March 2012

Big day for Gamel

Mat Gamel hammered a pair of no-doubt home runs on Saturday that accounted for half of the Brewers’ offense in a 10-7 win over the Padres. He hit a grand slam off Tim Stauffer amid Milwaukee’s six-run third inning, then hit Huston Street’s first pitch in the sixth inning for a solo shot.

Gamel, publicly anointed Prince Fielder’s replacement as far back as November, leads the Brewers with six spring home runs and 14 RBIs.

“It absolutely is important — for him,” manager Ron Roenicke said. “It’s not important for me. It’s important for him. I think the mental side of him going in, he’s trying to take over a position where we were obviously pretty good. I’ve told you guys, I don’t feel that way, but he may. So any time he does something on the plus side, it’s huge for him.”

Gamel has impressed coaches and teammates all spring with his focus. He showed up in shape and avoided the sort of medical setbacks that marked his last three Spring Trainings. His only hiccup was being scratched from Friday’s lineup with a virus.

“He’s a different guy this year,” Roenicke said. “I think he’s decided that he has to bear down to do this job right. He got himself in good shape coming in. I know the average still isn’t good and where he wants it, but I like his at-bats. I like his hands, his set-up. I like everything I see there.”

It was also another good day for Ryan Braun, who was 2-for-3 and made his only out on a deep fly to center field. He’s reached safely in nine straight games and has a hit in six of his last seven.

“You look at his last seven at-bats, and six of them have been bullets,” Roenicke said. “You talk about Ryan turning it on and off, and he’s one of the rare guys that probably can do that.”

Up next, the Brewers play their final Spring Training home game on Sunday at Maryvale Baseball Park, where they’ll “show and go” against the Giants and Tim Lincecum. Roenicke is letting players sleep in for the first time in weeks, a welcome break before another noon game Monday, a busy split-squad Tuesday and one final exhibition against the D-backs at Chase Field on Wednesday wraps-up the spring. Yovani Gallardo will oppose Lincecum on Sunday in both ace’s final tune-up for Opening Day.

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Maysonet out; Hart the lone remaining question mark

The Brewers returned infielder Edwin Maysonet to Minor League camp on Saturday morning, meaning the roster decisions are done six days before the team’s season-opener against St. Louis.

Twenty-seven players remain in Major League camp. One is left-hander Juan Perez, who will get a look from Brewers officials over the remaining days of Spring Training but will not make the Opening Day roster. The others on the bubble are utility infielder Brooks Conrad and first baseman/outfielder Travis Ishikawa, non-roster invitees whose fate rests with right fielder Corey Hart.

Hart, working back from knee surgery, played his fourth straight Triple-A game on Saturday. If he is deemed healthy for Opening Day, then only one of Conrad or Ishikawa would break with the Brewers. If Hart begins the season on the 15-day disabled list, both Conrad and Ishikawa would make the cut.

Hart is making good progress and said either outcome would be a positive, considering he would miss only a handful of games if he begins the year with a backdated DL stint. He played his first three innings in the outfield on Friday and stole his first base, and was scheduled for three innings in the outfield and three more at first base on Saturday afternoon.

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Braun continues spring surge

Ryan Braun continued his Spring Training surge with a tape-measure home run Friday and was booed by fans on Friday at Camelback Ranch, tough treatment for a Los Angeles native who grew up rooting for the Dodgers.

Braun will bid to win back fans from the batter’s box, where he is having success of late. With Friday’s home run, a booming blast that cleared a party area in left field, bounced off a sidewalk and over a back fence, Braun has reached safely in eight straight games. He has a hit in five of his last six games.

He shrugged it off. Braun has said often that Spring Training results don’t matter.

“As long as I feel good, I’m seeing the ball good, it’s inevitable I’m going to have success,” Braun said.

Braun planned to finish his day over dinner with the Rockies’ Troy Tulowitzki, the fellow 2005 Draft pick who made some supportive comments to FoxSports.com this week. Tulowitzki said, “I feel for him if he is as innocent as he says he is, about how his off-season must have been.”

