Around the Horn: Bullpen's heart an unlikely pair
Paths aligned just so to bring Henderson, Kintzler to Milwaukee's relief corps
This is the second installment of an Around the Horn series that features a position-by-position look at the Brewers heading into the 2014 season and has already covered the starting rotation. Up next: Bullpen.
PHOENIX -- Jim Henderson considered quitting baseball before signing with the Brewers in April 2009 and heading off to Appleton, Wis., to be a 26-year-old Class A closer. Two months later, Brandon Kintzler almost chose a chance to appear in the movie "Moneyball" over auditioning for scouts at an Independent League All-Star Game.
Nearly five years later, both right-handers have pitched their way from the fringes of organized baseball to the heart of the Brewers' bullpen.
"That's why you like baseball," said Kintzler, 29. "It doesn't really matter who you are or what round you got drafted in. Once you get in pro ball, you're even."
Henderson is the closer and Kintzler one of his primary setup men in a 'pen full of intriguing stories. There is Francisco Rodriguez, the former star closer, who is back for a third stint with Milwaukee after signing a one-year free-agent contract. There is Will Smith, the newcomer, acquired in an offseason trade with the Royals. Veteran lefty Tom Gorzelanny is trying to come back from shoulder surgery in time for Opening Day. Wei-Chung Wang, the 21-year-old Rule 5 Draft pick from Taiwan, is trying to jump from Rookie ball to the big leagues.
There is also Rob Wooten, Michael Blazek, Alfredo Figaro, Donovan Hand, Zack Duke, Mike Fiers, Hiram Burgos, David Goforth and others -- all hoping to get the same opportunity that Henderson and Kintzler seized last season.
"I try to think it's not any different," said Henderson, 30. "I think I've said this before -- I played so many years in the Minor Leagues, you're just trying to move up a level every year. I still feel that's part of who I am and how I play the game. I'm still trying to get to the next level, even though this is the top level."
It took Henderson, a onetime Montreal Expos Draft pick, parts of 10 Minor League seasons before he finally reached the Majors in 2012. He'd endured shoulder surgery and a release by the Cubs in 2008, but impressed Brewers pro scout Dick Groch in a tryout in Arizona before signing a contract that took him to Class A Wisconsin, where Henderson was the old man on a club that included a 19-year-old Brett Lawrie and 20-year-old Wily Peralta.
Henderson rose to Double-A Huntsville the following season and to Triple-A Nashville the year after that. In 2012, after logging 15 saves and posting a 1.69 ERA in 35 games for Nashville, he earned a long-awaited promotion to the Major Leagues at age 29. In early '13, when closer John Axford faltered, Henderson became a rookie closer in the big leagues.
He earned his keep by going 28-for-32 in save opportunities and logging a 2.70 ERA. Even after the Brewers re-signed Rodriguez for 2014, Brewers general manager Doug Melvin was clear that Henderson is the closer.
But don't try convincing Henderson himself.
"I think he still comes into camp with the idea that he's going to make our team," manager Ron Roenicke said with a chuckle. "He's going to go at it that way, and I think that's good. It's been a long road for him to get to the Major Leagues to have the success that he's had, and he doesn't want to lose that."
Does being anointed closer change anything? Not really, Henderson said.
"Last year, still, I felt like I was just holding that job, just holding it temporarily with Ax and Frankie there," Henderson said. "When both of them got traded, that's when it started to kind of open my eyes and see that I can do this. There was nobody else to back you up, so you had to go out there and just kind of make it your own. I think after they got traded, I needed to step up and take control of that role a little bit more."
With Henderson elevated to closer and Rodriguez and Axford dealt to the Orioles and Cardinals, respectively, Kintzler stepped up to setup duties. He finished with a 2.69 ERA in 71 appearances spanning 77 innings, by far his heaviest workload since he was still starting games for the independent St. Paul Saints.
Kintzler was pitching well in 2009, well enough that he was asked to start the American Association's All-Star Game. But there was a conflict. Kintzler was also a finalist to play Tim Hudson in "Moneyball," and a final audition coincided with the game.
Knowing there would be some scouts in the stands, Kintzler chose to pitch. The Brewers signed him for $1,000.
The 2013 season represented his breakthrough.
"You just get hot and you just take off," Kintzler said. "They give you the opportunity to succeed, and hopefully you succeed and you establish yourself."
Both men prepared for this season in warm weather. Kintzler trained at home in Las Vegas. Henderson, who grew up near Calgary, moved to Phoenix and trained every day at Maryvale Baseball Park. It was a good move, considering how much of North America was introduced to the term "polar vortex."
"I'm a big believer in coming down to Spring Training early, and I like getting down from the cold in Canada," Henderson said. "So this year I said, 'Let's just do it the whole year.' I rented a townhouse right near Westgate and the hockey area, so I could walk over and check out hockey games.
"It was strange" being out of the cold, he said. "I went home right before Christmas, and it was still 30 Celsius here [in Phoenix] and we were out at the pool and stuff. But it kind of turned into a no-brainer for me. The training facility is down here, the trainers are here year-round. Cost of living is expensive in Canada compared to here. So I said, 'Let's do it.'"
He has been working on his slider, a key pitch against the left-handed hitters that gave Henderson trouble at times last season. His role assured, Henderson will have the freedom to tinker with some options this spring without worrying about results.
Kintzler is focused on staying healthy. An elbow issue sidelined him for much of 2011 and at the start of '12, but he said he was still feeling strong at the end of a long 2013.
For both Henderson and Kintzler, 2014 will be about earning their keep.
"One year, I don't think you do [earn your spot]," Kintzler said. "You have to do it a few times. I'm sure I still have doubters, which is fine. They'll always find something."