This is the latest in a series of stories examining the Brewers' positional units as Spring Training commences. We've already covered the rotation and catcher. Today: the bullpen.PHOENIX -- Since the end of last season, Josh Hader proposed to girlfriend Maria Macias, moved into a new house and got a
This is the latest in a series of stories examining the Brewers' positional units as Spring Training commences. We've already covered the rotation and catcher. Today: the bullpen.
PHOENIX -- Since the end of last season, Josh Hader proposed to girlfriend Maria Macias, moved into a new house and got a new dog, a miniature Australian shepherd named Riggins who won over Josh and Maria with his sparkling blue eyes. (You can see for yourself; @rowdyriggins17 has his own Instagram.)
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With so much new in his life, will Hader's penchant for change extend to pitching? His "here it is, hit it" approach produced a historic season a year ago with just shy of 80 percent fastballs. But now, hitters around the league have had a look.
Will they adjust? Will Hader have to adjust back?
"I really don't know until it happens," he said. "I'm not too worried about how it plays out. We'll see how that goes. If I need to change anything or improve anything, they [the hitters] will tell me."
As the Brewers bring back most of a bullpen that was their best strength, Hader is not the only reliever bidding to build on 2018. Before he faltered at the very end, Jeremy Jeffress joined Hader on the All-Star team and finished the regular season with a sparkling 1.29 ERA in a team-high 73 games. And after coming back from an early-season hamstring injury and an August slump, Corey Knebel was as valuable as any player to Milwaukee's surge to a franchise-record 102 victories (including the postseason), allowing a run in only one of his final 25 appearances, including the postseason.
Hader, though, was manager Craig Counsell's most dangerous and, because of the unique way in which he was deployed, most-debated weapon. His 46.7 strikeout rate was fifth-highest in history for a pitcher who logged at least 10 innings. Hader's 143 strikeouts were an all-time record for a left-handed reliever.
"The biggest thing we have to all get around is this is a brand-new year," Counsell said. "For everybody, it's, 'What's next?' I told them, this team -- underline this -- hasn't accomplished anything. This is a new team, and we have to make our own tracks here. There's going to be a different set of challenges placed in front of this team and these guys that were very successful.
"I still expect them to perform at a very high level, but the formula is likely to be different in some way. They're obviously very talented, capable guys, and our bullpen in general, what [president of baseball operations] David [Stearns] has added to it, there's a lot of choices. I feel like we can be a really deep group in addition to having some pitchers at the top who are electric dudes."
Counsell said he sees two or three open spots in the 'pen, though he didn't specify whether the Brewers plan to open with seven or eight relievers at the very start.
Here's a look at the formula coming into camp:
Hader, Jeffress, Knebel
Barring something unforeseen, stone-cold locks to make the club.
Matt Albers, Junior Guerra
Albers was solid early, hurt his shoulder and then struggled so badly after returning to action (10 earned runs on 10 hits including four home runs in a miserable four-outing stretch in late July and early August) that he pitched only five times after Aug. 4. Considering his big league track record, it's a mistake to count him out.
Guerra, meanwhile, was Milwaukee's Opening Day starter two years ago and will have to make this year's club out of the bullpen, Counsell said. He took to the role late last season and is out of Minor League options.
Alex Claudio, Jake Petricka, Bobby Wahl
Claudio, a left-hander acquired in a December trade with the Rangers, is in. Petricka, a free agent acquired on a one-year deal, and Wahl, who came from the Mets in the Keon Broxton trade, both have Minor League options.
Asked who among the organizational newcomers he is particularly eager to see, Counsell said, "I would say Alex Claudio is probably No. 1, as a guy that I think, and we all think, can be really, really valuable. Left-handed, unique, can pitch a lot. I really think he's somebody that's going to add a different component and look, and somebody we can lean on."
Jacob Barnes, Taylor Williams, Adrian Houser
All three have power arms, pitched in the Majors last season and have an option remaining. Whether they begin the season in the Major League bullpen or at Triple-A San Antonio, they are almost certain to contribute to the Brewers in 2019.
Deolis Guerra, Burch Smith
Guerra pitched for the Pirates and Angels from 2015-17 and will get a legitimate chance to make the team, per Stearns. Smith spent extensive time with the Royals last season in his first big league action since 2013.
STARTING DUDES WHO COULD BE USED AS RELIEF DUDES
Brandon Woodruff, Corbin Burnes, Freddy Peralta, Aaron Wilkerson, Zack Brown
Woodruff, Burnes and Peralta are coming off breakthrough seasons in which they filled a variety of pitching roles, but the idea is to restore them to the starting rotation. Wilkerson is yet to have sustained Major League success, but he's been useful in the Minors. Brown isn't on the 40-man roster, but he was Milwaukee's 2018 Minor League pitcher of the year and is poised to make his Major League debut at some point in 2019.
Adam McCalvy has covered the Brewers for MLB.com since 2001. Follow him on Twitter @AdamMcCalvy and like him on Facebook.