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Brewers by position: Bullpen shaping up to be 'a strength of the team' as questions over roles remain

Brewers by position: Bullpen shaping up to be 'a strength of the team' as questions over roles remain

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During his five-plus years as manager of the Milwaukee Brewers, Craig Counsell has had the benefit of working with some of the best relief corps in all of baseball.

That doesn't seem to change in 2021 as Counsell will again have the luxury of handing the ball late in games to right-hander Devin Williams, the reigning National League Rookie of the Year, and left-hander Josh Hader, who despite some slippage, remains one of the most dominant relievers in the game.

And bridging the gap between those two and Milwaukee's starting rotation are an eclectic mix of arms — power and finesse; left- and right-handed — that have Counsell excited for their possibilities.

"It's a nice place to be, for sure," Counsell said. "It's a strength of the team."

How Counsell plans to deploy his two relief aces is still being worked out. After filling a multi-inning "fireman" role for the first few years of his career, Hader shifted into a more traditional closer's role last season. Of his 21 appearances, only one was for multiple innings, made possible in part because of Williams' dominance in the set-up role.

"I think it's a little premature to do that (assign roles)," Counsell said. "It's certainly a question to think about and it's something that we'll have to answer but let's see what our bullpen looks like a little further into spring."

Counsell has plenty of options to bridge the gap between his starters and his back-end duo. Left-hander Brent Suter has been an effective multi-inning reliever since returning from Tommy John surgery at the end of 2019 and will be stretched out for similar work — as well as occasional spot starts — again this season.

The same goes for right-hander Freddy Peralta, who the Brewers still view as a starter at some point but for now has proven to be a valuable relief option. Peralta is also able to work multiple innings — something that will be crucial this year as Counsell and his staff take a cautious approach with their starters after the short, 60-game season last year.

At the same time, managing his relievers' increased workloads will be a concern, too.

"It might require us to think about it a little more differently," Counsell said. "There's going to be more times when we just have to say 'no' on a pitcher to get them proper rest to get them through seven or eight months of throwing."

The best part of the group, Counsell says, is its relative youth. J.P. Feyereisen is 28, Hader only 26, while Williams and Peralta are 24. To Counsell, that means improvement, especially with more experience, is inevitable.

"There's a lot of names there that we feel good about and frankly, still have places to be better," Counsell said. "We have guys that I think are still emerging."

If history is any indication, more candidates who aren't in the mix now will reveal themselves over the course of camp and the regular season like Justin Topa and Eric Yardley did last year.

Claimed off waivers after posting a 2.31 ERA in 10 outings from San Diego in 2019, the side-winding Yardley became a key contributor to last year's relief corps, posting a 1.54 ERA and 1.24 WHIP in a team-leading 24 appearances.

Topa wasn't even in the conversation last spring. Signed out of independent ball, his 2.63 ERA at Class AA Biloxi earned an invitation to spring training and, later, a spot on Milwaukee's 60-man player pool. After earning a call-up at the end of August, Topa allowed two earned runs while striking out 12 over 7 2/3 innings to put himself into consideration for a spot on the 2021 roster.

"(That) tells you something about bullpens, that players still can come out of kind of nowhere, and players will do that," Counsell said. "It's exciting. That's always fun to think about the player that's going to do that."

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