Running out of Ink: Brewers’ Pen Strong at the Top but Lacking in Depth

It’s no secret the Brewers have some of the best bullpen arms in the game. Josh Hader is a flame throwing beast who has given up just two runs in fifteen innings while striking out nearly two batters per frame. Devin Williams started to heat up after a slow start, allowing just three runs in his last 11.1 innings, and he boasts one of the best pitches in baseball.

JP Feyereisen is the newcomer on the scene, and – before his implosion in the finale against the Braves – he had allowed just eight walks, five hits, and one earned run in eighteen innings. One disastrous outing doesn’t make all that work irrelevant. Then there’s Brent Suter, the versatile lefty that can be trusted with multiple mid-game innings. Suter certainly hasn’t consistently been at his best this season, but he has earned our trust by now. As far as four-man cores go, it doesn’t get much better than that. The timing is rather unfortunate here but I wrote this originally a few days ago before today’s disaster.

In one game, these four are the go-to, especially with the starters the Brewers can throw out there. The issue, of course, is that baseball is not decided by singular games. There are games after games after games, and the scattered days of rest mean that Hader, Williams, Feyereisen, and Suter can’t cover all of the bullpen innings, even in a much shorter playoff series.

The obvious question this leads to – how well-equipped is the Brewers’ bullpen beyond those top four? In the Cardinals series alone, we saw Angel Perdomo give up a ninth inning run in a one-run ballgame and Brad Boxberger give up five runs in a very poor twelfth inning. Does the depth require some work?

The Rest of the Bullpen

Before we get started, I want to preface by saying that the bullpen is not a primary issue and that the Brewers aren’t destined to fail if they don’t improve their depth. That doesn’t mean improvements can’t be made. In looking at our bullpen from #5 down, we’ll find two solid options and, based on this season at least, not a whole lot else. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the current bullpen depth. 

If you don’t include Daniel Robertson, who, I think it’s safe to say, will not be asked to repeat his scoreless inning in a high stakes moment, the Brewers have thrown twenty-one different pitchers this year. Nine are either our five primary starters or the four aforementioned leaders of the bullpen, which leaves us with twelve candidates for filling out the second half of the pen. Let’s run through those options. 

  • Drew Rasmussen 

Rasmussen, with 17 innings pitched, is third to only Suter and Feyereisen in volume out of the pen. That’s the good news. You don’t get that long of a leash if you’re not doing something right. The bad news? His 1.47 WHIP, and the eight earned runs he’s given up. Now, in Rasmussen’s defense, seven of those eight runs came in his first four appearances. He’s given up just one run in his last 13.2 innings.

He’s also done a relatively good job of keeping things clean, having allowed one or less baserunner in eight of his last eleven appearances. If we’re giving Williams the benefit of the doubt for his start, then Rasmussen deserves at least some of that. He’s young too, even if he doesn’t have the dominant history Williams has. 

Conclusion: Still has some a little more work to do to gain full trust and overcome his terrible start, but impossible to complain about how the majority of his outings have gone. Cautiously optimistic that he can contribute as a top five or six guy this year. 

  • Brad Boxberger

Two terrible outings cloud what has otherwise been a pretty good start to the season from the box man. Boxberger gave up two runs against Pittsburgh about a month ago, and then he had that awful twelfth against the Cards the other day: three hits and five runs (four earned). In his other 12.2 innings, he’s given up zero runs and just five hits and two walks. That’s really good stuff. The other benefit Boxberger brings is experience. This is his tenth year in the big leagues, and there’s not much reason to believe he can’t continue to be a solid bullpen arm the rest of the way.

Conclusion: He’s done well so far, and it’s a relatively safe bet that he can continue to be a solid option. 

  • Eric Lauer

This is where things start to get dicey. Lauer is now a bullpen arm, and we have seen him out of the pen in his last two outings. In the first, he struck out two in two innings of one-hit work. It wouldn’t be a surprise if we see him in the role Josh Lindblom was supposed to fill as a guy that can soak up some innings if things go wrong at the start of the game. The question, of course, is whether or not he can fill that role effectively. 

It’s hard to tell right now. The first outing from the pen was good, as was his first start, which saw him go five innings scoreless against the Dodgers. He didn’t do the same in his second start, giving up eight hits and six runs (two earned) in six innings against the Phillies.

Brewers' pitcher Eric Lauer throws during the first day of spring training in 2020. (Photo by Gregory Bull/AP)
Brewers’ pitcher Eric Lauer throws during the first day of spring training in 2020. (Photo by Gregory Bull/AP)

And then there was his second appearance out of the pen, which saw him allow three runs off of four hits in three innings. That doesn’t leave us with a whole lot to work with, and stats from his previous two full big league seasons (we won’t count last year’s third of a season) are mediocre at best. Even when he’s rolling, Lauer doesn’t really look like a weapon. He’s more of a “let’s hope he keeps us close here” kind of guy. That’s not someone I’d like to depend on in key moments. 

Conclusion: The jury is still out, but it’s difficult to see how Lauer fits onto the postseason roster with Suter already there. The regular season is a different beast by game volume, so he will certainly have his chance to prove he belongs. He’s not off to a great start in that regard with a 50% success rate. 

