Roenicke talks bullpen conundrum
Brewers manager Ron Roenicke stopped short of anointing Jim Henderson the new closer on Saturday before proposing a wholly new system of bullpen management, one in which there is no ninth-inning specialist and you use your “closer” in the toughest situation, even if that means pitching him in a one-run game in the seventh inning.
“I don’t want to say that he’s our closer, but he’s going to be in there,” Roenicke said. “If it’s tonight and there’s a closing situation, it will probably be him. I don’t want to say that it will definitely be him, but it will probably be him.
“The problem is, the game may be won or lost in the seventh inning, and if I feel like Henderson is the best guy to stop that right then, maybe he’s in in the seventh. If I wait to get to the ninth, we may not even get to the ninth.”
Thus began a spirited debate between Roenicke and the reporters who cover him on a regular basis, and have watched late-inning blowups ruin Brewers’ bid to repeat as National League Central champions. John Axford’s blown save Friday was the Brewers’ 22nd this season, already three more than they suffered while winning setting a franchise-record 96 games in 2011.
Both Axford and Francisco Rodriguez have been removed from the closer’s role, leaving as the currently most viable option Henderson, a 29-year-old who pitched parts of 10 seasons in the Minor Leagues before a promotion last month.
But Roenicke on Saturday seemed to cast aside the entire notion of a “closer,” instead proposing to let inning-by-inning situations dictate his bullpen choices.
“When you have two or three guys who are throwing well, you can cover the games when you’re winning,” Roenicke said. “When you don’t have that many guys that are throwing well, you can’t cover all of the innings every night. It’s impossible.
“So, do people feel better about us blowing a game in the seventh inning, or do they feel better about losing the game in the ninth? Is there really a difference when you lose the game? To me, it’s a loss.”
Others feel differently, including some players in Roencike’s own clubhouse, who argue that the nature of the Brewers’ losses, so many of them in the ninth inning, have made this season’s slide particularly demoralizing.
Conventional baseball reason seems to back up the theory that the ninth inning is particularly important. That’s why closers command contracts in the tens of millions of dollars, and most seventh-inning relievers are on one-year deals.
Roenicke said he doesn’t buy the line of reason that losing in the ninth inning is any different.
“Why?” he asked. “Because it feels different? It’s still a loss. What if you’re losing all the games in the seventh inning and you’re never using your best pitchers to win games? … The ninth is only important now because of saves. Everyone talks about saves, about blown saves. If you really want to do it right, and you really want to win that game and you don’t care about saves, you don’t care about players’ contracts, you just want to win those games, your closer does not always pitch the ninth inning.”
The problem for the Brewers is that they are losing so many games <i>with</i> their best relievers — Jose Veras, Rodriguez and Axford — enduring poor seasons.
Which begged Roenicke’s next question.
“Give me some options — you tell me who you want in there,” he said.
“I don’t mind Henderson anywhere. I like Henderson,” Roenicke said. “But it’s not just the ninth. … They’ve been struggling. We’ve been talking about the same thing for quite a while now. They’re not throwing well. They’re not throwing like they’re capable of throwing. But there has to be options in order to change things. You guys want me to change things, but you don’t give me any options to do it with. …
“There’s a lot of other teams that are in the same situation I am in, where they can’t get through games. The Angels are one of them. The Angels are baffled as to what to do with their bullpen, and there’s other teams that are just like that.”
What about getting some different pitchers? The Brewers have already tapped Triple-A Nashville for players like Henderson and starters Mike Fiers and Mark Rogers.
“Where do you get them from?” Roenicke said. “That’s not that easy. If it was easy to replace these guys, teams would just keep doing it all through the year. They would be bringing in guys that are good. Well, there aren’t that many great players sitting around places where you can grab somebody and bring them in.”
How does he explain an entire bullpen struggling with command and results?
“It’s just a funk we’re going through, and I don’t know how long it’s going to last,” Roenicke said. “You guys act like I like sitting here and watching this every night, that it’s easy to have choices to make. It’s tough. It’s tough for us to watch, too. It’s tough for these players to go out and work their butts off. They’re not trying to walk people. They’re not trying to miss with breaking balls up in the zone. They work their butts off to pitch well, and they can’t get it going.”
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