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Future Closers: Milwaukee Brewers
The Milwaukee Brewers are light on high-level prospects as a whole, but one bright spot is the corps of arms that could man the back end of the bullpen. While the Brewers have established closer Jim Henderson and potential Hall of Famer Francisco Rodriguez manning the late innings in 2014, there are multiple young pitchers that could contribute in Miller Park sooner rather than later.
Best Bet: RHP Johnny Hellweg
While the Brewers seem determined to keep Johnny Hellweg a starter, the 6-foot-9 right hander may be a better fit in the bullpen. His presence is intimidating, and his stature makes his mid-90s fastball look even faster. He lives low in the zone and produced ground balls 56.5% of the time as a minor leaguer in 2013.
The 25-year old is not necessarily a strikeout pitcher, but can still be dominant at times. Over a six-start stretch for Nashville in June and July last season, Hellweg allowed just one earned run and only 24 hits over 38 innings, earning the win for his club in each appearance. Over the course of the season, he dominated right-handed hitters, holding them to a .160/.277/.221 line. The split was dramatic however, as lefties hit .308/.451/.466 in 208 at-bats.
Such a dramatic difference is an example of Hellweg’s inconsistency, which has kept him from contributing at the Major League level thus far. The notable mid-summer run Hellweg had in Nashville was interrupted with a promotion to Milwaukee, where he failed to impress. After posting a 10.97 ERA in four appearances, including three starts, Hellweg returned to Triple-A. As a September call-up, he faired much better, posting a 4.50 ERA across 20 innings in four starts.
Though he is far from a sure thing, I point to Hellweg as the Brewers’ best bet because he performed well in stressful situations. With runners on base in Triple-A, Hellweg turned his game up a notch, holding hitters to a .175/.296/.248 slash. He was even better with runners on and two outs, posting a line of .151/.295/.183. Even better yet, with runners in scoring position and two outs, Hellweg held opponents to .131/.284/.180.
While he has certainly lacked command at times- posting a 14.1 BB% in 2013 – Johnny Hellweg has the tools to be a Major League closer. The big righty even has some experience, saving 24 games across two seasons in the Angels organization. It was during that time that he posted a career-high 28% strikeout rate in 41 games for Cedar Rapids in 2010. Hellweg will begin the season in Nashville, but should see plenty of time in Milwaukee in 2014. Expect him to grow as a reliever and make a push for the closer role in 2015.
The strongest part of the Milwaukee farm system is the number of bullpen prospects. Goforth and Pena can bring the heat in the high-90s, and Magnifico consistently tops 100 mph. Astin was a closer at Arkansas in college.
To date, Goforth has been the only one to see extensive time as a reliever. He was a closer at Ole Miss and worked exclusively out of the bullpen in Helena in his first professional season after being selected in the seventh round in 2011. After starting 46 games at three levels the next two seasons, Goforth settled into a bullpen role for Double-A Huntsville in 2013. In the final month of the season, the righty went 5-for-5 in save situations in 12 appearances and posted a 1.20 ERA while holding opponents to a .137 average. Some analysts call for the righty to make his Major League debut in 2014.
Pena, who came with Hellweg from the Angels in the Zack Greinke trade, has a similar selection of pitches, relying on a sinking fastball in most cases, but with the ability to hit 98 on the gun. The soon-to-be 25-year old right-hander has worked exclusively as a starter in seven professional seasons, but better fits a role in the bullpen.
A fifth round selection in 2012, Magnifico consistently throws his fastball in the triple digits, but has developed little else as far as secondary pitches go. Even his fastball is not perfect, as it lacks deception and movement and can be hit hard. The Oklahoma product allowed a .308 opponents batting average after joining High Class-A Brevard County in the second half of 2013. Just 22 years old, the Brewers are confident Magnifico can develop, and have committed to him as a starter for the time being. Nineteen of his 30 professional appearances have come as the starting pitcher.
The Brewers liked Barrett Astin enough to select him in the third round of the 2013 draft. After helping Arkansas to the College World Series as a closer in 2012, he joined the Razorback rotation in 2013. He lost some zip on his fastball with the move, going from mid-90s to 88-92, but has good movement and mixes in a tight slider and good curve. He started eight games for Rookie-level Helena in 2013, and piggybacked his other four appearances. The Brewers seem to like him as a starter for the time being, but don’t be surprised if he develops as a reliever in the coming years.
Off the Radar: LHP Tyler Alexander
Alexander was a 27th round pick by the Brewers in the 2013 draft, and only logged 15.2 innings in his first professional season due to a heavy workload at Florida International. However, the lefty showed filthy stuff and struck out 27 hitters and only allowed seven hits and three walks. The 22-year old held opponents to a .125 average while compiling a 2-0 record and 1.72 ERA with one save. He impressed enough to earn the role of closer in the playoffs, and earned a second save by recording the final outs to send Helena to the Pioneer League Championship Series.