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Can The Bullpen Be Salvaged?

AxfordPhoto: Tom Lynn/AP

The Brewers’ 2012 bullpen has been a lot more like the 2010 version than the 2011 one, sadly.  Last year, especially after K-Rod was acquired, a win was a seemingly sure thing when the team reached the 7th or 8th inning with a lead.  This year, however, has brought all that stability crashing down and reminds me of how broken and jaded one can feel after a blown save.  Hyperbole aside, it really is a kick in the teeth when the team has scratched to a position to win the game, only to have it stolen in the last minutes.  My mind reaches back to all of those inexplicable, horrorshow Trevor Hoffman moments in 2010.  If it’s bad for fans, it has to be deflating for the team and its confidence, regardless of the old ‘there’s another game tomorrow’ cliché.

John Axford was supposed to have learned from the Jedi side of Hoffman.  I think he did, but he’s going through a rough patch this year that we didn’t see last year.  For me, his saves streak last year was ‘that which will not be mentioned’ because I didn’t want to jinx it by even thinking about it, let alone referring to it out loud.  We hadn’t seen a dominant run like that from a Brewers closer in a long time, if ever.  Axford was probably due for inevitable regression and stumbles, but it stinks that it’s come in the midst of some really important games for a team that is trying to play itself out of a hole.  The 2012 team came out of the gate in such a funk that it’s depressing to see the bullpen badly leaking water when the ship is being powered pretty well by good starting pitching and a decent, if streaky, offense.  They would’ve had a five-game win streak if not for the collapse of July 4.  They tried hard to blow the game on July 3, as well.  But Aramis Ramirez and Carlos Gomez wouldn’t let them.

The most important thing the bullpen can be accused of destroying is the consistency with which the team has not played this year.  You can’t be consistent if you have to constantly use a band-aid approach to each game and have the manager constantly getting another guy up in the pen because the current guy is starting to let the opponent back in the game.  Then the next guy comes in and gives up another run, prompting yet another call to the bullpen.  As ‘Rock’ said on the TV broadcast the other night, relievers likely want to hide when the phone rings.  I understand having bullpen roles for the 8th and 9th innings.  Last year’s team seemed to have pretty rigid roles even for the 6th and 7th innings.  Veras has been intermittently horrible and OK as a 7th inning guy.  The rest of the bullpen just seems like a mess though.  What really is the role of Parra and Dillard?  It’s pretty muddy.  Do they really belong on this team, or can we trade them for some other team’s crappy relievers just to get some new faces in here?

I didn’t mind the team not bringing back Saito and Hawkins.  They would have been expensive and the team was already historically over budget.  But you’ve got to have some reasonable fill-ins or you could be shooting yourself in the foot.  I like the Livan Hernandez signing.  His rubber arm is great for a bullpen that seems to run on fumes.  What I’d really like to see is Estrada go back to the pen.  Do we really need him in the rotation?  He can be OK, but tends to get hit hard eventually.  Would we really be worse off with Peralta in the rotation (or Marcum, should he return), and putting Estrada in the pen?  Maybe we should try McClendon for more than two seconds before sending him back to Nashville.

The 2012 bullpen seems to be infected with a lack of talent or will, or bad luck.  Likely a combination of factors has led to its ineffectiveness.  If the Brewers still have any chance at all of getting into the postseason though, I would urge Doug Melvin and Ron Roenicke to start tinkering now, because there’s no reason to waste time trying to be consistent with a bunch that is anything but.