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Milwaukee's Obscure-Yet-Promising Relievers

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Here's a perspective-building exercise: start walking in any direction, and stop only when you encounter someone who can identify a candidate for the Milwaukee Brewers' closer job.

My advice? Bring survival gear, including a radio (for the games, of course).

This past offseason Milwaukee traded incumbent closer Francisco Rodriguez to Detroit and left unfilled the key ninth-inning role. Experienced closers have far more value to teams who plan to contend, such as the Tigers, than to teams who do not, such as the Brewers. In the midst of a major rebuilding effort, Milwaukee also has traded away 2015 starters Adam Lind, Jean Segura, and Khris Davis, so there is no reason to expect that the club will devote significant resources to relief pitching.

Nonetheless, the Brewers' bullpen competition should be interesting for several reasons. First, the eventual closer could provide significant value to fantasy owners in search of cheap saves. Second, last season the bullpen was the strength of the team, and in 2016, despite Rodriguez's departure, it could be even stronger. And third, there's a good possibility that the Brewers' Opening-Day closer, if he performs well, will be traded later this summer, which means that even the most obscure members of this bullpen could become relevant in fantasy leagues before season's end.

It stands to reason that winning teams employ the most valuable closers; more wins equal more save opportunities. Among last season's saves leaders, however, four of the top ten pitched on teams that finished a combined 42 games under .500, including Rodriguez, Tampa Bay's Brad Boxberger, San Diego's Craig Kimbrel, and Baltimore's Zach Britton. It's possible, therefore, that the 2016 Brewers, who project to win 65-70 games, could feature a dominant closer.

The possibility increases when one recalls the 2015 performances of Milwaukee's top two candidates, RHP Jeremy Jeffress and LHP Will Smith. Jeffress, 27, and Smith, 25, posted such similar stat lines last season that spring training alone will separate them. Jeffress finished with a 2.65 ERA, walked 22 batters, and allowed 5 HR in 72 appearances. Smith finished with a 2.70 ERA, walked 24 batters, and also allowed 5 HR in 76 appearances. Thanks to a wipeout "slider of death," Smith struck out a whopping 91 batters to Jeffress's 67, which gives the young lefty a bit more upside. Entering spring training, the sense was that Jeffress might have had a slight edge in the competition, but a hamstring injury has kept him out of Cactus-League games altogether, so his odds of winning the closer's job have diminished.

On the other hand, never discount the influence of organizational expediency. Keeping in mind the big picture, the rebuilding Brewers might prefer to hand Jeffress the job and hope that he runs with it, which would give the club another solid trade-chip this summer. Smith already has trade value, and while he's not likely to command the kind of haul Philadelphia got for Ken Giles a few months ago, he would be one of the hotter names on the relief market should Milwaukee decide to move him.

If neither Jeffress nor Smith finishes the 2016 season as the Brewers' closer, the name to watch will be Corey Knebel. Acquired in January 2015 as part of the deal that sent Yovani Gallardo to Texas, the 24-year-old Knebel acquitted himself rather well with a 3.22 ERA, 17 BB, and 58 K in 50.1 innings. The eight home runs allowed were fairly alarming, but Knebel does tend to throw a lot of strikes with his plus fastball and wipeout curveball, so that HR number should decline as Knebel's command improves. The experienced David Gorforth, 27, and the flamethrowing Yhonathan Barrios, 24, also will be worth watching, though it likely would take a combination of trades and injuries to make them relevant in 2016.

In short, Jeffress and Smith should intrigue fantasy owners in re-draft leagues, whereas Knebel could be worth stashing in dynasty leagues.

Either way, I doubt you've stopped walking.