After consecutive seasons running the lowest payroll in baseball in 2016 and 2017, the Milwaukee Brewers decided that it was finally time to spend some money this winter….Except on relievers, that is.
Following the end of the 2017 regular season, the team allowed ace setup man Anthony Swarzak to hit the open market despite a stated desire to return to Milwaukee. They made a halfhearted bid to retain him, but in the end their offer was outbid by a measly $3 million from the New York Mets. Middle reliever Jared Hughes was projected for a $2.2 million salary in his final year of arbitration after arguably the best season of his career, but was non-tendered. Jeremy Jeffress would’ve suffered the same fate as Hughes had he not agreed to take a steep pay cut in arbitration and sign a club-friendly deal with not one, but two team options.
While quality relievers like Swarzak, Juan Nicasio, Brandon Morrow, Bryan Shaw, Steve Cishek, and others were flying off the board during the early portion of the offseason, David Stearns sat on the sidelines. He has added three veterans to the bullpen mix over the course of the winter but again, only on cheap, low-risk deals: a non-guaranteed $2 million commitment to Yovani Gallardo, $1.875 million with a club option/buyout for Boone Logan, and $5 million for Matt Albers spread out over two seasons. A few notable vets, like JJ Hoover, Erik Davis, and Mike Zagurski, will also be in camp on non-roster invites.
So should we as fans be concerned with Stearns placing a low priority on shoring up the relief corps this winter? No, or at least not in the eyes of PECOTA. As BPMilwaukee editor-in-chief Nicholas Zettel dug into earlier this week, the projections think that the Brewers still ought to have a highly productive bullpen with the group of players currently in-house. According to PECOTA, the top-five relievers in Craig Counsell’s pen project to be Corey Knebel, Josh Hader, Jacob Barnes, Oliver Drake, and Logan, with each member of that group projected to churn out an ERA below 3.86 and produce close to 4 WARP cumulatively. The numbers for Albers, Jeffress, and Gallardo peg them as more of roster filler-types than difference makers in 2018, but if the projections are to be believed then there should be two prospects nipping at their heels for spots in the bullpen within short order.
Taylor Williams and Adrian Houser are a pair of promising right-handers that have both spent a short amount of time in the big leagues and both have a Tommy John procedure in their recent past. Williams was a 4th-round pick by the club back in 2013 and was put on the map during Spring Training in 2015 when Ryan Braun compared his stuff to that of Craig Kimbrel. Unfortunately Williams went under the knife shortly after garnering such praise and missed all of the 2015 and 2016 seasons. Houser was considered the fourth piece in the 2015 Gomez-Fiers blockbuster with Houston and made his MLB debut with Milwaukee that September. He was pitching in AA in 2016 when his elbow gave out in July and forced him to hit the operating table.
The Brewers stuck by both hurlers during their recoveries, though. Williams was added to the 40-man roster in November of 2016 despite not throwing a regular season pitch in two years, based solely on what he was able to show during that year’s Fall Instructional League. After a carefully managed workload in AA last season (where he posted a 3.09 ERA/100 DRA- in 46.7 innings), Williams joined the big league club as a September call-up and made five appearances down the stretch, allowing one run with two walks and four punchouts in 4.7 innings. Houser, meanwhile, kept his spot on the 40 man roster even while he was down and out but was able to get back on the mound much more quickly than his cohort. Just 12 months after undergoing UCL surgery, Houser was in Maryvale making rehab starts with Milwaukee’s rookie-level affiliate. He made eight appearances between Maryvale and Appleton and in 17.2 innings, he compiled a 1.02 ERA with 27 strikeouts against just four free passes. Houser was then assigned to the Arizona Fall League, where he impressed scouts with his stuff and physicality on the mound coming off of the surgery.
PECOTA doesn’t project large innings totals at the MLB level for either pitcher next season, but if one were to extrapolate their expected numbers out for a full-season each would be a significant contributor in the bullpen. The soon-to-be 27 year old Williams is forecasted for a 3.65 ERA with 10.7 K/9 and 3.9 BB/9 in 2018; only two pitchers on the staff, Knebel and Hader, project for a lower earned run average in the coming year. Williams’ four-seamer averaged 96.1 MPH during his brief stint in The Show last season and he can get swings-and-misses with his plus slider, as well. That profile fits in perfectly with the philosophy that Stearns and company have employed while building up their pitching depth throughout the winter.
As far as Houser, PECOTA sees him capable of 3.83 ERA along with marks of 9.9 K/9 and 3.6 BB/9 in 2018. If he can match that output, it would place him among the top run preventers that Milwaukee has in their bullpen mix. According to Eric Longenhagen of Fangraphs, Houser was sitting between 93-97 MPH during AFL action and he also graded Adrian’s 12-6 curveball as a plus pitch. The 25 year old will also utilize a cutter and changeup, helping to lead Keith Law of ESPN to conclude that Houser still has the potential to be a league-average starting pitcher. But, as Longenhagen notes “if Milwaukee plans on fast-tracking him as a reliever, all the ingredients are already here.”
Milwaukee figures to have a strong bullpen once again in 2018 led by the triumvirate of Knebel, Hader, and Barnes. While David Stearns may have gone the economical route with the signings he has made to help raise the group’s floor, perhaps he only did so out of the belief that he already had more high impact arms in-house. If Adrian Houser and Taylor Williams can meet or exceed the projections laid out for them, Milwaukee will become that much more of a threat to break their six-year postseason drought.