The Dodgers’ Matt Kemp, the runner-up to Braun in last year’s MVP balloting, has also been an ally. Braun and Kemp caught up at Camelback Ranch before Friday’s game, and Braun said he counted Kemp among his good friends.

Of the fan reaction ahead, Braun said. “I’m not fearful, by any means.”

“The best thing I can do to move forward is to have success, hope our team get back to the postseason, continue to do the things I’ve done over the last five years,” Braun said. “That’s what I plan on doing. I don’t know if I’ve definitely lost [the fans]. I don’t sit here and analyze what people think or have to say when the opinions are based on a lack of information.”

Braun already convinced the three people whose opinion mattered, a three-member special panel convened by Major League Baseball to hear his appeal. Braun won by a two-to-one margin, with independent arbitrator Shyam Das casting the deciding vote.

“It’s unfortunate and disappointing,” Braun said, “that people would make judgments or form an opinion without actually knowing what happened.”

That’s the second time this spring that Braun has alluded to a “real story.”

Is he tempted to make the full story public?

“Nope,” he said. “It’s over. I’m not going into it. It’s not good for baseball, it’s not good for [the Brewers], it’s not good for me. It’s not good for anybody.”

Dredging up the details, he added, “just makes it a bigger story again, and it’s not good for anybody if that occurs. I’ve already been exonerated. Nobody else’s opinion is relevant to me, I have to be honest with you. The people that are close to me, my friends, my family, know the truth, and beyond that, people are always going to have an opinion.”

That’s not to say he isn’t tempted to talk.

“Tempted? Of course,” Braun said. “But beyond that, it really wouldn’t do anybody any good.”

He’s eager to begin the regular season.

“I feel great,” he said. “I’m excited to get started. I really am.”

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Hart: Personnel changes bettered Brewers clubhouse

Brewers right fielder Corey Hart made some interesting comments this morning to WSSP-AM’s Tim Allen and Ramie Makhlouf, who have been in camp for the past couple of days. They directed me to the audio on the website, and I thought Brewers fans may be intrigued by what Hart had to say.

The topic was the vibe in the Brewers’ clubhouse this spring compared to last season.

“Generally the same. I think we’re actually a little more positive this year,” Hart said. “We lost a few guys that could veer toward the negative vibe once in a while. The new guys, they’re super excited to actually be part of a positive team for once. Ramie [Aramis Ramirez0 and Gonzo [Alex Gonzalez] and even [Travis] Ishikawa, [Brooks] Conrad, those guys are amazed at how positive we are and how easy it is to get along with our team. …

“Even last year, we were an extremely positive team, but we had a few guys who aren’t here right now who kind of affected other guys. So it’s nice to have the guys we have and our coaching staff. They bring out the positive atmosphere. It’s been going good, and it’s going to be like that all year.”

Hart didn’t name which players or coaches he was talking about, and I’m not going to venture any guesses here.

Hart said much of the positive vibe comes from manager Ron Roenicke.

“Ron’s great. I think he got snubbed for manager of the year last year,” Hart said. “It’s really hard to be a first-year manager. I think it’s easier to be on a team with no expectations and do good, as opposed to a team that is supposed to be good and living up to that. I think he did a great job, and he was a big reason we were able to fight through that first month. We had some managers in the past who would have folded and been completely negative and started changing things around. [Roenicke] was completely positive the whole time, and that kept us going. Obviously, we got on a roll after that.”

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Brewers nearing Maryvale extension

The Brewers and the City of Phoenix have reached a preliminary agreement for a 10-year extension of the team’s Spring Training lease at Maryvale Baseball Park, a compromise that calls for an initial round of capital improvements but gives the Brewers flexibility to revisit the arrangement annually beginning in 2015.

The agreement still must make its way through the political process. A policy session is scheduled for Tuesday afternoon in which Phoenix City Council members will discuss Ordinance S-38656, an amendment to the Brewers’ facility use agreement. It would authorize the City Manager to extend the lease through 2023 and contract with the Arizona Sports and Tourism Association for $1.5 million in renovations and expansions for the Major League clubhouse and the Minor League building at Maryvale, the Brewers spring home since 1998. The original, 15-year lease is about to expire.

