Jeffress, relievers to fill void left after Smith's injury

Jeffress, relievers to fill void left after Smith's injury

PHOENIX -- Will Smith's knee injury created a ripple effect through the Brewers' bullpen on Saturday, starting with closer-in-waiting Jeremy Jeffress.

Because he was already positioned to share ninth-inning duties with Smith, Jeffress is the leading candidate to begin the season as the Brewers' closer. Smith faces an extended absence with a torn right lateral collateral ligament.

"This is a time for me, mentally, to get stronger; us as a bullpen to get stronger," said Jeffress, who was slowed by a hamstring strain earlier in camp but said he's now 100 percent healthy. "We have to come together now, more than ever. He was a big part of the 'pen, if not the biggest part. It's a team effort now."

That echoed the message of Brewers manager Craig Counsell, who made the argument that Smith's absence will have less impact on Jeffress than on other relievers in the mix.

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At the moment, the Brewers have Jeffress, Corey Knebel, Michael Blazek and Tyler Thornburg penciled into the Opening Day bullpen. That leaves three spots still to be decided before April 4.

"JJ's job has not changed," Counsell said. "And I told JJ that today. I said, 'Your job hasn't changed one bit. You're going to get outs late in the game. You're going to get big outs. You're not going to be asked to get more outs because Will is not here.' … JJ can only get so many outs. We need to figure out [which] other guys are going to get outs in those games. That's where the opportunity is."

Opportunity suddenly abounds, as a result of a spate of injuries over the past 10 days. In that span, it has become evident that Smith, left-hander Sean Nolin (elbow), right-hander Yhonathan Barrios (shoulder) and Rule 5 Draft pick Zack Jones (shoulder) will all have to open the season on the disabled list.

Smith was a lock to make the cut, and the others were serious candidates. With their setbacks, the Brewers have six healthy relievers in camp vying for three spots: Blaine Boyer, Chris Capuano, Tyler Cravy, David Goforth, Franklin Morales and Ariel Pena.

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Cravy and Goforth have options. Pena is out of options. Boyer, Capuano and Morales are non-roster invitees. Morales and Capuano are the only healthy southpaws remaining in camp.

Since the Brewers are almost certain to carry at least one lefty, Capuano and Morales have increased odds of making the cut in light of injuries to Nolin and Smith. Morales is more of a left-handed specialist, while Capuano is a multi-inning pitcher with extensive experience against both lefties and righties because of his history as a starter.

The Brewers could also add a player from outside the organization as other teams make their cuts.

"Look, it's tough for us, it's tough for Will, but you look at it as it's another guy who has an opportunity to prove something," Counsell said. "There was going to be somebody in there who takes this opportunity and makes a lot of it. There's going to be someone in there who has a great season because an opportunity has been provided."

Jeffress, a former first-round pick who has revived his career since returning to Milwaukee in 2014, is scheduled to pitch again on Sunday against the Indians. He'll try to replicate a 2015 season in which he posted a 2.65 ERA in a career-high 72 games.

"All I can say," Jeffress said, "is that this is the most important time for this bullpen. We have to step it up. Everybody, myself included, needs to do his job and focus on getting outs."

Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @AdamMcCalvy, like him on Facebook and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.