Insurance and certainty have been rare commodities for the Milwaukee Brewers in 2017.
When the season started, it was the bevy of inexperienced position players that held the weight of skepticism — and the starting rotation wasn’t far from it either.
Fortunately for the team, both have far exceeded expectations and positioned Milwaukee just a half game behind the division rival Chicago Cubs. Unfortunately, the bullpen, which largely remained in tact after a surprisingly successful 2016 season, did quite the opposite.
Even after a laundry list of designations including Tommy Milone, Jhan Mariñez, Rob Scahill, Neftali Feliz and Wily Peralta, the Brewers are still experiencing significant issues throughout their relief corps.
Despite having some considerable breakouts in 2017, including Josh Hader, the team’s top pitching prospect, nearly lights out since arriving to the majors (0.84 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 26 K, 14 BB, 21.1 IP) and Corey Knebel, who has convincingly taken over as closer (1.58 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 91 K, 30 BB, 51.1 IP), the Brewers still possess three arms that have so far proven to be as destructive as they are constructive — and the leashes may be getting too long.
Sunday afternoon’s ninth-inning loss serves as a prime example.
Whether or not many place the blame on Craig Counsell’s management more than anything, the fact remains that Jacob Barnes, one of last year’s most reliable relievers, walked away with one more earned run under his belt, one that cost the team a chance to push for a win in extra innings.
And he surely wasn’t the first.
Even with an earned run average just below league average, Milwaukee’s bullpen has earned an ugly distinction that has soiled their potential all season long — they have taken the most losses in all of baseball, with 28 (113 games played). Even more brutal is that they’re also tied for first in blown saves (18) in the National League despite also being first in save opportunities (54). At that rate, the bullpen is likely to blow a save every three opportunities, which only compounds on their 25 percent chance to take a loss.
You can’t find better odds in Vegas.
The liabilities that remain aren’t hidden either. After giving up Sunday night’s lead-off go-ahead home run, Barnes holds a 4.38 ERA, has personally taken three losses and is only 2-for-6 in save opportunities. Carlos Torres, another stalwart from last year’s bullpen, owns a 4.31 ERA, has taken four losses and is only 1-for-4 in save opportunities. Less often used but no less a catalyst is Oliver Drake, who stands with a 4.66 ERA and three losses and is also 1-for-2 in save chances.
To management’s credit, even in a year that was predicated by sub-.500 expectations, they’ve been surprisingly active in replacing those that have faltered, but given the nature of the team’s current position in the standings, they’re taking heat now more than ever.
While some of that may be undeserved considering the past reliability of both Barnes and Torres, as well as Counsell’s reputation for being a players’ manager, a level of responsibility remains, one that will undoubtedly function as a fulcrum between the waning patience of fans and the team’s ultimate success or failure in 2017.
But that’s also not to say the roster has been wrought with inaction. The addition of Anthony Swarzak, who, in the best season of his career, is slowly proving his worth as a rental, even in exchange for one of the Brewers’ top outfield prospects. Former Brewer Jeremy Jeffress may also help the cause despite the 5.31 ERA he’s carried over from Texas — he holds a career 2.37 ERA in Milwaukee.
Unfortunately, the solutions may not be simple. While using one of Barnes’ two remaining options could help clear up space with little long-term repercussions (outside of a bruised ego and a potential rough-up thanks to the Colorado Springs atmosphere), both Torres and Drake would have to be designated for assignment, and the team has few alternatives lying in wait.
Wei-Chung Wang may be the team’s best option, as his 2017 campaign has been highly-impressive. In the most hitter-friendly park in the minors, Wang has pitched to a 2.05 ERA and 1.22 WHIP with 44 strikeouts and only 12 walks in 48.1 innings. The performance has already earned him consideration from the Brewers, and although he’s not yet been rewarded with any more than a single major-league batter, there’s a good chance he sees time out of the bullpen down the stretch.
After Wang, however, is nearly as much uncertainty in the minors. Former Brewers starter Taylor Jungmann is having a nice rebound in 2017 (2.98 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 60 K, 27 BB, 66.1 IP), but also suffered the greatest collapse of his career just last season and has yet to prove himself in any meaningful fashion at the major league level this year.
Jeanmar Gomez, the former Philadelphia Phillies closer, was signed to a minor league contract in mid-July and has impressed in his limited time with the Triple-A Sky Sox (2.16 ERA, 0.96, 7 K, 1 BB, 8.1 IP), but that’s also coming on the heels of career-worsts in ERA, WHIP, hits and home runs, forcing him to be jettisoned from the City of Brotherly Love after only 18 appearances this season.
Paolo Espino has already seen some major league action with the Brewers but the results have been less than desirable. Tyler Webb, the 27-year-old lefty acquired in the Garrett Cooper trade with the New York Yankees, has also failed to impress in the early goings at both the major and minor league levels. Jorge Lopez, who appeared on the major league roster in both 2015 and 2017, is still figuring things out in Double-A.
Tristan Archer may be one of few worthy of major-league experimentation, as his 3.71 ERA, 1.31 WHIP and 44:13 K/BB ratio is one of the best in Colorado Springs, even in one of the worst pitching environments in the minors. Brandon Woodruff or Brent Suter could also be moved to the bullpen, but neither will remain an option until Chase Anderson returns from the disabled list, which looks to be near the end of August.
Regardless of the rotation’s significant progress over the past few months, the bullpen could continue to be the most significant hinderance holding the team back from a spot in the postseason — especially if the reeling offense isn’t able to establish enough run support to make the imploding relief core less pivotal.
While no team wants to enter the stretch with inexperience hinging success, moving a few pieces around could be the only way to ensure that all potential options have been exercised.
At this point, there may be little left to lose.
Jonathan Powell is a co-founder and lead writer for Bronx to Bushville.