February 2012

Teammates react to Braun news

I’ve been talking to some of Ryan Braun’s teammates about news that he’s been spared a suspension and particularly interesting was left-hander Chris Narveson, the Brewers union representative. He was playing golf with fellow starting pitchers Yovani Gallardo, Randy Wolf and Shaun Marcum when he got the news.

“It’s huge, getting a bat like that back in your lineup,” Narveson said. “This is what we thought we were going to get all along.”

Narveson declined to address what he knew about the specifics of Braun’s defense, but dismissed the idea that a technicality settled the case. He has a particular education on MLB’s testing policies because of his work with the union.

“If somebody mishandles a sample, that’s not just a technicality, that’s an error,” Narveson said. “I don’t know all of the details so I don’t want to comment too much. Put it this way: This isn’t the first time we’ve had issues with the people [in charge of testing] in Milwaukee. There have been other issues with timing.”

He added: “I would hope it forces stricter operating procedure. I said that even before the Braun situation in Milwaukee. It’s a matter of doing things the right way. It just takes one person who has an ulterior motive to mess things up.”

Reaction from other Brewers:

Right fielder Corey Hart, who has been in touch with Braun throughout the process: “It stinks when you know a lot and can’t say a lot. It was frustrating [for Braun]. I knew the different scenarios and what actually happened, and I wanted to scream just like he does. You have to bite your tongue and wait for it, and I’m very happy it came out the way it did. He’s such an important part of our organization and our city.”

I asked Hart what this means for the Brewers’ chances in the NL Central.

“Prince was there as long as I have been, but Braun has been our best player three of the last four years,” Hart said. “He’s been the guy that carried us when we need somebody. We would have found guys to carry the load, but to actually have him for a whole year is going to make us that much more dangerous. I actually think this is going to make him that much more driven and motivated. If I were a pitcher, I would not want to face him this year.”

Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy, a vocal Braun supporter over the winter, argued that “the correct decision has been made.”

“We all expected this to happen,” Lucroy said. “I believed him the whole time. I’m glad this decision has been made and we can move on. We’ve got one of the best hitters in the world back in our lineup.”

A big winner Thursday was Brewers general manager Doug Melvin, who had gotten most of his information on Braun’s status via media reports. Because of the confidentiality built into the testing program, clubs are kept mostly in the dark.

Melvin gambled on Braun winning his case and spent on only one free agent outfielder, Japanese import Norichika Aoki. The Brewers considered others, including veterans Raul Ibanez and Hideki Matsui, but Aoki should provide much more flexibility as a defensive player and bench bat.

“We didn’t want to overreact, because we really did trust Ryan,” said Melvin, who made clear he supports MLB’s testing policy. “I know the kind of person he is, I know his work ethic, I trust him a lot. I felt that we didn’t want to go overboard with adding a lot of pieces to the ballclub. We gambled, maybe, a little bit in that regard. But we weren’t kept up to date, and as each day went on approaching positional players reporting, I was hoping that a decision would come soon.”

Braun will report to Brewers camp on Friday. The team’s first full-squad workout is Saturday.

“He might be the first one there,” Hart said.

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Braun statement

Statement from Ryan Braun in response to arbitration decision:

“I am very pleased and relieved by today’s decision.

“It is the first step in restoring my good name and reputation. We were able to get through this because I am innocent and the truth is on our side.

“We provided complete cooperation throughout, despite the highly unusual circumstances.

“I have been an open book, willing to share details from every aspect of my life as part of this investigation, because I have nothing to hide. I have passed over 25 drug tests in my career, including at least three in the past year.

“I would like to thank my family and friends, my teammates, the Brewers organization led by Mark Attanasio, Doug Melvin, Gord Ash and Ron Roenicke, and other players around the league who have expressed their support and our great fans in Milwaukee and around the country who stuck by me and did not rush to judgment.

“I’d also like to offer special thanks to Michael Weiner and the Players Association for believing in me since day one and to my attorneys.

