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Counsell will rely heavily on Knebel, bullpen

Closer, Hader coming off impressive campaigns, but questions remain
MLB.com @AdamMcCalvy

MILWAUKEE -- With nearly five weeks to go before the start of Spring Training and the open market still stocked with arms, it is not exactly clear how the Brewers will fill out their bullpen at the start of the 2018 season. But this much is certain: Manager Craig Counsell will rely on that bullpen a lot.

"That group was really the backbone of this team through the last six weeks of the [2017] season," Counsell said at the Winter Meetings. "Out of necessity, we treated the last 2 1/2 weeks of the season as playoff games every single day. So, we used our bullpen as though we were in a playoff series. We had to because of where we were in the standings and because of some of the challenges we were having with our starting rotation, and [Jimmy Nelson's] injury.

MILWAUKEE -- With nearly five weeks to go before the start of Spring Training and the open market still stocked with arms, it is not exactly clear how the Brewers will fill out their bullpen at the start of the 2018 season. But this much is certain: Manager Craig Counsell will rely on that bullpen a lot.

"That group was really the backbone of this team through the last six weeks of the [2017] season," Counsell said at the Winter Meetings. "Out of necessity, we treated the last 2 1/2 weeks of the season as playoff games every single day. So, we used our bullpen as though we were in a playoff series. We had to because of where we were in the standings and because of some of the challenges we were having with our starting rotation, and [Jimmy Nelson's] injury.

"That group picked us up and did an outstanding job. A number of them did an outstanding job. We relied on them and they came through a lot."

Video: CIN@MIL: Knebel induces fly out to earn the save

Brewers relievers handled baseball's fifth-highest workload in 2017 (572 2/3 innings) while ranking seventh with 9.67 strikeouts per nine innings and tied for eighth with a 3.83 ERA. That despite ranking 22nd with a 1.37 WHIP. With Nelson sidelined for the start of the season and Counsell building a reputation for aggressive bullpen usage, it is likely he will lean on the group again.

While it is nearly impossible to predict the 'pen makeup this far out, here is a stab at it:

BULLPEN IF SEASON STARTED TODAY
Closer: Corey Knebel
LH setup: Josh Hader
RH setup: Jacob Barnes
LHP Boone Logan
RHP Jeremy Jeffress
RHP J.J. Hoover
RHP Oliver Drake or Junior Guerra

STRENGTH
Knebel racked up record-setting strikeout numbers as he assumed closer duties from free-agent acquisition Neftali Feliz early last season, and now will try to prove he can do it over a full season. Ditto for Hader, who has not been ruled out for the rotation but seems likelier to wind up back in the bullpen, where he held opponents to a .554 OPS (including left-handers to a .454 OPS) in 47 2/3 innings. By agreeing to an incentive-rich one-year deal with veteran left-handed specialist Logan -- whose contract became official on Wednesday -- the Brewers freed Counsell to be more flexible in deploying Hader for multiple innings in the most opportune situations. Some view Hader as a future closer.

Video: Counsell on expectations for Hader, his role in 2018

QUESTION MARK
Do they have enough to consistently get to Knebel with a lead? Non-waiver Trade Deadline acquisition Anthony Swarzak was solid as the primary setup man during the final two months of 2017, but he turned down the Brewers' two-year offer to sign with the Mets. That leaves Barnes (4.00 ERA in 73 appearances last season) as one of the leading right-handed options for the eighth inning, with former Brewers closer Jeffress another potential choice. Jeffress had a tough start to last season in Texas, but was better after a trade to the Brewers as he made more use of a split-fingered fastball. Taylor Williams, a Tommy John surgery survivor, was a surprise September callup last year and could be a sleeper if he proves durable enough. And could Yovani Gallardo or Brent Suter make this list? We slotted both of them into the projected rotation for this exercise, but Gallardo also has incentives in his one-year deal that pay for relief work, and Suter came up in a chat Wednesday with general manager David Stearns about the bullpen.

WHAT MIGHT CHANGE
One trade or signing could alter the picture. Right-handers Greg Holland, Addison Reed, Bud Norris, Trevor Cahill, Matt Albers and Seung Hwan Oh, and lefties Tony Watson, Brian Duensing and Fernando Abad all remain among the pool of free agents.

Adam McCalvy has covered the Brewers for MLB.com since 2001. Follow him on Twitter at @AdamMcCalvy, like him on Facebook and listen to his podcast.

 

Milwaukee Brewers, Jacob Barnes, Oliver Drake, Junior Guerra, Josh Hader, Jeremy Jeffress, Corey Knebel, Boone Logan, Taylor Williams