For the eleventh time this season and sixth time in June, the Milwaukee Brewers bullpen blew a save opportunity on Saturday night. The next day in a tense scoreless affair, reliever Manny Parra allowed the game's only run in the tenth inning, sending the team to a series loss to the White Sox. The Milwaukee relief corp now leads the major leagues with a staggering 17 losses, and its ERA is third-worst. Lately the bullpen has been so bad that it's squandered both the rotation's and lineup's improvements, and is perhaps the main reason why the 33-40 Brewers cannot shed the "underachieving" label at 7.5 games back. Many doubt that this team can even make a run at .500 with this staff of relievers.
Is it time for trades? Maybe not yet—at this point, most every team is too far from the trade deadline and/or too close to contention to become sellers, so we don't have a very good idea of the market yet. Come July 31st, relievers are always some of the hottest commodities, and Milwaukee has added relief arms midyear in practically every season since 2005. Doug Melvin may very well do so again this year, but in the month between, the bullpen must improve in order for the team to win consistently and for the time being, the changes will have to be internal.
Let's group the options a bit, shall we?
John Axford—There's a lot to discuss here, but with Axford it all boils down to one element: command. In interviews, Ax was clearly frustrated with a recent inability to throw his fastball for strikes. It's great that he's isolated the problem, but we haven't seen much evidence of progress yet. His save last Friday night did present two reasons why he should remain the closer, though: 1) he can still handle the pressure of a sudden-death, one-run save opportunity and 2) he can bounce back to throw strikes. He demonstrated this against two of the AL's top hitters, striking out Adam Dunn and inducing the game-ending double play from Paul Konerko. He was able to throw his curveball and fastball for strikes of both swinging and looking varieties in each AB. This all came after an all-fastball, 5-pitch leadoff walk. Here's hoping the command issues are a fluke, and not chronic (also known as Derrick Turnbow Syndrome).
read more: Assessing Bullpen Personnel and Usage