“I’d like to thank my agent Nez Balelo and Terry Prince of CAA Sports and Matthew Hiltzik of Hiltzik Strategies for all of their help and counsel through the process.

“This is not just about one person, but about all current and future players, and thankfully, today the process worked.

“Despite the challenges of this adversarial process, I do appreciate the professionalism demonstrated by the Panel Chair and the Office of the Commissioner.

“As I said before, I’ve always loved and had so much respect for the game of baseball.

“Everything I’ve done in my career has been with that respect and appreciation in mind.

“I look forward to finally being able to speak to the fans and the media on Friday and then returning the focus to baseball and working with my Brewers teammates on defending our National League Central title.”

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Braun exonerated

The verdict is in for National League MVP Ryan Braun: Not guilty.

The Brewers outfielder is the first Major Leaguer ever to successfully appeal a suspected violation of MLB’s Drug Treatment and Prevention Program. The ruling, from a three-member special panel that first convened last week in New York, spares Braun a suspension that might have covered as many as 50 games, preserves his pristine reputation as a “clean” player and positions him to man left field for the Brewers on Opening Day as the team begins its defense of the National League Central crown.

“Under the Joint Drug Agreement, a player’s successful challenge to a suspension normally would not have been made public,” the Major League Baseball Players Association said in a statement. “The parties have agreed, given the particulars of this case, that an announcement is appropriate.”

Major League Baseball Executive Vice President for Labor Relations Rob Manfred issued his own statement.

“Major League Baseball considers the obligations of the Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program essential to the integrity of our game, our Clubs and all of the players who take the field. It has always been Major League Baseball’s position that no matter who tests positive, we will exhaust all avenues in pursuit of the appropriate discipline. We have been true to that position in every instance, because baseball fans deserve nothing less.

“As a part of our drug testing program, the Commissioner’s Office and the Players Association agreed to a neutral third party review for instances that are under dispute. While we have always respected that process, Major League Baseball vehemently disagrees with the decision rendered today by arbitrator Shyam Das.”

Das cast the deciding vote on a panel that also included Manfred and MLBPA executive director Michael Weiner.

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Weeks on his spot in lineup: ‘Anything but five’

Soft-spoken Brewers second baseman Rickie Weeks aired an uncharacteristic request Thursday about his spot in the batting order:

Anything but the five-hole.

“Anything other than five, I’m good,” Weeks said. “I feel like I’m not doing anything. You might have people [on base] in front of you, but once you drive them in, you feel like you’re stagnant. The game kind of slows down to me.

“I’m the type of person, you get on base and try to score runs. That’s my whole thing. … Being active down there, it’s kind of hard to do that.”

Weeks has spent most of his career in the leadoff hole and will tie Gorman Thomas for 10th on the Brewers’ all-time runs scored list when he next touches home plate. Weeks enters the season only 73 runs shy of sixth place on that list.

He said his ankle is about 95 percent recovered from the nasty sprain suffered last July.

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Familiar face met Aoki in camp

Norichika Aoki takes his first swings in a Brewers uniform during a Spring Training workout Thursday. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

Japanese import Norichika Aoki reported to Maryvale Baseball Park just after 8 a.m. on Thursday and dove into a flurry of activity. There were handshakes and awkward bows from his new Brewers teammates. A brief hello from manager Ron Roenicke. Athletic trainers asking questions. Clubhouse attendants holding uniform pants, jerseys and helmets to fit.

Finally, the most unlikely of familiar faces.

“Hisashiburi ne,” said Brewers right-hander Frankie De La Cruz.

Long time, no see!

De La Cruz and Aoki were teammates in 2010 with the Tokyo Yakult Swallows, and are now reunited with the Brewers as Aoki begins a new chapter in his career. He’s was three-time batting champion in Japan, a six-time Gold Glover, a star, but now he’s fulfilling a dream by starting over in the U.S.

“I actually feel like a rookie again,” Aoki said.

