The recent trade of Francisco Rodriguez means that the 2016 bullpen will look significantly different from the 2015 one. There will obviously be a new closer, but that specific title is less important than the specific leverage roles that each player will fill. Rodriguez was not just the Brewers’ closer; he was also one of the team’s best relievers, so the fact that managers Ron Roenicke and Craig Counsell used him in high-leverage situations is no surprise.
The 2016 season, then, will bring an entirely new bullpen layout. Without a truly experienced closer currently on the roster, it’s unlikely that Counsell will go into the season with a single defined choice. Instead, we will probably see some form of closer-by-committee where the choice depends on the situation. Fortunately, for the Brewers this will probably result in the team’s best relievers being used in the highest-leverage situations.
Once we remove Matt Garza’s one relief appearance, Rodriguez had the team’s highest leverage index. This is no surprise; ninth innings often — though not always — are the highest leverage because the stakes are greatest and there are (mostly) only two results: win or lose. K-Rod came into a game in the eighth inning only three times. Each time, the Brewers were losing by a significant amount and the game ended after eight. This is not to say that Rodriguez only pitched in high-leverage situations, but rather that he often pitched in the most.
Rodriguez, though, is no longer on the team, which leaves a hole for someone to step into. This “someone” is probably already in the organization, as investing in high-priced bullpen arms makes little sense for a team that is not expecting to compete.
In 2015, only two other Brewer pitchers had a leverage index above 1.0 (which is average): Jeremy Jeffress and Will Smith. Smith was by far the better pitcher, as his 2.50 FIP was the lowest of any Brewer who threw more than seven innings. Jeffress, though, was no slouch either. A 3.25 FIP and 2.65 ERA in a relatively high-leverage role is nothing to sneeze at.
Craig Counsell is a bit of a wild card in this situation. He used Francisco Rodriguez in a very traditional way, but he also inherited an environment in which he had a single veteran reliever who expected to pitch the ninth. He may very well prefer to continue using the classic bullpen roles. But the Brewers’ new front office is young and analytically-oriented, so they may lean on Counsell to eschew those traditions.
The Brewers don’t really have an option that was not on the 25-man roster last year. Although 28-year-old Jaye Chapman led Triple-A Colorado Spring in saves, he is too old to be taken seriously as a true candidate to make an impact at the big-league level. Damien Magnifico led Double-A Biloxi in saves and is just 24, but his 1.17 ERA in 2015 was the first time he posted a mark below 3.50 in his minor-league career. He could be a viable big-league reliever at some point, but that point is not 2016.
This essentially means that Jeffress and Smith are the team’s only two options. Michael Blazek was the only reliever who was better than Jeffress (besides the aforementioned Smith and Rodriguez), but his underwhelming strikeout rate (just 7.6 strikeouts per nine innings) means that he is not really a huge standout candidate. Additionally, the fact that none of the other relievers had a leverage index even at 1.0 indicates that Counsell did not trust anyone else. He relied heavily on Jeffress and Smith in important situations, which means that they are the most likely to pitch these same situations in 2016.
Counsell is an unknown quantity as a manager, so we do not know his specific philosophy. Teams now use left-handed pitchers as closers when the players’ talents warrant, as is the case with Aroldis Chapman in Cincinnati. However, due to the rarity of quality left-handed relievers, teams often try to save their lefties for specific instances when they will be able to get out an opponent’s key left-handed bat — which makes reserving one for the ninth inning all but impossible.
I expect Counsell to follow this pattern. He will probably not fully commit to Jeffress as his full-time closer at the beginning of the season, as the young righty lacks the experience to simply be handed that role. We will probably see a bit of Will Smith. Smith, though, will probably be utilized in a more flexible manner because of the hand with which he throws. He will be trotted out to face the middle of a team’s lineup in the seventh or eighth innings, especially when a series of dangerous left-handed batters are coming up. While this decision may not be made with the best thought process, it will benefit the Brewers in terms of attempting to win games.