The Brewers are full of question marks all over the diamond. That’s not a bad thing for a rebuilding team. It’s actually exciting. Plenty of young talent will get their chance to shine in the bigs this summer. The bullpen is no exception. David Stearns traded all of his late inning relievers before spring. At the deadline last year Jeremy Jeffress was a key piece dealt to acquire the likes of Lewis Brinson, Luis Ortiz, and Ryan Cordell, a trio of prospects that will make their presence felt at the MLB level in the near future. Will Smith, who has been a valuable piece of the pen in recent years was flipped to the Giants for Phil Bickford. Bickford was rated as the Giants #1 pitching prospect but was recently suspended for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. Stearns was not quite done rebuilding his bullpen; this winter he traded Tyler Thornburg for Travis Shaw and a versatile, talented prospect named Mauricio Dubon. When it was all said and done the Brewers flipped their late-inning relievers for their current #1, #4, #9, #12, #16 top prospects (according to MLB.com) in their highly rated farm system. Only time will tell just how successful those deals were; however, the haul of prospects for those arms seem promising.
The loss of Smith, Thornburg, and Jeffress left a giant hole in the bullpen. Think positive though. This left ample opportunity for younger players looking to prove themselves. The casual baseball fan probably doesn’t even recognize the guys throwing in crunch time this year for the Crew, so let me introduce you to them:
Barnes was drafted by the Brewers in the 14th round in 2011 out of Florida Gulf Coast University. He steadily advanced through minor league baseball and debuted last year. Barnes appeared in 27 games and posted an ERA of 2.70. The number that stood out to me was his 26 strikeouts to 6 walks. It was promising enough for Counsell to start giving him the ball later in games this year and so far he has not disappointed. The 27-year old righty has featured a heater that he will throw 96-99 consistently with a devastating slider. He recently threw his hardest pitch as a big leaguer that touched 100 MPH. Up to this point Barnes has not allowed a run in his 10.1 innings and has 12 strikeouts. His stuff has been untouchable. Buster Olney recently tweeted that Barnes has been one of the best relievers in baseball this year. Brewer fans should feel extremely comfortable with who they currently have throwing the 7th inning with a lead. Don’t be surprised if Jacob Barnes is closing games after the deadline.
Corey Knebel was acquired in the Yovani Gallardo trade along with Luis Sardinas and Marcos Diplan. The 25-year old has appeared in 83 games over the past two seasons for the Brewers. Everyone got a glimpse of his potential but he hadn’t quite yet put it all together. He struggled at times last year on his way to a 4.68 ERA. Fastball location is key for Knebel. He exclusively sticks with a fastball, curveball combination to keep hitters off balance. Knebel can also bring the heat. His fastball sits around 95-98 with some life. At only 25 years old you would think he could improve his velocity more in the next few seasons. So far Craig Counsell has had him slotted in the 8th inning role and he has answered the bell. Through 9 appearances so far Knebel boasts a strong ERA of 1.08 and has 12 strikeouts in 8.1 innings pitched. It is a small sample size but Milwaukee has to like what they have seen from the young right hander thus far.
Neftali Feliz is a name that baseball fans recognize. Feliz won American League Rookie of the Year with the Rangers in 2010 and has pitched in a World Series. He is no stranger to throwing in high leverage situations. Coming off a solid year as a setup man with the Pirates, Slingin’ David Stearns signed the flame-throwing right hander to a 1 year deal worth 5.35M. This was a free agent signing that made sense for a rebuilding squad. Feliz is trying to resurrect his career as a closer following his Tommy John surgery a few years back. His arm looks great. A few series ago in Toronto, Feliz was hitting 100 MPH consistently. His current stats can be extremely misleading. One bad outing can completely blow up a relievers ERA early in the season. Fans need to look past his 6.75 ERA and realize he has been quite solid. Two pitches to Nolan Arenado and Addison Russell account for his losses but other than that he has been exactly what the Brewers were hoping for.
Corey Knebel and Jacob Barnes should make it through the rebuild. If I were to predict who will be closing games for the next competitive Brewer team it would be Jacob Barnes. Either one of these guys are great candidates to close in the future. Both players are under club control for the foreseeable future and fans should be excited about that. They have shown steady improvement and the ability to throw and throw well in high leverage situations and should be high-end relievers in the next few years. On the other hand, don’t get emotionally attached to Neftali Feliz. It is difficult seeing him play for the Crew after 2017. If he is throwing the ball well at the trade deadline expect Stearns to flip him for prospects. Contending teams pay a premium price for bullpen help and the Brewers have shown in the past that they will take advantage of this new trend. If Feliz ends up struggling for an extended stretch I would expect Counsell to experiment with Knebel and Barnes in that closer role to end the season. Either way it was a low-risk, high-reward type of signing. Best case scenario would be for Feliz to dominate until July and then trade him for more prospects. For the time being just sit back and enjoy a bullpen that features three flamethrowers late in games. Expect this trio to lock the door more often than not. It is a talented group of guys.