Entering the 2009 season, the main question surrounding the Milwaukee Brewers was whether their starting pitching could hold up after losing a pair of aces in CC Sabathia and Ben Sheets.
While it was unrealistic to replace the production of Milwaukee's two best starters in 2008, it was uncertain whether the Brewers had the depth and talent in the rotation to remain competitive in the NL Central.
Thanks to solid starts by four of their five rotation members, the Brewers have raced out to an early divisional lead.
But their success is predicated more on who is finishing the games than on who is starting them.
The Milwaukee bullpen has been lights out this season, led by free agent acquisition and future Hall of Famer Trevor Hoffman.
Hoffman has given up as many runs as you or I this season, and he has turned Brewer games into eight-inning affairs. For the first time since Derrick Turnbow could throw strikes, Milwaukee has a dominant closer.
When "Hell's Bells" hits, it's game over.
With the exception of Carlos Villanueva, who often is asked to pitch several innings per outing, no other current bullpen member carries an ERA over 3.15—stellar numbers for a 'pen comprised largely of castoffs and failures with other clubs.
Seth McClung flamed out as a starter in Tampa Bay when they were the worst team in baseball, but he has turned into a valuable, hard-throwing option for manager Ken Macha.
Mark DiFelice, currently sporting a 1.14 ERA, had been a career minor leaguer until getting an opportunity with the Brewers last season.
He has been virtually unhittable in Milwaukee.
Todd Coffey, who has been a workhorse for Milwaukee this season, was added after four largely awful seasons in Cincinnati.
Add lefty specialist Mitch Stetter, and you have a bullpen that has shown little vulnerability so far in 2009.
The real question is whether they can keep it up. Many of these guys are having career years and may be in for a bit of an adjustment statistically.
Hoffman is going to blow a few saves, DiFelice isn't going to sneak his mid-80s fastball by hitters all year, and injuries are inevitably going to chip away at their depth at some point.
More importantly, the Brewers are going to have to get more innings out of their starters.
Only Yovani Gallardo consistently pitches into the seventh and eighth innings for Milwaukee, and no bullpen can be relied upon to cover three innings all season.
Jeff Suppan, Braden Looper, and Dave Bush rarely give you more than six solid innings, and Manny Parra has been a disaster for much of the season.
He needs to find some consistency and play to his potential, or the Brewers are going to have to bring someone up that can at least give them innings as a fifth starter.
Yet it is difficult to see this bullpen completely collapsing.
Every year, a few teams hit the right mix in the 'pen, guys get comfortable in their roles, and they get the job done.
Tampa Bay went from having a historically atrocious bullpen in 2007 to one of the finest in 2008.
They boasted more power arms than the Brewers, but they nonetheless pieced together a relief corps that led them to the World Series, spearheaded by a veteran closer in Troy Percival.
If the starters can help keep this bullpen fresh, a deep playoff run may be in the cards for the Brewers even after losing two aces.
Like the new article format? Send us feedback!