Whether it be Eric Gagne, Trevor Hoffman, David Riske, Scott Linebrink or LaTroy Hawkins, Brewers GM Doug Melvin has thrown money at relievers in recent years.

The results have been disappointing, to say the least.

Of the players on the above list, only Hoffman did anything of note.

The future Hall of Famer put together a wonderful season in 2009. He posted a 1.83 ERA and converted 37 of 41 saves that season, marking his best ERA since 1998 with the San Diego Padres.

Riske and Hawkins, however, have both struggled with injuries and ineffectiveness, while Gagne and Hoffman lost their respective closer roles during their final years with the team. Linebrink was solid enough in his 27 games with the Brewers but ultimately cost the Brewers three prospects for mediocre work.

Thus, aside from Hoffman, Melvin has largely missed the mark when it comes to signing quality relief pitching. 

That should not be an issue this winter, however, as the Brewers bullpen appears to be poised for success. These are the pitchers currently projected to be in the hunt for a bullpen spot in 2011:

RHP John Axford
RHP Kameron Loe
RHP LaTroy Hawkins
RHP Carlos Villanueva
RHP Mike McClendon
RHP Brandon Kintzler
RHP Todd Coffey
RHP Jeremy Jeffress
RHP Mark DiFelice
RHP Justin James

LHP Zach Braddock
LHP Manny Parra
LHP Mitch Stetter

There are presently 13 arms vying for seven spots, perhaps even 14 if one includes Tim Dillard as an outside contender. It is a crowded bullpen. The Brewers can almost populate their entire Triple-A bullpen with the remaining players that do not break spring training with the big-league club.

That is impressive in itself.

No longer do the Brewers have a bullpen full of soft-tossing finesse pitchers that can easily be hit around on any given night. Nine of those relievers can hit the 93-94 MPH mark consistently with their fastball, and the remaining four have at least one plus pitch that can make them effective at the big league level.

The Brewers bullpen projects to be young, and it projects to be extremely talented behind Mr. John Axford. Some concern does still exist that Axford’s old command issues on the mound will rear their ugly head once more, as relievers have extremely volatile performances in general, but Axford credits a mechanical switch since joining the Brewers’ organization for his increased velocity and command.

If Axford can serve the bullpen in the same capacity he did in 2010, the remainder of the bullpen should fall into place nicely. Hawkins should be completely healthy and help anchor the back end of the bullpen. Loe will likely not be used quite so frequently but will still play a significant role, as he still has that ridiculous two-seamer. Braddock should hopefully become more than a left-handed specialist.

Last but not least, Jeremy Jeffress could give the team a true wild card for its bullpen—depending on if the organization attempts to move Jeffress back to the starting rotation, obviously.

That does not even include Todd Coffey, who admittedly may be non-tendered but still has the fastball/slider combination to be a middle-inning workhorse. Better command is the key to his success. His walk rate and HR rate both increased in 2010, which is never good for a pitcher.

Nor does it include Manny Parra, who posted a 2.39 ERA as a reliever last season and may be best suited for short stints. Opposing hitters hit .226/.288/.376 in their first at-bat against him as a starter in 2010. That performance jumped to .322/.411/.512 the second time through.

Young upstarts Mike McClendon and Brandon Kintzler breezed their way through the minors and impressed in their first taste of big-league action. They have since been sent to the Arizona Fall League, where both pitchers have fared reasonably well. Perhaps Nashville makes the most sense for McClendon and/or Kintzler, however, as they have options remaining. Retaining quality pitching is paramount for the organization at this point.

Carlos Villanueva and Mitch Stetter were both bullpen stalwarts in recent seasons but ended the 2010 season in Triple-A. Both can miss a lot of bats. Command is the key for both pitchers. You can be sure that Ron Roenicke and the Brewers would love to have an effective Stetter, though, as having a true LOOGY would allow Braddock to be more than a one at-bat wonder.

Justin James is the new kid on the block. The Brewers plucked him off waivers from the Oakland Athletics last week. The 29-year-old has a big fastball in the 93-95 MPH range and also has a plus (at times) slider. His command is what sets him apart from other power pitchers, though. The right-hander will try to sneak onto the opening-day roster with a good spring training.

Perhaps the most interesting story of the spring will be Mark DiFelice. The right-hander wowed Major League Baseball with his logic-defying cutter. Unfortunately, sloppy mechanics put a lot of pressure on his arm, and he has been recovering from surgery.

The Brewers signed DiFelice to a minor-league deal with an invite to spring training, and he will have a chance to prove that he still can throw that cutter that makes him a legitimate righty-killer out of the ‘pen.

As you can clearly see, the Brewers are poised to have an exciting and effective bullpen for the 2011 season.

The keys for a good bullpen are talent and depth. Milwaukee has a lot of both, which should mean that Doug Melvin can forget about the relief-pitcher market and focus his attention on other aspects of the team.

This will be a difficult offseason for the Brewers as it is. Melvin does not need to waste time attempting to improve what should at least be a league-average bullpen—though it should be better.

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