Only the first two years of the amended lease would be guaranteed. Beginning in 2015, the team may choose to terminate the agreement if it notifies the city by April 15th of the year prior.

Brewers executive vice president of finance and administration Bob Quinn confirmed the preliminary agreement. He was meeting Friday with Phoenix city officials during the Brewers-Dodgers game in neighboring Glendale, Ariz.

Quinn characterized the deal as, “a short-term extension combined with long-term possibilities.”

According to a meeting agenda posted on the City of Phoenix website, the agreement is contingent upon the Arizona Sports and Tourism Association (AzSTA) agreeing to repay the city $1 million of the $1.5 million investment. Should the AzSTA disapprove, the Brewers would have until May 31 to either exercise the first of three, two-year extensions built into the original Maryvale lease, or notify the city it intended to leave.

City officials estimate that the lease extension would create or retain 16 jobs in Phoenix.

Quinn has said this spring that the Brewers were keeping all options on the table for their future Spring Training home, including sites both in Arizona and Florida. The Brewers have been recently linked to an 80-acre site in Scottsdale, Ariz., near the intersection of the Loop 101 and Bell Rd.

The Brewers are satisfied with the main stadium at Maryvale Baseball Park but consider the training facilities cramped and outdated compared to recent Cactus League additions like Glendale’s Camelback Ranch, shared by the Dodgers and White Sox. The Brewers’ offices, clubhouse, weight room and athletic training facilities are too small, club officials say. The weight room is particularly tight, forcing players to work out in shifts and use an adjacent hallway for some drills.

The $1.5 million would go fast, Quinn said, because the improvements would require major structural changes to the main buildings on-site. The Brewers would seek additional funds before agreeing to stay past 2014.

Club officials also remain interested in the city’s long-term development plan for the Maryvale neighborhood, Quinn said.

“[The extension] would give us time to work to see what they can do in and around the complex,” Quinn said. “They would commit to making some improvements to the ballpark beginning next year, and we wanted to show our commitment back. This deal structure works for that.”

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McClendon optioned; Braddock could start in AAA

The Brewers optioned reliever Mike McClendon to Triple-A Nashville on a bust morning for manager Ron Roenicke, who had a number of conversations with players to inform them of their status for Opening Day.

Roenicke declined to detail who is in and who is out because the roster is not official, and because things could change based on the health status of outfielder Corey Hart and right-hander Shaun Marcum, or because of late-spring acquisitions. But Roenicke wanted some of the “bubble” players to know the club’s thinking, and where they may end up in different scenarios. It was probably a very good morning for Tim Dillard and Manny Parra.

Look to Brewers.com later today for more details on the scenarios.

In one other bit of news Friday morning, Roenicke said the Brewers may have left-handed reliever Zach Braddock pitch as a starter at Triple-A Nashville, a move to strengthen his arm to reclaim some of the velocity he’s lost this spring. This is not a permanent move; the long-term projection has Braddock being a late-inning reliever.

I’ll have much more on that later today.

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Izturis relieved to make the cut

Veteran infielder Cesar Izturis could have elected free agency Friday and taken his chances elsewhere had he not been added to the Brewers’ 40-man roster.

He says he never pondered that potentially tough decision.

“Not at all,” Izturis said. “I was thinking positive. I want to be a part of this team.”

He will be. Brewers officials informed Izturis on Thursday afternoon that he had made the cut. The 11-year Major League veteran will be the backup to regular shortstop Alex Gonzalez and a switch-hitter off the bench.

“It’s a relief to me. It’s good to know early enough that I can get my mind set for the season,” Izturis said.

Now he has to get his mind set for a new role. Izturis started at shortstop against the Dodgers on Friday and entered the day tied for fourth on the team with 49 Cactus League at-bats. But he will come off the bench in the regular season, backing-up Gonzalez and also available at second base and third.

Izturis has started 983 — and completed 889 — of his 1,185 games in the Major Leagues.

“It’s different,” he said. “But I’ll work on it.”

