When the Milwaukee Brewers made their first and only National League Championship Series appearance in 2011, they had one of the best bullpen duos in all of baseball. Not only did closer John Axford have a career year, saving 49 games, but Mets closer Francisco Rodriguez was acquired to set him up. Both pitchers dominated in the second half and any lead that the club took into the eighth became a sure victory.
This season, while the Brewers have had solid performances from pitchers like Will Smith, Tyler Thornburg and Zack Duke, they have not had a consistent and reliable setup man who has been near as strong as the 2011 team. But things could change in the coming weeks. Former closer Jim Henderson is finishing up is rehab and about to return the team’s bullpen. His return could have a Rodriguez type effect on the club and make finishing games much less stressful in Milwaukee.
After an outstanding year last season, in which he overtook the closers role and ran with it saving 29 games, Henderson struggled entering 2014. Through the first month of the season, he looked nothing like himself. He lost his closers role after a trying spring, and then lost trust from his manger allowing nine earned runs in just 11.1 innings of work before shoulder inflammation sidelined him in early May.
Now he is back on the comeback trail. Currently pitching in AA Huntsville, he looks less like the pitcher who began the year and more like his dominant 2013 self. In five rehab outings, he has been untouchable. His most recent outing in Huntsville saw him strikeout two batters in a clean eighth inning of work. As he continues to rack-up zeroes, his promotion appears to be getting closer.
While he will probably be eased back into the bullpen when promoted, he makes the most sense as the team’s setup man going forward. He not only has the experience of late inning relief, but he has the best stuff of all when his pitches are clicking. He features a mid-90s fastball that he can crank up even quicker when needed, and a sharp breaking slider that he uses to keep hitters off balance.
The best bullpens have pitchers who have differing strengths. The Brewers not only have pitchers from each side of the rubber, but plenty of arms with contracting styles. When Henderson arrives, his blazing fastball in the eighth can be a perfect compliment to K-Rod’s off-speed pitches. They will become a dynamic duo that the rest of the National League will surely fear.