February 2013

‘The K-Mart group’

Brewers special assistant Dick Groch is the man who scouted and signed Derek Jeter, a first-round Draft pick of the Yankees in 1992. But he can also appreciate a good bargain.

So Groch, entering his 11th season in Milwaukee’s pro scouting department, was particularly intrigued to watch what he dubbed the “K-Mart group” throw bullpen sessions on Sunday. Side by side on a row of mounds were relievers John Axford, Jim Henderson and Brandon Kintzler and starter Mike Fiers –who combined to cost Milwaukee a whopping $3,500.

Fiers is the group’s “bonus baby,” Kintzler joked, having received a $2,500 signing bonus as a 22nd round Draft in 2009. Right about the same time, the Brewers purchased Kintzler from the independent St. Paul Saints for $1,000. Axford and Henderson signed after being released by other teams, and didn’t cost a dime.

And yet all four are expected to play meaningful roles in the Majors this season. Axford is the Brewers’ closer, Henderson the leading contender for set-up duties and Kintzler has an inside track on another bullpen opening. Fiers is competing for a spot in the starting rotation after breaking into the big leagues last season.

Those are far from the only Major Leaguers to come from humble beginnings, but as Groch pointed out, “What’s unique is when you put them all together in the same throwing group.”

Speaking of unique, Kintzler had to turn down better money in Hollywood to sign with the Brewers. He was a finalist to play right-hander Tim Hudson in the film Moneyball, but the audition would have caused him to miss a chance to start the ’09 American Association All-Star Game.

“I said, this is probably my best chance to get signed,” Kintzler said. “I think I want to pitch in the All-Star Game. I don’t want to be a movie star.”

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Gamel shut down today, could return Monday

Brewers first baseman Mat Gamel was held out of baseball activities on Sunday, a day after he aggravated his surgically-repaired right knee in the team’s first full-squad workout. Manager Ron Roenicke hoped it would only be a one-day absence.

“It won’t be full go, we’ll just get him out there and acclimate him to the different things going on,” Roenicke said.

Was Saturday’s setback unexpected?

“It’s unexpected just because he’s gone through this period of time where he really hasn’t has any issues with it,” Roenicke said. “But probably not unexpected because it is different once you get on the field and now you’re doing different exercises with agilities, with fundamentals. You’re doing different things on the knee that you’re not doing in a controlled environment.”

Roenicke said Gamel first felt something in his knee while stretching, then felt it again while swinging the bat. Gamel conferred with a member of the club’s athletic training staff and was taken back to the clubhouse for examination.

Does it qualify as a red flag?

“No, not now,” Roenicke said. “I mean, if it happens a few times as we’re going along, yeah.”

Should Gamel experience more trouble with the knee, the Brewers may have to find someone else to mind first base while Corey Hart recovers from his own knee injury. Options in camp include Alex Gonzalez, Taylor Green, nonroster invitee Bobby Crosby and prospect Hunter Morris.

Morris, 24, has yet to take a swing above Triple-A, but Roenicke did not rule him out.

“It would be pushing him, but say he comes out in Spring Training and he just goes off?” Roenicke said. “I don’t know. He had some kind of year in Double-A, and that’s where [shortstop Jean] Segura came from.”

The Brewers brought in another first baseman, 2009 Draft pick Sean Halton, to cover Gamel’s absence in Sunday’s drills. Halton could remain for a few days.

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Ramirez aiming for a red-hot April

Brewers third baseman Aramis Ramirez hopes this is the year he beats his annual early-season slump.

“I would have like five MVPs in my house right now if I ever got off to a good start,” Ramirez said.

He’s a .285 lifetime hitter but his worst monthly batting average (.257) and on-base percentage (.328) are in April and his worst slugging percentage (.450) is in May. Compare that to August, when Ramirez has hit .305/.367/.547.

He thought that signing a free agent contract with the Brewers would help, since he’d be playing half of his early-season games at climate-controlled Miller Park instead of chilly Wrigley Field. But Ramirez instead followed the same pattern, hitting .214 with two home runs in April last year before rallying to hit .300 with 27 home runs, 105 RBIs and an NL-best 50 doubles.

“I talked to Ronnie [Roenicke] yesterday, and talked to him a couple of times in the offseason, and we want to try to do something different this spring to see if it works out,” Ramirez said. “I don’t know what it’s going to be yet. I don’t know if it’s going to be play more games, play less games. Take more [batting practice] down here? I don’t know. Just do something different and see if I can get off to a great start.”

Right now, Ramirez and Roenicke are each brainstorming ideas. They’ll talk again before games begin to set a plan.

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Gamel aggravates knee

Brewers first baseman Mat Gamel cut short his workout on Saturday after aggravating his surgically-repaired right knee. Brewers assistant GM Gord Ash sent word through a member of the club’s media relations department that the Brewers were just being careful with Gamel’s recovery this early in camp.

