February 2014

Rule 5 pick knows he faces tough task

Taiwanese left-hander Wei-Chung Wang knows his current undertaking will not be easy. It is not every day that a pitcher makes the leap from the rookie-level Gulf Coast League to the Major Leagues.

“I know a lot of people spend [so much] time to make a team. It’s hard. I understand how hard it is,” he said Saturday through translator Jay Hsu. “The feeling is like swimming from Taiwan to here, swimming in the ocean.”

Wang also knows he is uniquely positioned to give it a shot. The Brewers selected the 21-year-old in December’s Rule 5 Draft from the Pirates, and will have to keep him in the big leagues all season or offer him back to Pittsburgh. Brewers scouts love Wang’s poise and his change-up, so they spent $50,000 and a 40-man roster spot for the right to evaluate him in Spring Training for a spot in the bullpen.

“I am still surprised,” Wang said. “It’s like a lottery.”

Does he think he can win?

“I can do it,” Wang said.

At first, he believed he’d been traded. A friend who pitches in the Baltimore system called Wang at about midnight in Taiwan after the Brewers had called his name at the Rule 5 Draft in Orlando. Eventually, a “shocked” Wang was filled-in on the details of the draft, which offers opportunity to players left unprotected on their teams’ 40-man rosters.

Wang originally agreed to a lucrative international deal with the Pirates in 2011, but the contract was voided after a physical exam revealed a torn ligament in his pitching elbow that required Tommy John surgery. Wang did not pitch at all in 2012, then went 1-3 with a 3.23 ERA in 12 games, 11 starts, in 2013 for the rookie Gulf Coast League Pirates. The Brewers loved the fact he throws strikes — 42 strikeouts versus four walks in 47 1/3 innings while holding opponents to a .209 batting average. His fastball mostly sat at 91-93 mph, Brewers pro scouting director Zach Minasian said in December, touching 95 mph, with a change-up that is Wang’s best pitch and a curveball that is developing but projectable. He throws from a high three-quarters arm slot.

“The first couple of days [after the transaction], I could not sleep very well,” Wang said.

He is feeling more comfortable now, in his fourth week of workouts at Maryvale Baseball Park. Wang has already thrown at least one bullpen session under pitching coach Rick Kranitz’s watch, and expects to throw again Monday during the Brewers’ first official workout.

As a bonus, Wang’s older brother, Yao-Lin, pitches in the Cubs system and will soon be in Arizona for Spring Training.

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Brewers’ Groch, scout who signed Jeter, reflects

New York Post photo

New York Post photo

Brewers special assistant Dick Groch spoke like a proud father Wednesday about Yankees star Derek Jeter, who announced he would retire at the end of this season. Groch was the Yankees scout who signed Jeter out of Kalamazoo, Mich. in 1992.

“It’s been quite a ride,” Groch said.

Because of Groch’s own demanding summer schedule, and the usual hub-bub that surrounds Jeter on the days they happen to be at the same ballpark, the men have mostly communicated via email in recent years. Groch also scouted and signed Jeter’s agent, Casey Close, so four or five times per year, Groch will write a message to Close that gets passed along to Jeter.

“Last week I sent Casey an email,” Groch said. “And I said, ‘Case, best to The Captain. Tell him to take it easy through Spring Training. Be sure that he’s ready to play.’ And before the end, I said, ‘If he goes out, Case, be sure that he doesn’t go out 9-1-1. I don’t want to see him dragged off the field. Be sure he goes off as a New York Yankee player, and that he gets the same thing that [Mariano Rivera] did. And make sure that last year, that he plays shortstop. Don’t let him move to third base or to left field. He should go out in a position that brought the New York Yankees a special player.'”

On Friday, Groch learned that his premonition was coming true when a Toronto radio station called for reaction to Jeter’s announcement.

“People tell me, ‘You signed a good player,'” Groch said. “But, no — and I know I sound a little bit vain — I signed a franchise. This is a marquee player, and there are very few. Babe Ruth was a marquee player. All the money that Babe Ruth made for the Yankees more than paid his salary. And now people say Derek Jeter is overpaid, but he was a marquee player and the amount of money he made for the New York Yankees in 20 years more than paid his debt. That’s a special guy, and this is the way you want him to go out.”

In his message, Groch encouraged Jeter to remain involved in the game beyond the end of his playing career, either in the Yankees front office or the Commissioner’s Office.

“It would be a tremendous disservice not to have him [in one of those roles],” Groch said. “For what he did in baseball as a player, and what he has left in his career, he has so much of a contribution left. He can make our game better on a lot of levels.

“He has his foundation and he will continue his foundation. That’s also part of what we don’t see. We see his contributions as a baseball player, but we don’t see the humanitarian and philanthropist that he is. So he’s only passed the first hurdle of the contributions he can make to baseball and society.”

Groch chuckled and added, “I thought I was pretty profound with that.”

He and his wife, Nancy, were invited guests of Jeter and the Yankees when Jeter was on the doorstep of 3,000 hits. Brewers GM Doug Melvin gave Groch a hall pass to follow the Yankees as long as it took, so the old scout and the shortstop met on the field at Yankee Stadium with Jeter at 2,998 hits. Groch knew that Jeter was eager to get it over with, but joked that he should take his time. Instead, Jeter went 5-for-5 including a home run for No. 3,000.

“In traditional Jeter approach to the unbelievable, what does he do?” Groch said. “I was sitting behind the dugout on the third base line and [Yankees third base coach] Robby Thomson turned around and looked at me and threw his hands in the air, like, ‘What else?'”

Groch already has plans to be at Miller Park on May 9-11 when Jeter and the Yankees make a rare Interleague visit to Milwaukee.

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Hand clears waivers, stays with Brewers

Brewers right-hander Donovan Hand will get an opportunity in the coming weeks to win back the 40-man roster spot he lost last week.

The team announced Wednesday that Hand, designated for assignment last week when the Brewers re-signed free agent Francisco Rodriguez, had cleared waivers and been outrighted to the Triple-A Nashville roster. Hand will still be in Milwaukee’s big league camp, but as a non-roster invitee.

The 27-year-old Alabaman nearly won an Opening Day roster spot last year with a strong Spring Training and was ultimately promoted to the Majors in May. He posted a 3.69 ERA in 31 games, seven starts, and pitched to a 3.38 ERA in 10 games in September.

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Brewers, K-Rod back together again

Updated at 3:55 p.m. CT: It’s official. The Brewers have announced K-Rod’s one-year contract and designated Donovan Hand for assignment. The story over at Brewers.com is being updated now to reflect the done deal.

Francisco Rodriguez is nearing a reunion with the Brewers — again.

A baseball source said the sides were close Friday to sealing a one-year, Major League contract that would return the veteran reliever to Milwaukee, where he has pitched parts of the past three seasons. Rodriguez would earn a $3.25 million base salary, with $550,000 more available in incentives.

The Brewers have not made any announcement. They would need to clear space on a full 40-man roster.

More to come.

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