on that night, but Axford wound up squandering the lead, giving him his third blown save of the early season. Currently, he and K-Rod are considered pitchers that shouldn't see the mound in late-inning situations with the pressure cooker set on high. But knowing how much Roenicke would like to see a Rodriguez/Axford combination at the end of games once again, we shouldn't rule out such a scenario coming to fruition later on this season.

And even if K-Rod and Ax shouldn't currently be pitching in these situations, the starting rotation has forced Roenicke to burn many of his better relievers early just to preserve the lead. This mangles the way Roenicke would like to align his 'pen in late-game situations.

Who should be given the seventh and eighth inning roles respectively? Tom Gorzelanny often assumed one of these innings, but he is sidelined with shoulder tendinitis. Numbers would indicate that Burke Badenhop (3 holds, 3.22 FIP) should be the guy to come in for the seventh inning when Milwaukee possesses a lead.

As much as Roenicke has liked to play matchups this season, especially with the addition of a left-handed reliever, we should continue to see Michael Gonzalez enter in the seventh, or even the eighth to face either a prominent left-handed hitter or a string of lefties. The only issue here is that Badenhop (.235 against lefties) is much better at getting left-handed hitters out than Gonzalez (.310), but don't expect that to stop Roenicke.

The same goes for Brandon Kintzler, who should be the setup man to closer Jim Henderson. Not only does Kintzler sport an impressive 2.44 FIP along with five holds, but lefties only hit .217 against the 28-year-old. Gonzalez's FIP (3.79) isn't terrible by any means, and he's recovered nicely from some early-season struggles, but he allows a lot of inherited runners to score, making that number rather deceiving.

Here is a quick recap of what bullpen roles look like after the arrival of K-Rod.

Long-relief: Mike Fiers, Alfredo Figaro

Non-pressure situations: Francisco Rodriguez, John Axford

Lefty "specialist": Michael Gonzalez

Six/seventh inning: Burke Badenhop

Seventh/eighth inning: Brandon Kintzler

Closer: Jim Henderson

Expect to eventually see K-Rod as well as Axford slide into more prominent roles if they string together some good outings, as well as Gonzalez to continue facing left-handed hitters late in games, because this is just how Roenicke operates.

But really -- what use are these roles if the Brewers hardly ever get a lead to their bullpen?

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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