He spoke through interpreter Kosuke Inaji, who returns to Milwaukee after working alongside reliever Takashi Saito last season. Saito, who has since signed with the D-backs, offered Aoki positive reports about the Brewers, the city of Milwaukee and playing at Miller Park, a conversation that made Aoki more comfortable in signing an incentive-rich, two-year contract with the Brewers, who will wait to determine exactly how he’ll fit in until they see him in action.

That process began Thursday, when Aoki met the media, then took batting practice with second baseman Rickie Weeks on a back field at Maryvale Baseball Park.

Check out Brewers.com later today for the full story of Aoki’s debut day in camp. Here’s a photo of Aoki and Weeks:

AP Photo/Morry Gash

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Brewers eager for Braun outcome

Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said he understands Ryan Braun will report to camp on Friday along with the rest of the position players. The skipper also hopes for a resolution of Braun’s possible suspension by then.

“It would be nice to know,” said Roenicke, echoing a sentiment that runs throughout the clubhouse. “Obviously, I wish it would have happened earlier, but hopefully [know] before we start.”

The team’s first full-squad workout is Saturday.

Besides Braun, third baseman Aramis Ramirez, shortstop Alex Gonzalez and reliever Francisco Rodriguez had yet to make an appearance at Maryvale Baseball Park as of Thursday morning. Rodriguez has reportedly been distracted by a dispute with his former representatives, who he says did not properly file a no-trade list as part of Rodriguez’s last deal with the Mets. That allowed the Mets to trade Rodriguez last July to the Brewers, for whom he has been a set-up man instead of a closer.

Roenicke downplayed Rodriguez’s absense.

“I’m hoping that he comes in today sometime and is ready to go [Friday],” Roenicke said. “We’ll see. … He’s got some things that he’ll discuss with you guys if he wants you to know. You know, this is voluntary workouts, and every single year that I can remember, there was always somebody who wasn’t here on those first few days. So it is not a concern with me at all.

“Frankie is a veteran. He knows what he needs to do in his career. I mean, I’d like him here just because I like him as part of the guys. But as far as getting his work in, Frankie knows what he needs to do to be ready for Opening Day.”

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Brewers made run at Renteria

Veteran infielder Edgar Renteria is considering retirement after spurning a pair of Minor League offers, his agent told FoxSports.com on Wednesday. Brewers GM Doug Melvin said one of those offers came from Milwaukee.

The Brewers are relatively thin at shortstop, with free agent pick-up Alex Gonzalez expected to start and non-roster invitee Cesar Izturis the most likely backup. Two other shortstops in camp, Edwin Maysonet and Jeff Bianchi, are likely to begin the season in the Minors.

“I don’t blame [Renteria] for saying no,” Melvin said. “He was a World Series MVP two years ago.”

Renteria won that honor with the Giants in his third trip to the World Series. He delivered the winning hit in Game 7 of the 1993 1997 Series for the Marins — scoring current Brewers staffer Craig Counsell — and also made it with the 2004 Cardinals.

Agent Barry Meister said Renteria, 35, would wait to formally file retirement papers in case a solid offer came along. He is a five-time All-Star and two-time Gold Glover.

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Parra had a head start on comeback

Brewers left-hander Manny Parra had a working Thanksgiving holiday in the Dominican Republic, jump-starting his bid to rebound from a 2011 season lost to injuries.

Parra spent three weeks in late November and early December at the team’s new Dominican academy, which had opened only weeks earlier and was hosting an instructional league. The trip allowed Parra, recovering from elbow surgery, to pitch in a pair of games.

“I knew if there was any opportunity to pitch, I needed to take it,” Parra said.

The idea was floated by Brewers farm director Reid Nichols, who was part of the team that struck an agreement with former Brewers closer Salomon Torres to open the academy in November. It was previously occupied by the Rangers.

The facility includes baseball fields, housing and classroom space for Latin American prospects.

“It was there, and he needed to throw innings,” Nichols said. “The good thing was there was no commitment from a [Winter League] club required. You didn’t have to talk a club into taking him for a little bit down there.”

For more on Manny, check out Brewers.com later today.