This fits with what Gamel told reporters this week, that he has good days and bad days with the knee. You can click over to Brewers.com to read about his comeback bid — that story will be updated shortly to reflect today’s development.

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New connection between Braun, Biogenesis

Hours after reporting to Spring Training and declining to answer questions about Biogenesis, Ryan Braun faced a new round of questions about his link to the South Florida clinic under investigation by Major League Baseball.

ESPN.com on Friday afternoon published what it said is an additional excerpt from the logbooks of Tony Bosch, who headed the now-defunct anti-aging clinic, which includes Braun’s name on what a source told ESPN was a list of Biogenesis clients. The firm is being investigated by MLB for supplying some players with banned substances.

The latest story was published hours after Braun had met reporters and made clear he was not willing to field questions about Biogenesis. He was first linked to the clinic last week in a Yahoo! Sports report, and was linked again in the new ESPN report on Friday afternoon, which included a list allegedly from Bosch’s notebook that includes Alex Rodriguez, Melky Cabrera, Braun and Francisco Cervelli, with the figure “1,500” written next to Braun.

Like the Yahoo! report, the new document does not list any banned substances next to Braun’s name. But a source told ESPN that the new document was a list of players who received performance-enhancing drugs.

Braun has denied such charges, saying his attorneys only consulted with Bosch while working on Braun’s appeal of a possible suspension during the 2011-12 offseason.

Attorney Martin Singer released a statement to ESPN on Friday:

“My client confirmed last week that there was an alleged claim for money owed to Mr. Bosch because he had been used as a consultant by my client’s attorneys in his successful appeal with MLB last year. Several witnesses can corroborate how Mr. Bosch requested over thousands of dollars for his consulting with my client’s attorneys last year. My client has no relationship with Tony Bosch, and the only relationship Mr. Bosch had was with my client’s attorneys as a consultant.”

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Braun talks baseball, not Biogenesis

For the second straight year, Ryan Braun began Spring Training with an opening statement.

“I am excited to be back out here for Spring Training, certainly looking forward to the World Baseball  Classic and obviously excited and focused on our upcoming Brewers season. I understand why a lot of you guys are probably here, but I made a statement last week and I stand behind that statement. I’m not going to address that issue any further. As I stated, I’m happy to cooperate fully with any investigation into this matter.

“I respect the fact that all of you guys have a job to do and part of that job involves asking me questions. I’m happy to answer any and all questions about baseball, Spring Training, the World Baseball Classic or anything else. Thanks.”

And with that began a 10-minute discussion of his achievements last season, the Brewers’ chances in 2013 (he agrees they’re underdogs in the NL Central), his excitement about the upcoming Classic and his half-kidding desire to get back to shortstop some day.

But Braun did not field any questions about Biogenesis, the South Florida clinic under investigation by Major League Baseball. At one point, when a reporter asked a tangentially-related question about MLB and the Players Association instituting a test for human growth hormone, a Brewers spokesperson redirected the discussion to “baseball questions.”

Braun, though, answered the question.

“Look, I’ve always been supportive of the system,” Braun said. “I’ve always been supportive of additional drug testing or whatever testing they have that’s available.”

He spoke of overcoming distractions, something Braun has become accustomed to over the past 15 months.

“It’s not easy,” he said. “I’ve always said that in baseball you deal with a lot of adversity. In life, you deal with a lot of adversity. And the goal is to try to be the same person. I’ve always been extremely positive and optimistic, and I never allow outside distractions to influence that or affect that.”

More to come…

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Braun expected in camp today

The Brewers position players who have not yet reported for Spring Training will do so today including left fielder Ryan Braun, who is expected to have an informal meeting with reporters this morning.

It might not be a very revealing event. Braun sent word through the club’s media relations department that he would not answer any questions related to the anti-aging clinic under investigation by Major League Baseball to which Braun was linked 10 days ago. Since then, Braun’s only communication has been a statement explaining why his name would show up in that clinic’s records, saying his legal team consulted with its founder, Tony Bosch, during Braun’s successful appeal of a suspension in the 2011-12 offseason.

If Braun indeed meets the media today, we’ll have full coverage here, at Brewers.com and at MLB.com.

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Aoki likely to lead off for Brewers

A year ago, the Brewers knew little about outfielder Norichika Aoki beyond some video from Japan and a brief tryout camp. Today, they like him enough to make him the club’s leadoff hitter.

Stressing that things can change, manager Ron Roenicke indicated on Thursday that he’s leaning that way, saying Aoki would begin the year batting leadoff with second baseman Rickie Weeks in the two-hole.

“And then we’ll see how it goes,” Roenicke said. “[Aoki] can do a lot of different things. He sees a lot of pitches, which is really important for me. He’ll walk. He stole a lot of bases last year. All of those things are important in the leadoff spot, but the biggest thing, really, is getting on base.”

Aoki, who was greeted with hugs and smiles upon reporting to camp on Thursday morning, is coming off a solid debut season in which he batted .288 with 10 home runs, 37 doubles, 30 stolen bases and a .355 on-base percentage. He also adjusted to a new language, culture, clubhouse and style of play.

