February 2013

Brewers mulling strategy for final bench spot

The Brewers are mulling whether to carry four or five outfielders at the start of the season and have already asked infielders Jeff Bianchi and Donnie Murphy to give the outfield a shot this spring, manager Ron Roenicke said.

Ryan Braun, Carlos Gomez and Norichika Aoki are the team’s starters from left to right field, and Logan Schafer is penciled in as the No. 4 outfielder. Mat Gamel was supposed to serve as a versatile No. 5, available to play the corner infield positions and the corner outfield positions, but that changed in January when first baseman Corey Hart underwent knee surgery, then changed again this month when Gamel suffered a season-ending knee injury of his own.

“If we don’t have that [fifth option] that can go out there on defense, it limits us sometimes in using Schafer earlier in the game,” Roenicke said. “We’re looking at that, figuring out which is the better way to go — with the extra infielder or that fifth outfielder.”

Bianchi or Murphy could fill that need as hybrid players — Bianchi has already expressed a willingness to give the outfield a shot, and Murphy played a Minor League game there. Another possibility is Bobby Crosby, who played a game in right field for the A’s in 2009, but Crosby remained sidelined Thursday by a left thigh strain. Bianchi, Murphy and Crosby are all right-handed hitters’ Schafer hits lefty.

As of Thursday, the Brewers had yet to ask another utility infield candidate, Taylor Green, to try a similar transition. Green is a lefty hitter.

“I don’t see him doing that, although you don’t know,” Roenicke said. “If we decide we need that left-handed bat and that’s what we want, then we’ll probably have a discussion with him and get him out there working on it.”

If they go instead with a true fifth outfielder, the leading candidate is 24-year-old Caleb Gindl, who is already on his usual Spring Training tear. Gindl was 4-for-8 through Wednesday.

“He and Schafer, they’re always doing good things in Spring Training,” Roenicke said.

Regarding Crosby: He tested his strained quadriceps in a straight-line running drill the other day and still felt discomfort. The Brewers want Crosby, who was out of baseball the last two years, to be 100 percent healed before he plays in the Cactus League.

“Today he is going to go out and do everything and see where he is,” Roenicke said. “We’re hoping this thing doesn’t go much longer. I wouldn’t think it would, but I also told him we have to make sure it’s gone before he plays again, because if he pulls it again, we’re talking a long time now.”

Roenicke said there is plenty of Spring Training remaining for Crosby to get on the field and make the team.

“That’s what I told him, I said, ‘I understand where you need to be back on the field, but we’ve got a long time to go,'” Roenicke said. “I’m not going to really bear down on [evaluating] these extra guys until the last couple of weeks of spring. … I don’t want to make any quick decisions here.”

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Morris says slow start is typical

Hunter Morris insisted Tuesday morning that he wasn’t sweating his 0-for-9, two-strikeout start to Spring Training.

“I’ve always kind of started slow and it takes me some time to get my timing, and then one day it clicks and it’s there for good,” said Morris, a first baseman and one of the Brewers’ top prospects. “Heck, last year I started the regular season 0-for-14, and that turned out pretty good.”

He went on to bat .303 with 28 home runs and 113 RBIs in 136 games, winning the Southern League MVP Award and Brewers Minor League player of the year honors. Morris was rewarded with his first invitation to big league Spring Training camp and actually has a shot at the Opening Day roster in light of knee injuries suffered by first basemen Corey Hart and Mat Gamel.

Morris played all nine innings on Monday and was back in the starting lineup on Tuesday against the Mariners, serving as the designated hitter. Another of the candidates to fill-in while Hart rehabs from surgery, Alex Gonzalez, started at first base.

“It is always a struggle the first few days, first few at-bats, but I actually feel like I’m seeing the ball well,” Morris said. “The couple of strikeouts, I’ve chased fastballs up in the zone, and maybe that’s just being a little overaggressive late in the count. For the most part, I don’t feel like I’m missing balls by eight feet. I’ve had a couple of long at-bats, 10 pitches. I feel like I’m close.”

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Burgos says confidence is key

The Brewers’ reigning Minor League pitcher of the year does not possess the power fastball of some of his peers. Hiram Burgos said he discovered something else during his breakthrough 2012 season.

