It’s time for our Depth Chart Discussions to begin. In an effort to suss out every team, we’ve divided them into four parts (infield, outfield, bullpen, and rotation) and will begin breaking them down for you over the next few weeks. You can find them gathered here.
The Brewers lost half of what was a decent bullpen to free agency (Francisco Rodriguez, Zach Duke, and Tom Gorzelanny) and trades (Marco Estrada) this offseason and would enter the 2015 season pretty thin as currently constituted. That makes Milwaukee a relief corps in flux for fantasy. K-Rod recorded 44 of the team’s 45 saves last season, and Duke earned 1.3 WAR in a dominant campaign that featured 11.4 strikeouts per nine, which placed him in the top 25 of relievers with at least 50 innings pitched last season. Duke is now a White Sox and cannot return, but K-Rod remains unsigned. His return would mute much of the intrigue that centers on a likely new old closer.
The Closer: Jonathan Broxton
In his prime, Jonathan Broxton was one of the best closers in baseball. He struck out at least 10.5 batters per nine each season between 2006 and 2010 and recorded 77 saves in the process. Several injuries later, the former flamethrower now lives in the 93-94 mph range as opposed to 96-97. His strikeout rate has fallen in step, but even at 7.5 batters per nine like he struck out in 2014, Broxton has showed enough command to get the job done when healthy. His 2.30 ERA last season was well below his 3.37 FIP, but even with 50 strikeouts, a 3.40 ERA and a 1.20 WHIP, Broxton could be a top 25 or top 20 closer if he earns saves. He would be similar to what Chad Qualls and Rafael Soriano were last year. And really, that’s just health and good batted ball luck away from what Zach Britton was, which was a top five closer by season’s end.
Broxton should be a nice late-round option for owners who want to wait on saves. He likely won’t hurt you when he’s on the mound, and if he lands on the DL after the first month of the season, well that’s when guys like Jake McGee and Sean Doolittle are expected to return. In shallow formats, you can always find saves in-season.
Will Smith and Jim Henderson have also produced strikeout rates north of 11 per nine in recent seasons, but both have a substantial caveat for owners looking for setup men to help with their strikeout rates and ratios. For Smith, the problem is the walk rate. He walked 4.3 batters per nine in 2014, which, along with a .350 BABIP allowed, elevated his WHIP to 1.42.
Historically, Henderson has had his own trouble with free passes, even during his stint as the Brewers’ closer in 2013. However, he has a more pressing concern in the form of offseason shoulder surgery. Henderson has already started throwing and is expected to be ready for the start of the season.
Unfortunately, the presence of both setup men would dampen the fantasy value of each of them. Broxton is a closer one would like to be able to handcuff in deeper formats, but Henderson has shown massive splits (.236 wOBA vs. RHBs and .355 wOBA vs. LHBs) in his career, and the left-handed Smith had major splits of his own in 2014 (.237 wOBA vs. LHBs and .374 wOBA vs. RHBs). It would make sense for the Brewers to use both Henderson and Smith in save situations depending on the opposing lineup if Broxton were injured or ineffective.
When Tyler Thornburg abandoned his swing-man duties and became more of a conventional reliever in 2014, he showed some potential with a spike in his strikeout rate to 8.5 batters per nine. Unfortunately, that was paired with a horrific 6.4 batters per nine walk rate and an elbow injury that cost him much of the season. Steamer likes Thornburg to put all of that behind him and produce a nice season with 8.6 strikeouts per nine, 3.3 walks per nine, a 3.77 ERA, and 55 innings pitched, which would make him a relevant middle reliever in very deep formats.
Brandon Kintzler is more useful in real life than he is fantasy. The sinkerballer induced a 57 percent groundball rate in 2014, which produced their fair share of rally-crushing double plays but did little in the way of strikeouts.
Jeremy Jeffress may have finally enjoyed a breakout season in 2014 with a 2.85 FIP, 8.2 strikeouts per nine, and 2.8 walks per nine, but he did that all over just 32 innings. His track record suggests major control issues, but if he truly has turned the corner, he could quickly climb their meager depth chart and find himself in a lot of high leverage situations.
Neal Cotts had historically been a mediocre or worse reliever, but the Rangers saved his career and turned him into a strikeout machine in 2013 and 2014. Unlike Smith, the left-handed Cotts has shown reverse platoon splits in each of his last two seasons and for his career, so he should not be relegated to LOOGY duty. Still, he probably isn’t good enough to earn saves, even in a bullpen as thin as Milwaukee’s.
Scott Spratt is a fantasy sports writer for FanGraphs and Pro Football Focus. He is a Sloan Sports Conference Research Paper Competition and FSWA award winner. Feel free to ask him questions on Twitter – @Scott_Spratt