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What we learned today

Lots of Brewers news today, both before and after the game. Infielder Cesar Izturis was informed he’d be added to the Major League roster, and three players — Zach Braddock, Taylor Green and Martin Maldonado — were optioned to Triple-A.

Here are some takeaways:

– With Izturis set as the backup shortstop and Green out, three players remain in the running for one — if Corey Hart is healthy on Opening Day — or two — if Hart is on the DL —  roster spot. Brooks Conrad is the most versatile of the contenders, and like Izturis he’s a switch-hitter. Travis Ishikawa is the best defensive first baseman, which could be helpful since the Brewers have the unproven Mat Gamel starting there. Edwin Maysonet can play shortstop, but I’m guessing his chances were diminished by Izturis making the cut.

– With Braddock out, it’s difficult to see Manny Parra not in the Opening Day bullpen. Juan Perez remains technically active in camp, but unless something has changed in the past few days I don’t believe he’s viewed as an option. Good for Parra, who was frustrated by injuries last season but has embraced the move to the bullpen and has pitched well.

– The other spot looks ticketed for Tim Dillard or Mike McClendon. Dillard has mostly pitched well and, like Parra, is out of options. McClendon has options. You can figure that one out. I wrote about Dillard today, by the way.

– Things can change. Hart still has hurdles to clear. Shaun Marcum has a big start in Minor League camp tomorrow. Players all over the game are being waived, dangled in trade talks or outright released. It looks like the Brewers’ roster is very close to being set, but injuries can change things in an instant, and you know Doug Melvin and his staff have an eye on potential upgrades.

As of Friday, we’ll have one week to go before Opening Day.

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Orioles claim Wheeler; Kintzler to DL

The Orioles claimed Brewers infielder Zelous Wheeler off waivers today, costing the Brewers an interesting prospect but clearing a 40-man roster spot and potential logjam at third base for Triple-A Nashville. That job now appears set for Taylor Green, the lefty-hitting prospect who remains in Major League camp and technically still has a shot at Milwaukee’s Opening Day roster.

Wheeler, 25, is a .271 hitter with a .371 on-base percentage in five Minor League seasons. He’s primarily a third baseman but has also played shortstop, second base and left field, and dabbled in catching during down time in last year’s Arizona Fall League.

The Brewers will need some 40-man spots for non-roster invitees bidding for bench jobs. They include shortstops Cesar Izturis and Edwin Maysonet and utility men Brooks Conrad and Travis Ishikawa.

Also on Thursday, the Brewers placed reliever Brandon Kintzler on the 15-day disabled list, retroactive to March 26, with the right elbow discomfort that derailed his camp. This move was expected, and Kintzler told me this morning that he’s ahead of schedule in his throwing program and threw a successful first bullpen session on Tuesday.

One more move just announced: The Brewers have signed Racine, Wis. native Jason Jaramillo to a Minor League deal. He was released by the Cubs this week. Jaramillo is a catcher who spent parts of the past three seasons in the Majors with Pittsburgh, and with prospect Martin Maldonado slated to be the starter at Nashville, you wonder what this means for catchers Paul Phillips and Mike Rivera.

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Greinke on board with Gallardo in opener

Zack Greinke lowered his Cactus League ERA to 0.93 with seven strong innings Wednesday against the D-backs, then confirmed to reporters what manager Ron Roenicke had  he was on board with the decision to go with Yovani Gallardo on Opening Day. Greinke will pitch the second game of the regular season.

“I felt like he was our guy last year, and he’s been here the longest,” Greinke said. “As of right now, he’s still going to be here the longest. I think it makes a lot of sense. I didn’t earn anything last season to be able to take over, I don’t think.”

Gallardo is signed through at least 2014. Greinke is entering the final year of his contract but remains in talks with the team about an extension.

Greinke has been a beast in Spring Training, successfully integrating a new pitch — the cut fastball — into his arsenal. He said his solid spring is a rarity.

“Usually, I’ll throw pitches in stupid counts just to do it and see how it works,” Greinke said. “[This year] I’ve been trying to use all my pitches at the proper times. That’s the No. 1 reason, probably, and then also getting smarter and learning how to pitch a little bit.”

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