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02/20/12 6:24 PM EST

Brewers Around the Horn: Bullpen

Veras is leading candidate to bridge the gap to Crew's closers

PHOENIX -- After spending most of the 2011 season tending to troubles off the field, Brewers left-hander Zach Braddock is banking on a bounce-back season in 2012.

"I gained a lot from last year's experience, even from just watching the guys," Braddock said. "I never lost any love for the game."

Braddock was ineffective during the first half of the season and was on the sidelines in the second half, getting treatment for a sleep disorder and other private issues. He declined to enumerate those issues after Brewers pitchers and catchers participated in their first formal workout on Monday.

It was a lost year for Braddock, a very promising pitcher who is still just 24 and has a power arm. He watched the Brewers' postseason run on television from his home in New Jersey.

Now he's back in uniform, with at least 10 more pounds of what he called "healthy weight" on his frame, and he's anxious to get back into the Brewers' bullpen mix.

"I'm right where I need to be," Braddock said.

The Brewers' bullpen could use him. Milwaukee has a dependable starting rotation and co-closers in Francisco Rodriguez and John Axford, but the question is whether they have other relievers to reliably bridge the gap.

Seventh-inning specialists LaTroy Hawkins and Takashi Saito are gone via free agency, leaving a combination of returning arms (Kameron Loe, Marco Estrada), newcomers (Jose Veras) and bounce-back candidates (Braddock, Manny Parra, Brandon Kintzler) among the candidates to cover the middle innings.

"It's going to be tough, in all honesty," Axford said. "[Hawkins and Saito] did such a great job that it seemed like the baseball game was five innings long sometimes."

During the second half of last season, when the Brewers pulled away in the National League Central, Hawkins and Saito combined to throw 45 innings, amassing 17 holds and posting a 2.80 ERA after the All-Star break.

Neither pitcher is back for 2012, though the Brewers came very close to re-signing Hawkins during December's Winter Meetings. That deal was scuttled while Brewers officials awaited Rodriguez's surprising decision to accept arbitration and return for a second season. Hawkins signed with the Angels and Saito with the D-backs.

The leading candidate to fill the critical bridge-to-the-closer role is Veras, 31, who was acquired from the Pirates in December for third baseman Casey McGehee. Veras has posted sub-4.00 ERAs and has struck out about 10 batters per nine innings in each of the past two seasons with the Marlins and the Pirates.

"We were looking for a power-type arm," general manager Doug Melvin said. "But when you get power arms, you're always going to walk a few guys."

The current plan calls for pairing Veras and Loe to hold seventh-inning leads, with Loe more likely to pitch against right-handed hitters. Loe, a sinkerballer, flourished late last season after the Brewers removed him from the eighth-inning role and matched him more consistently against right-handed hitters, whom he held to a .233 average. He should benefit from the Brewers' addition of defensive-minded shortstop Alex Gonzalez.

With Axford, Rodriguez, Loe and Veras, the other veritable lock for the bullpen is Estrada, who bounced between relief and starting rotation duties in 2011. Barring a setback to one of the starters, Estrada figures to enter the season as the team's long reliever.

That would leave a spot or two for a number of candidates, including Braddock, fellow left-hander Parra and right-hander Kintzler, all of whom lost much of 2011 to injuries. Other competitors for bullpen spots include right-handers Frankie De La Cruz, Tim Dillard and Mike McClendon.

Braddock and Parra were among the pitchers who threw bullpen sessions on Monday.

"This is a big Spring Training for those guys," Melvin said. "They both have good arms. They're both still young. Both of them had huge bumps in the road last year in their careers. But both of them, right now, are very close to helping us."

Two years ago, Braddock had a 2.96 ERA in 46 relief appearances and Parra seemed to find a niche in relief, posting a 2.39 ERA in 26 appearances after a move from the starting rotation.

Then came their lousy 2011 seasons. Parra was sidelined in Spring Training by a bad back, injured his elbow while on a rehab assignment and then needed surgery to remove loose bodies from the joint. Braddock, struggling with sleep issues, never got into a rhythm. He had a 7.27 ERA in 25 games, was demoted to the Minors after reporting late to the ballpark on several occasions, and ultimately was placed on the Minor League inactive list while receiving treatment.

Braddock followed the team from afar, and cheered along with the rest of Brewer Nation when Nyjer Morgan's single in Game 5 of the National League Division Series sent the Brewers on to the NL Championship Series.

"This game is a long marathon, and if you get in a bad rhythm, it can take a toll," Braddock said on Monday. "I'm just happy to be back at this point of time. Our lives are all a series of constant adjustments, and if anything else, this is just another adjustment."

Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Brew Beat, and follow him on Twitter at @AdamMcCalvy. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.