  • Eric Yardley

Yardley gave up just four runs in twenty-four appearances last year after giving up three runs in ten appearances for San Diego the year before, so there was hope – for good reason – that he would be a reliable contributor this year. That has not happened. Instead, Yardley gave up seven runs in ten April appearances.

You’ll notice that’s the same number of runs he gave up in those thirty-four appearances across the previous two seasons. He allowed runs in 40% of his outings, and he gave up two hits in another. It was an ugly, ugly start. Since the calendar turned to May, Yardley has been bouncing between the Alternate Training Site and the IL, and it’s not clear when he might return to pitching and, eventually, the big leagues. 

Conclusion: It’s hard to ignore his past. With that said, Yardley has been bad enough that you almost have to. He has a lot of work to do to come anywhere near a playoff bullpen this season. 

  • Josh Lindblom

The “hold my beer” of bullpen woes, Lindblom has been a disaster in 2021. Giving up nine hits, three walks, and eight runs in one outing is going to hurt the bottom line regardless of how you do outside of that game, but the whole “it was only one game” shtick doesn’t apply here. In his other five outings, Lindblom gave up nine hits, four walks, and six runs. The man has a 9.95 ERA and has only produced scoreless outings in one-third of his appearances. It’s hard to be worse than that, and yet Lindblom is still getting chances, as we saw last night. He’s obviously not here just to sit, so we’ll see if he can improve in some low leverage opportunities moving forward.

Conclusion: He’s a veteran that will likely get some more chances. I don’t want him anywhere near the MLB mound right now though.

  • Angel Perdomo

The good news for Perdomo is that the thirteen appearances he’s made over the last two seasons have been his first at the big league level. He’s just 26 and has time to grow as a pitcher. The bad news is that those thirteen appearances have often been bad. He’s given up twelve hits, a ridiculous thirteen walks, and twelve earned runs, and he’s given up a run in just under half of those outings. Now, he has been a little better this year. Four of his six runs came in one appearance, giving him seven scoreless outings in ten tries. The problem is that he has only produced three innings where he did not allow a baserunner, and two of those were his first two of the year. There’s hope for the future, but it’s hard to trust him to keep things clean right now. 

Conclusion: I just don’t trust Perdomo in any sort of high-stakes situation, though he’s likely a better option than most of the other guys on this list at this point.

  • Alec Bettinger

Yes, this is the guy who gave up eleven runs in his major league debut, including two grand slams in the first two innings. Hopefully that becomes a story he can tell with a smile down the road. In his only other outing, Bettinger went three innings and allowed one run. He was optioned a few days ago and likely won’t be back for a while. The good thing for Bettinger is that he’s a 25 year old homegrown prospect. This probably wasn’t his last chance.

Conclusion: Not there yet

  • Jordan Zimmerman

Congrats to Jordan Zimmerman on his retirement after a long and productive career. It’s cool that he was able to end it in his home state. 

Conclusion: No longer there

  • Patrick Weigel

In four innings, Weigel has given up four hits, four walks, and two runs. That’s less than ideal. Though he was sent down to AAA a few days ago, this is another young guy that’s going to get more chances in the future. That doesn’t mean that there’s much of a reason to trust he will contribute this season.

Conclusion: Has the potential to be a bullpen arm at some point in the future. He will need to improve quickly to make that happen this year.

  • Zack Godley

Godley walked five and gave up four runs (three earned) in his lone three-inning start. Given the circumstances and how the game actually went down, I think the stats are a little uglier than the reality of the situation, but there’s no question that Godley isn’t exactly an X-factor that’s waiting in the wings. He was sent down to the minors and will likely stay there for a bit. While I wouldn’t necessarily be against the idea of seeing him again, there’s just no reason to expect much from Godley this year.

Conclusion: Any sort of significant positive contribution would be pretty surprising 

  • Phil Bickford

Bickford gave up two hits, a walk, and two runs in his lone inning of the season. In related news, Phil Bickford is now a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers organization.

Conclusion: The only way Bickford helps us is if the Dodgers call him up and try to use him. 

  • Hoby Milner

In his debut outing, Milner allowed three hits and a run in two innings of work. He struck out three as well. His 4.53 ERA and 1.51 WHIP in seventy-five career games aren’t very promising signs.

Conclusion: Too early to tell, but I’m not all that optimistic

Let’s recap. We have two solid options in Rasmussen and Boxberger. It’s obviously impossible to say how they will fare the rest of the season, but there’s no reason not to trust those two as things stand.

The issue is the last two-three spots, where we have a bunch of guys who have largely failed to perform so far this year. Throw out the playoffs for a minute, where you’re likely taking about eight bullpen arms, and just think about the regular season. You simply need more than six arms that you can trust, and the Brewers don’t have that right now. 

They need some guys to step up. There are options like Justin Topa and Bobby Wahl that will return this summer, and there’s good reason to hope they will help fill out the pen. There’s always the possibility of a Pomeranz-like trade to boost the bullpen as well.

The simple reality, however, is that you can’t depend on external help arriving. You definitely can’t depend on it right now. The Brewers have a top-heavy bullpen, and finding the right arms to stabilize the bottom half should be a pretty clear goal moving forward. 

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