“He really had an impressive year last year,” Roenicke said. “Last year, he came in here knowing he had to show us something. This year, that’s a little different. Because of the type of person he is, I know he’ll still go about it that way, but there is a difference. I think he should enjoy it more.”

Weeks has started 595 career games in the leadoff hole and owns a .356 on-base percentage from that spot. He has appeared in 122 games as a No. 2 hitter with a .225 average and a .313 on-base percentage.

By batting him second in front of left fielder Ryan Braun and third baseman Aramis Ramirez, the Brewers would try to induce a more steady diet of fastballs for Weeks, a good fastball hitter.

Braun would follow in the three-hole, then cleanup hitter Ramirez. With Corey Hart sidelined at least the first month by a knee injury, catcher Jonathan Lucroy is a candidate to hit fifth, followed by first baseman Mat Gamel. Center fielder Carlos Gomez and shortstop Jean Segura will cover the seventh and eighth spots, depending on whether Roenicke is comfortable with a young player like Segura hitting in front of the pitcher.

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Healthy Narveson: ‘Feels like a new arm’

Brewers left-hander Chris Narveson has never been so happy to be just one of the guys.

Narveson said his surgically-repaired shoulder was completely healed and he was a full, unrestricted participant in the Brewers’ starting rotation derby. The only thing notable about his bullpen session on Wednesday was the trio of athletic trainers watching intently.

He said they told him, “‘Man it looks great. Effortless.’ When you look back and see smiles and laughs, you know everything looks good.”

He felt good, too.

“It feels like you’ve got a new arm,” Narveson said.

If he continues in good health, it looks as if Narveson has a good chance to win one of the openings in the starting rotation behind right-handers Yovani Gallardo and Marco Estrada. Narveson, now xxx, began last season as Milwaukee’s No. 5 starter, but made only two starts before he was shut down with the shoulder injury. On May 1, he had surgery for a torn labrum and rotator cuff, and his season was over.

Looking back, Narveson said the shoulder was already an issue at the start of Spring Training.

“It was kind of off and on. It’s so hard because you’re competitive,” Narveson said. “It never felt like something that was a big deal. It was always like, ‘OK, you need to strengthen and do your maintenance programs.’ But as it went on, one day it would feel not bad and the next day it was, ‘Oh, man.’ It would go back and forth. Then, it obviously got to a head where after that [April 5] Atlanta game, you couldn’t get loose, you couldn’t do much.”

Narveson surrendered five runs on four hits in four innings that day.

“Next thing you know, you wake up the next day and it’s hard to pick [the arm] up,” he said. “It got to the point where you really knew something was wrong.”

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Roenicke: Braun story ‘shouldn’t be out there’

Brewers manager Ron Roenicke spoke out Wednesday in support of left fielder Ryan Braun, who has remained quiet since making a statement explaining his link to the South Florida clinic under investigation by Major League Baseball for allegedly supplying some players with banned substances.

Roenicke said he disagreed with Yahoo! Sports’ decision to publish records from Tony Bosch, the former head of that clinic, that included Braun’s name, even though Braun was never linked to any illicit substances or treatments. Braun later said in a statement that his lawyers consulted with Bosch in the 2011-12 offseason, during Braun’s appeal of a suspension.

“It’s a pet peeve, I guess, of mine: Don’t bring up anybody’s name and put it in there if you’re questioning it,” Roenicke said. “If there’s something going on and there’s a definite [transgression], fine, that’s your job to put it out there. But don’t bring up names that you’re not sure of and then retract it later, because it never is retracted from the fans or the people that are out there. Never. There are some people who will say, ‘OK, they shouldn’t have put it out there,’ but for the majority, it’s still there in their mind. So it shouldn’t be out there.

“That’s what I have an issue with. You want to bring up somebody’s name, then you’d better be sure when you’re bringing it up. It’s very unfair to the player, and that’s what I have an issue with. It’s not right.”

Tim Brown, one of the veteran reporters who wrote the story linking Braun to the clinic, has said Yahoo! Sports considered the issue newsworthy because it had confirmed MLB would investigate the link.

Brewers position players report to Maryvale Baseball Park on Friday, and the team’s first full-squad workout is Saturday. Roenicke indicated the Braun matter was low on his list of priorities.

“To be honest with you, I’m not really thinking about handling it or anything until there’s more information on what is there,” Roenicke said. “I can’t make comments on something I know nothing about. I talked to Ryan, he’s coming in and I know he’s going to have to deal with some press issues, but we’re just going to move on with it as if nothing’s there. …

“It was different last year. We knew what the specifics were last year,” Roenicke said. “I knew what to address, what I wasn’t supposed to talk about. I knew where he was on those issues. I don’t know anything [now]. Let’s see where we are. It may be nothing. If it’s just the thing with the lawyer and payments, then it’s nothing.”

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