A day after Aroldis Chapman thrilled Reds fans at Great American Ball Park, the Brewers promoted their own flamethrowing pitching prospect. Just don’t expect Jeremy Jeffress to touch 103 mph on the radar gun.
“I saw 103 and was like, ‘no chance,’” Jeffress said with a laugh. “I’ve touched [100 mph] so I know how he’s feeling right there. I know how his arm is feeling. You have to work hard to keep that up.”
He’ll settle for sitting in the 95-97 mph range and occasionally touching 99 mph while coming out of the Brewers’ bullpen this month, and then it’s off to the prospect-rich Arizona Fall League. The Brewers are trying to help Jeffress make up for the two months he lost early this season to a drug suspension.
It’s been quite a calendar year for the 22-year-old.
“Big steps,” he said. “It’s been a great learning experience. I’ve been to the bottom and I worked my way up to the top. Everyone that’s helped me, the Brewers, my family, everybody, I give tremendous thanks.”
Jeffress began the season in the middle of a 100-game suspension handed down last year, when he tested positive for a “drug of abuse” for the third time. Jeffress later admitted he had a problem with marijuana. One more positive test under the Minor League testing program, and he would have been banned for life.
The Brewers ordered him to undergo rehabilitation in Milwaukee and were satisfied enough to Jeffress’ progress that they added him to the 40-man roster in June. They would have had to make that move after the season, anyway, or risk losing Jeffress in December’s Rule 5 Draft.
Adding him to the roster early also protected the team’s investment in Jeffress, who garnered a $1.55 million signing bonus after the Brewers made him the xx pick in the 2006 First-Year Player Draft. Players on the 40-man roster are subject to a different set of rules, and Major Leaguers are not tested for marijuana.
“The temptation was there, but I just knew that nothing could be greater than playing baseball,” Jeffress said. “I knew the rules changed once I was on the 40-man and that it was going to be a big obstacle to get through, but I overcame it.”
He added: “I’ve been doing great with staying clean. I’m feeling good.”
Now that he’s in the Major Leagues, the Brewers will have to decide what to do next. They converted Jeffress to a relief role earlier this year to “keep him more focused and engaged,” assistant general manager Gord Ash explained in early June.
It’s been a positive move. Jeffress posted a 2.23 ERA in 23 relief appearances at three Minor League stops. He was at Double-A Huntsville before his September call-up, and had a 1.23 ERA and 15 strikeouts versus only two walks in 11 outings.
The Brewers have not ruled out moving Jeffress back to a starting role next season. If he stays in relief, he could compete for a spot in the Major League bullpen.
“I actually love it,” Jeffress said. “I would love to stay in the ‘pen, but any role they have me do, I’m going to do it. I know I can succeed. … [In relief], I come to the field every day ready, knowing I could throw. I love baseball, so when I come to the field knowing I could throw, it’s so exciting.”
When Brewers manager Ken Macha was asked how he might use Jeffress, he gave one of his stock answers: “Bullpen pitcher.” He said he would have no problem using Jeffress work multiple innings.
“I told him, ‘You never know. You could get put right in there,’” Macha said.
What will Macha be looking for?
“Everybody feels that his ‘stuff’ is Major League-quality,” Macha said. “So, how that all plays out for that last month, I think that if he settles in and throws the ball well and is in the strike zone, he’ll be a prime candidate for making the ballclub next year.”
If the Brewers decide to turn Jeffress back into a starter, he would almost certainly have to be sent to a Minor League affiliate to get back into that routine. Remember, this is a kid who as of Wednesday afternoon had yet to throw a pitch above Double-A.
Those issues can wait. On Wednesday, Jeffress was trying to enjoy his first day as a Major Leaguer.
“I’m so excited. I’m on cloud nine right now,” said Jeffress, who learned about his promotion on Tuesday afternoon and immediately called his parents. “My mom, she started screaming. My daddy was at work and he was going crazy.”
He wasn’t sure if he’d be among the Brewers’ first wave of call-ups.
“It was a hope and it was a prayer, and I kept hearing people saying that I might be close, just keep working hard,” Jeffress said. “I did exactly that, and there it was. What a great opportunity. I couldn’t even stand up when I heard about it.”