PHOENIX Talk about the Milwaukee Brewers' bullpen and the conversation will undoubtedly focus on right-handers Francisco Rodriguez and John Axford.
Last season, after Rodriguez was acquired the night of the All-Star game to set up for Axford, the back end of Milwaukee's bullpen was perhaps the best eighth and ninth inning combination in all of baseball.
With a top-flight starting rotation that regularly worked deep into games, the K-RodAxford combination effectively shortened games into seven-inning affairs. But on the rare occasion when a starter couldn't work deep, manager Ron Roenicke had the luxury of turning the ball over to some fairly effective middle relievers.
Milwaukee's bullpen ranked among the league leaders in several categories including WHIP (2nd, 1.22), ERA (5th, 3.32) and saves (5th, 47). They were near the bottom in total innings pitched (449.2), earned runs (166), losses 23) and hits (410).
Those numbers become even more impressive when taking into account the fact that the Brewers didn't have a left-handed reliever for much of the season.
Roenicke said repeatedly that he didn't feel the need to add a lefty to the bullpen "just for the sake of having one." Both LaTroy Hawkins and Takashi Saito were incredibly effective against batters on either side of the plate and were an instrumental factor in the Brewers' success.
Saito and Hawkins are gone this year, having landed free agent deals in Arizona and Los Angeles, respectively, leaving some very big innings to cover.
"It's going to be tough to replace what Sammy and Hawk did for us last year," Roenicke said.The Brewers have several options to cover those innings with few bigger literally and figuratively than Kameron Loe, a 6-foot-8 right-hander who specializes in inducing ground balls. Loe filled a number of roles last season, including the set-up role while Saito and Hawkins worked back from injuries, but he was at his best in the second half.Often a target of fans' scorn a year ago, Roenicke insists that when you look at the burly right-hander's entire body of work, Loe was as good as it gets. Leading the team with 72 appearances, Loe finished the year with a 4-7 record and a 3.50 ERA with one save."I know everybody talks about it but I don't think that Kam' did that bad of a job," Roenicke said. "If you take away, whatever, three or four games, he was really good. In the beginning of the year, he was outstanding in the eighth inning. Then all of a sudden, he had a couple of games that weren't so good but he pitched well for us."If you go back and look at numbers and look at the games that he pitched well and the games that he didn't, he pitched way more good games than he did bad games."Loe said that part of his troubles last season came during a time when he tended to rely more on his fastball than his sinker. This year, he'll again lean heavily on the sinker but hopes to mix in more pitches to make him a little more versatile."When I'm getting ground balls with the sinker and getting them consistently, it's tough to get away from it," Loe said. "But sometimes you can go to it too much and it gets watered down. I think going to my other pitches this year will definitely help me out."Over his last 22 appearances, Loe allowed just four earned runs in 25 innings of work, dropping his ERA from 4.60. It's no coincidence that his numbers improved after the Rodriguez acquisition, which allowed Roenicke to move him out of the set-up role and using him in situations earlier in games, especially against right-handed batters.Along with Loe, newcomer Jose Veras figures to play a big role in 2012. The 31-year-old, acquired from Pittsburgh in the Casey McGehee trade last December, was he Pirates leader and second in the NL with 79 appearances and record 79 strikeouts in 71 innings of work. He went 2-4 with a 3.40 ERA in his first full MLB season, holding opponents to a .204 batting average."I think Veras will play a huge role," Roenicke said. "Kam will kind of do what he did last year but maybe a little more now in the seventh (inning)."Roenicke plans to carry seven relievers in his bullpen this season, leaving three spots to fill once you account for Loe, Veras, Rodriguez and Axford. Marco Estrada will be back, too. Originally a spot starter filling in for an injured Zack Greinke, Estrada was effective out of the bullpen, pitching both in long and middle relief roles, while posting a 1-6 record and a 4.38 ERA.Unlike last year, Roenicke figures to have some lefties at his disposal in 2012. Zach Braddock will have a shot to make the roster after battling a sleep disorder in 2011. Newcomer has been very good in spring training and could very well end up filling the role of left-handed specialist.The most intriguing candidate is Manny Parra. Once one of the Brewers' top minor league prospects, Parra struggled with inconsistency as a starter but seemed to find his niche after moving to the bullpen in 2010.Roenicke didn't see much of Parra last season but thinks he could be a big boost to the relief corps this year. Roenicke doesn't see Parra as a specialist but as somebody who can work entire innings."If he pitches like he did two years ago, he could," Roenicke said. "he's got the good fastball that can work against left-handers or right-handers and a good split-finger for strikeouts. I think he's going to be tough on lefties but not necessarily a left-handed specialist."Having reliable relievers covering innings until Roenicke can turn to his closing duo is a big relief to the starting rotation. Milwaukee's starters finished third in the National League with 98 quality starts and sixth in innings pitched with 992."It's huge," said left-hander Chris Narveson. "Any of those guys can come in and pick you up. A lot of times, you have a tough game but you've kept the team close, you have to guys in between to get to Frankie and Ax. Our middle guys are a big asset that gets over looked."Hitters, too, appreciate the effort. A good bullpen preserves their offensive efforts or gives the lineup a better chance of putting together a late rally."When your bullpen is as good as ours, you know you're never out of a game," said left fielder Ryan Braun. "If you're down one or two runs, it's OK ... to be down five or six late, that's another story."Follow Andrew Wagner on Twitter.