“Last year, everything was about confidence,” Burgos said. “Now, I trust all of my stuff, all of my pitches. I just have to go out there and use it the right away. I’m the kind of pitcher that I have to think on every pitch, I have to execute.”

He executed more often than not in 2012, going 10-4 with a 1.94 ERA in 28 games between Class A Brevard County, Double-A Huntsville and Triple-A Nashville. He held opponents to a .210 batting average and struck out more than three times as many batters (152) as he walked (49).

But 2013 is a new year with new goals, Burgos said Monday after pitching against the Padres at Maryvale Baseball Park. He allowed one hit in the first two scoreless innings, then allowed two hits in the third inning including a long home run to second baseman Jedd Gyorko.

Next month, Burgos will represent Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic, so Brewers manager Ron Roenicke made sure to assign him to the home half of split-squad games Monday. Roenicke wanted a firsthand look at Burgos before he departs on March 3.

His Classic workload hinges on right-hander Javier Vazquez, who is trying to rush back from a minor knee surgery. If Vazquez is ready, Burgos will work in relief of the veteran in Puerto Rico’s first game. If Vazquez is not ready, then Burgos is prepared to start.

“For sure, I’m throwing the first game. For sure,” Burgos said. “It’s an honor to have the name of your country on your uniform.”

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Axford nails Oscars picks

And, the Oscar for best Oscars night predictions goes to…

Brewers closer John Axford.

Cue the applause. And a short and sweet acceptance speech.

“I’d like to thank myself,” Axford said.

He was 14-for-15 in his annual Academy Awards predictions on Sunday night, successfully picking Best Picture for the third straight year, hitting on some more obscure categories like Best Documentary, Film Editing and Original Score and missing only in Best Director, where Ang Lee won for Life of Pi over Axford’s pick, Steven Spielberg for Lincoln.

“[Lee] was my fourth pick, after two people who didn’t get nominated,” said Axford, who would have put Argo’s Ben Affleck and Zero Dark Thirty’s Kathryn Bigelow above Spielberg and Lee.

Axford saw most of the Best Picture nominees but did not watch the Academy Awards show itself, choosing instead to make it an early night. But he checked his Twitter feed on several occasions and knew he was having a good night.

“People were Tweeting me thank yous because I was helping them win their office pool,” he said.

He added: “I should just retire. I can’t do any better without getting them perfect.”

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Morris gets the start as Brewers play ball

The A’s called asking to employ a designated hitter for Saturday’s Cactus League opener at Maryvale Baseball Park and the Brewers happily agreed, using the extra spot to get their first looks at first base prospect Hunter Morris.

Morris, No. 5 on MLB.com’s list of the top 20 Brewers prospects, is a candidate to fill first base while Corey Hart works back from knee surgery. The question is whether the 24-year-old is ready to hit in the Majors or needs more Minor League at-bats.

“You have both [views],” manager Ron Roenicke said. “That’s why we need to see him.”

Hart had right knee surgery Jan. 25 and is aiming to be back with the Brewers before the end of April, but the more conservative estimate has him out until late May. Besides Morris, who would have to be added to the 40-man roster, the Brewers are looking at Taylor Green, Alex Gonzalez and Bobby Crosby to fill-in. Green started at first base on Saturday and Gonzalez, who has played exclusively at shortstop over 15 Major League seasons, could make his first start at first in one of Monday’s split-squad games. <p>

The rest of the Brewers’ lineup Saturday looked like a preview for Opening Day:

1. Norichika Aoki RF
2. Rickie Weeks 2B
3, Ryan Braun LF
4. Aramis Ramirez 3B
5. Jonathan Lucroy C
6. Carlos Gomez CF
7. Taylor Green 1B
8. Jean Segura SS
9. Hunter Morris DH

Lucroy looks like the leading contender to hit fifth while Hart is sidelined. Lucroy led baseball in batting with runners in scoring position before breaking his right land last May, hitting .514 (18-for-35) in the clutch including .600 (12-for-20) with runners in scoring position and two outs.

“I know there’s still areas he’d like to improve on, and I think he will,” Roenicke said. “He really could be one of the top offensive producers, especially at his position.”

Roenicke was ready for the start of exhibition games.