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Skipper wants to keep Greinke believing

Tuesday morning began with a good laugh for Brewers manager Ron Roenicke, who was told about Zack Greinke’s comments from the day before.

As a refresher, here’s what Greinke said about the relationship he forged with his skipper in 2011:

“I know I was skeptical of what he would say sometimes, and if I don’t agree with something somebody is saying, I usually tell them I think they’re wrong,” Greinke said. “There was one time I really remember, and probably two times, that I disagreed with him, and then a couple of weeks later I was like, ‘You know what? I was wrong and he was right.’ Now, if he says something, I assume he’s right until it’s proven wrong.”

That made Roenicke chuckle.

“I want to keep him believing,” he said.

Roenicke is among those who believes Greinke’s brutal honesty is among his best assets. He plans to keep the lines of communications open in 2012, a big year for Greinke considering his contract expires in October.

“I’d much rather have a guy say something” than keep his criticisms to himself, Roenicke said. “I love it. I like the questioning. I like it because I know if he’s questioning it, he’s really paying attention and thinking about it. I don’t ever mind somebody questioning things.”

A couple of other notes from early Tuesday:

  • Look for a feature on Brewers.com later today about Jonathan Lucroy, who took up catching as a 13-year-old mostly because he was the only kid on the team brave enough to give it a shot. Good career move.
  • I spent some time this morning talking to Mat Gamel for a story that will run tomorrow. When I asked him how much weight he’s lost compared to this time last year, he thought a moment and said, “A boat.” He’s down 25-30 pounds.
  • Taylor Green will see some action at first base this spring as the Brewers try to find him a position. Like Gamel, he’s a left-handed hitter, so a platoon will not work there.
  • Also spoke with shortstop Cesar Izturis, who is the rare nonroster invitee all but assured an Opening Day roster spot. The other candidate for the backup shortstop job is Edwin Maysonet, who is ticketed for Triple-A. I’ll have some of Izturis’ comments on the site later today.
  • Also look for an update from lefty Manny Parra, another player who has dropped some weight and is looking forward to a healthy 2012. He had surgery last fall to remove loose bodies from his elbow, but it turns out doctors did not have to remove an old screw, as they originally anticipated. That may have contributed to a quicker rehab for Parra.
  • Jose Veras is gigantic.
  • Roenicke said second baseman Rickie Weeks or right fielder Corey Hart will be the leadoff hitter again in 2012. He prefers center fielder Nyjer Morgan in the two-hole because it opens opportunities for bunting. Gamel will likely hit somewhere lower in the order; sixth, seventh or eighth.
  • Lefty pitching prospect Jed Bradley will not throw a bullpen session today because he has a minor groin issue, Roenicke said. The Brewers don’t consider the setback serious. Remember, Bradley was delayed at the start of last year’s Arizona Fall League because of a groin tweak.

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Here we go again…

John Axford, Yovani Gallardo and the rest of the Brewers’ pitchers and catchers — plus a slew of position players who reported early — have taken the fields at Maryvale Baseball Park as I type, marking the official start of Spring Training.

So it’s back to work for players and beat writers alike, and later today at Brewers.com you’ll find stories about the Brewers’ bullpen, Mark Rogers’ explanation for his 25-game suspension and hopefully some words of wisdom from Zack Greinke, who is slated to speak after throwing a bullpen session.

The big story remains Ryan Braun, who has yet to report to camp. Manager Ron Roenicke said Braun remains upbeat amid his long appeal of a drug suspension and is planning to be in camp for the team’s first full-squad workout on Saturday.

“He’s been doing good all winter though this, and he’s excited to get going in Spring Training,” said Roenicke, who spoke with Braun several weeks ago and exchanged text messages in recent days. “Hopefully, the outcome will be the way we all want it.

“I know everybody thinks it’s really hard, but it’s not something that I dwell on. I know what happens during the course of a season when you lose players, key players, and it’s part of baseball. You just deal with it.”

So on that note, welcome back to another baseball season. Here’s some new artwork that was installed outside the clubhouse here in Phoenix:

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