The newly reformed Brewers bullpen got its first test yesterday as starter Shaun Marcum exited with a strained neck after five innings. A combination of four relievers took the Crew the rest of the way – LaTroy Hawkins (sixth), Takashi Saito (seventh), Francisco Rodriguez (eighth), and John Axford (ninth) – to preserve a much-needed 4-3 win on the road.
The four are among the top relievers that have appeared in the Brewers bullpen over the course of the season.
Hawkins has been outstanding since returning from the disabled list; in 30 appearances, he has allowed only 5 earned runs and sports a nifty 1.65 ERA to go along with 15 strikeouts and 4 walks.
Axford is 25-27 in save opportunities, one of the best save percentages in the majors, with an acceptable 2.84 ERA (11th best of current closers). Axford is not a shutdown closer by any means, as he illustrated in yesterday’s game by allowing a double and a walk before striking out All-Star Troy Tulowitzki to end the game.
But Axford is getting the job done so far, and despite Francisco Rodriguez’s two scoreless frames in a Brewers uniform, Rodriguez does not look like a real threat to permanently displace Axford as a closer. Earlier this week the Brewers agreed to increase K-Rod’s buyout to $4 M (from $3.5 M) in exchange for nixing the $17.5 2012 vesting option with 55 games finished, so there is no longer an urgency to keep K-Rod from closing games. Still, if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it. Axford has been able to get out of the messes he creates, and if he can keep doing so there’s no need for a switch. It’s worth noting, though, that K-Rod has been able to strike out three in his two innings despite the lack of velocity on his fastball (regularly clocked at 91 yesterday, while once touching both 92 and 93). His also allowed a double on a changeup, which was not quite as effective (between 84-86).
Finally, Takashi Saito, who was on the disabled list until recently, has been serviceable. His 7:1 K:BB ratio will fly, but his WHIP (1.57) and HR/9 (2.6) will not. Keep in mind those numbers are based on a rather small sample size of seven innings, and can be attributed to shaking off the rust after being shut down for so long. Saito really only had one bad outing on July 15. For his career, he has a 1.03 WHIP and allows only .6 HR/9, so there shouldn’t be much to worry about here.
The rest of the Brewers bullpen isn’t nearly as good, but Kameron Loe (3-7, 4.53 ERA), Marco Estrada (2-6, 4.70), and Tim Dillard (1-1, 5.00) have all shown flashes of greatness. But having allowed third-most runs in the NL, the Brewers bullpen was desperately in need of help in the late innings. The K-Rod trade has perhaps turned one of the Brewers’ greatest weaknesses into one of its greatest strengths.