“I look forward to it because when we start games, we’re getting closer to the end,” he said. “Spring Training games for a manager, it’s nice that we get to see the young guys. That’s probably the part I like the most. You really don’t manage in Spring Training; it’s more, ‘Who am I going to put in after this guy comes out?’ … That isn’t enjoyable. But seeing the young guys, that’s what I like in Spring Training.”

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Fun and fur in Brewers camp

L-R Wooten, Hand, Bucci and Byrd. (from John Axford's Instagram)

L-R Wooten, Hand, Bucci and Byrd. (from John Axford’s Instagram)

Logan Schafer and Donnie Murphy homered off Yovani Gallardo in an intrasquad game Friday, and yet the stars were the batboys. Dressed in costume for a morning presentation by the members of Team Canada, pitching prospects Donovan Hand (Canadian Mountie), Darren Byrd (polar bear), Nick Bucci (beaver) and Rob Wooten (Inuit woman) were ordered to remain in costume for the team’s first action on the main field at Maryvale Baseball Park. Never mind that Bucci was the only Canadian in the group.

They made quite a scene, and closer John Axford hinted that more may be to come.

“It will all become clear later,” Axford said with a smile.

You figure the mood will be slightly more serious on Saturday, when the A’s come to Maryvale for the teams’ Cactus League opener. Mike Fiers will start for the Brewers with Axford, Jim Henderson and Hand slated for relief and Michael Olmsted, Jesus Sanchez and Santo Manzanillo ready to pitch if needed.

Taylor Green will get the first crack at manning first base, and manager Ron Roenicke said the rest of the Brewers regulars will be on the field for the traditional opener between the two teams that train within Phoenix city limits.

“They all want to play,” Roenicke said.

That includes left fielder Ryan Braun, who is getting ready to play for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic. Braun and Roenicke have discussed a plan to get Braun close to nine-inning-ready before departing early next month.

“They’ve got two days of practice and two exhibition games, so we just need to get him some at-bats,” Roenicke said. “He’s not too concerned about the at-bats. He’s one of those rare guys that doesn’t need a lot.”

Jesse Chavez is the scheduled starter for Oakland.

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Ramirez to play early, often in Cactus League

Aramis Ramirez laughed at one fan’s suggestion (h/t @mikelinny on Twitter) for snapping his usual early-season funk — that he should celebrate his June 25 birthday before the Brewers break Spring Training camp.

Ramirez has a more serious idea. He plans to pile up at-bats in the Cactus League in an effort to be swinging a hot bat by Opening Day.

“You’re going to see me a lot,” Ramirez said.

He’s already told Brewers manager Ron Roenicke that he wants to play Saturday’s Cactus League opener against the A’s at Maryvale Baseball Park. Roenicke surveyed some of the team’s veterans and gave them the option to push back their spring debuts because of the extended length of this year’s camp.

Ramirez wants to play. He will ease into games as usual, playing only a few innings at first, but intends to set a personal record for Cactus League at-bats.

“I’m not going to do anything stupid, but that’s what I think I’m going to try,” Ramirez said. “I don’t know how many [at-bats] I had last year. I have to look that up. So, we’ll see if this works.”

We looked it up for him, and Ramirez took 55 at-bats last season in 20 exhibition games. Does he worry about doing too much early, and wearing out by the end of the season?

“No,” he said with a shrug. “If you work hard and take care of yourself, there’s no reason for you to get tired. I never feel tired during the season, and if you look at my numbers, they’re better later on in the year. I feel tired here and there, but it’s not like I’m going to drop my production because of that.”

And that suggestion about an early birthday party?

“Hey, you never know,” Ramirez said. “You can’t lose anything by trying.”

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Roenicke sees high ceiling for Peralta

Just how highly does Brewers manager Ron Roenicke regard Wily Peralta, the team’s consensus top prospect?

The manager offered a glimpse on Thursday morning.

“There’s separation from guys that you think have a chance to be ‘Yo’ [Gallardo] and [CC] Sabathia and Greinke, and other guys are just going to be good Major League pitchers,” Roenicke said. “But Peralta has enough special stuff that he has a chance to be one of those [top-tier] guys.”

Peralta, vying for a spot in Milwaukee’s starting rotation, has yet to see hitters in camp because the Brewers backed off slightly after he reported some stiffness following his first Arizona bullpen session. Peralta is not pitching in the World Baseball Classic, so there is no need to rush him along, Roenicke said.

Here’s how Roenicke compared Peralta and another promising pitcher, Mark Rogers:

“Peralta is more an up top, power, moving ball that’s coming down in the zone, with a tight, nice slider that’s going to be a ‘punch-out’ slider,” Roenicke said. “I know he didn’t punch-out a lot of guys in Triple-A last year, but when he got to us and he commands both of those, he’s going to be a punch-out pitcher.

“Rogers is more an explosive, up in the zone, ‘I’m going to throw it up here and you can’t catch up.’ That’s a completely different pitcher, even though velocities are the same. Peralta is going to be a better pitcher when he’s down in the zone; Rogers might be a better pitcher when he’s up in the zone and up above the zone.”

You can read more about Roenicke’s thoughts on the race for the starting rotation at Brewers.com later today.

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Roenicke still planning on four-month absence for Hart

Brewers manager Ron Roenicke was happy to hear that Corey Hart was so bullish about his return from knee surgery. Hart told a visiting ESPN reporter on Wednesday he was aiming to be back in the lineup by April 20, which would beat the team’s estimate by more than a month.

But Roenicke is still operating under the assumption that Hart will be out longer.

“It does make a difference, how you go about things mentally in coming back from injuries and rehabbing, and if he’s positive he’s probably going to work harder,” Roenicke said. “But the doctors tell is it’s going to be four months [post surgery] — I’m going on that. If he comes back sooner than that, great. He says he’s a fast healer, I hope he is. But I think, realistically, we’re looking somewhere the later part of May.”

Roenicke added again: “If he’s back earlier, great.”

Hart had surgery Jan. 25 to repair an imperfection in his knee joint and fix a small meniscal tear.

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Gonzalez was almost a Cardinal

(L-R) Jean Segura, Csarlos Gomez, Alex Gonzalez, Aramis Ramirez, Ryan Braun. (Scott Paulus, Brewers)

(L-R) Segura, Gomez, Gonzalez, Ramirez, Braun. (Scott Paulus, Brewers)

My daily “Around the Horn” series took me yesterday to shortstop, where the Brewers have youth and promise in Jean Segura, and the steady veteran hand of Alex Gonzalez. Segura will be 23 next month. Gonzalez already turned 36.

Truth be told, the Brewers were a fallback for Gonzalez, who says he enjoyed his brief time in Milwaukee last season before he was felled by a knee injury, but was holding out hope for a starting gig in 2013, preferably at shortstop. He held a workout in Miami in mid-December to prove he’d recovered from ACL surgery and said more than dozen teams sent scouts, including representatives from the Red Sox and Cardinals who lingered afterward to talk to Gonzalez’s agent.

The Dodgers also eventually showed interest, to the point that Gonzalez and his agent sat down with Dodgers GM Ned Colletti and manager Don Mattingly to discuss how Gonzalez could fit — playing some third base and “pushing” shortstop Hanley Ramirez. But Gonzalez thought L.A. was already too flush with infielder. He thought the best fit might have been the Red Sox because they needed a shortstop, but Boston went with Stephen Drew instead.

He came closest with the Cardinals, getting deep enough into discussions that Gonzalez spoke directly with St. Louis manager Mike Matheny about Gonzalez’s willingness to try second base, maybe as a platoon mate with Daniel Descalso, maybe pushing Descalso into more of a utility role. Gonzalez would have also represented insurance for shortstop Rafael Furcal, who is coming back from elbow surgery.

Gonzalez was willing, but the Cardinals’ offer was a non-guaranteed contract somewhere between $1 million and $2 million. He asked for a guaranteed deal, and St. Louis came back with an offer of one year for $1 million, plus $1 million more if he made the team. It did not feel right, so Gonzalez re-signed with the Brewers for $1.45 million plus up to $800,000 in incentives: $100,000 each for 45, 60, 75 and 90 games played, and $100,000 apiece for  45, 60, 75 and 90 starts.

“I still want to be in the field every day,” Gonzalez said. “But I told them, I know the situation, I know they want Segura to have a chance. I know I can make adjustments.”

Here’s another link to the story from yesterday, which includes some context for Segura’s place among young Brewers shortstops.

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