March 2014

Another early-season closer shuffle

Last season, the Brewers changed closers after one week. This season, they changed closers before the season’s first pitch.

It was Francisco Rodriguez, not presumptive closer Jim Henderson, who logged the final three outs of Monday’s 2-0 Opening Day win over the Braves, a switch surprised a sellout crowd at Miller Park and some players on the field alike.

“I didn’t know what was going on there,” third baseman Aramis Ramirez said.

Brewers manager Ron Roenicke explained.

“We had a conversation about Henderson yesterday and until we feel like he’s throwing the way he can and was last year, we’re going to put him in a role that we can give him a couple outings to get his stuff back and his confidence going,” Roenicke said. “That’s just a decision we had to make. I talked to him about it and I talked to ‘Frankie’ today about closing. We feel good about it.”

Henderson did not allow a run in any of his final four Spring Training appearances, but pitched with diminished velocity and “life,” to the point Brewers officials were concerned. Rodriguez also had an uneven spring, missing time in March after he stepped barefoot on a cactus and then allowing at least a run in each of his final three outings.

He pulled four more cactus spines from his foot on Sunday but is now pitching pain-free, and while Roenicke indicated he would eventually like to restore Henderson to the role, Rodriguez is Milwaukee’s closer until further notice.

“Definitely, I was surprised,” Rodriguez said. “Especially [because] coming out of camp, ‘Hondo’ was supposed to be the guy who was throwing the ninth inning. At the same time, it’s a challenge that I’m looking forward to.”

Henderson took the news in stride.

“That’s how it’s going to start off, and we’ll take another 162 games just like that [victory] today,” Henderson said. “I’m a reasonable teammate and player, and I realize I didn’t have a great spring. It was fine. Whatever is best for the team.”

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Tapping the Keg: Miller Park set for Opening Day

openingdayHere we go again. Miller Park is open for business this morning ahead of the Brewers’ Opening Day game against the Braves at 1:10 p.m. CT, and here’s everything you need to get ready:

– Miller Park lots open at 10 a.m. CT, and the stadium gates open at 11 a.m.

– Three Wisconsin-born athletes from last month’s Winter Olympics in Sochi will throw ceremonial first pitches. Matt Antoine of Prairie du Chien was a bronze medalist in the Skeleton competition, and Brianna Decker of Dousman and Jessica Vetter from Cottage Grove were members of the silver-medal-winning U.S. women’s ice hockey team. Decker is on the University of Wisconsin women’s ice hockey team, and Vetter is an alumna of the university.

– For the 10th consecutive year, Joseph Attanasio, the father of principal owner Mark Attanasio, will sing the National Anthem, surrounded on the field by his family.

– My Opening Day preview package:

Some tidbits, courtesy of Brewers PR man Mike Vassallo:

– The Brewers open their 46th season as a franchise and 17th as a member of the National League. The franchise is 24-20-1 all-time on Opening Day, going 9-6 at home (3-2 at Miller Park) and 15-14-1 on the road. The Brewers are 8-7-1 on Opening Day since joining the National League in 1998.

– The Brewers are taking on the Braves on Opening Day for the second time in franchise history. The Braves won the previous meeting, 2-1, on 3/31/98 at Turner Field.

– Gallardo will be making his fifth career Opening Day start, trailing only Ben Sheets (6) in franchise history among pitchers. Gallardo will be the first pitcher in franchise history to make five consecutive Opening Day starts.

– Jeff Bianchi, Scooter Gennett, Will Smith, Tyler Thornburg and Wei-Chung Wang made an Opening Day roster for the first time in their Major League careers.

Enjoy the day, everyone!

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Brewers set Opening Day roster

The Brewers finalized their Opening Day roster on Sunday, and shortstop Jean Segura is among its active members.

Segura has not played in a Major League game since March 18, when he complained of a sore throwing shoulder, and club officials have worried in recent days that he may need to begin the season on the 15-day disabled list. That he avoided the DL is a good sign that Segura will be in Monday’s Opening Day lineup against the Atlanta Braves, though manager Ron Roenicke had yet to make a formal announcement as of the roster release.

One player, as expected, was placed on the DL: Left-hander Tom Gorzelanny is still recovering from offseason shoulder surgery.

After the Brewers formally purchased the contracts of nonroster invitees Zach Duke, Lyle Overbay and Mark Reynolds, the full roster looks like this:

Starting pitchers (5): Yovani Gallardo, Kyle Lohse, Matt Garza, Marco Estrada, Wily Peralta.

Relief pitchers (7): Right-handers Jim Henderson, Brandon Kintzler, Francisco Rodriguez and Tyler Thornburg, and left-handers Zach Duke, Will Smith and Wei-Chung Wang.

Catchers (2): Jonathan Lucroy and Martin Maldonado.

Infielders (7): First basemen Lyle Overbay and Mark Reynolds, second basemen Scooter Gennett and Rickie Weeks, third baseman Aramis Ramirez, shortstop Jean Segura and utility man Jeff Bianchi.

Outfielders (4): Left fielder Khris Davis, center fielder Carlos Gomez, right fielder Ryan Braun and Logan Schafer.

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T-Plush still considers Milwaukee ‘home’

Nyjer-Morgan2There was much more Nyjer Morgan than Tony Plush in Indians camp this spring, partly because the colorful former Brewers outfielder considers himself older and wiser these days, and partly because he was too busy winning a job as a nonroster invitee to let his alter ego alter his focus.

But old habits die hard.

“There’s still flashes of T-Plush,” said Cleveland closer John Axford, an old Milwaukee teammate. “He just picks his spots now.”

Morgan is back in the Major Leagues after a year in Japan, having won a job with the Indians while outfielder Michael Bourn rehabs a hamstring injury. He had “a blast” with the Yokohama BayStars and is predicting a “special year” for the Indians, but said part of him will always be a Brewer.

Freed from a tense tenure in Washington mere days before the 2011 season opener, Morgan and his many personalities were a hit in Milwaukee. He played a starring role on and off the field in his debut season, winning a cult following with his fiery postgame interviews and off-day antics — once, when he asked Twitter followers how he should fill the day and some smart aleck suggested he go fly a kite, Morgan obliged — and winning games with a series of clutch hits. None was bigger than the single he “tickled” up the middle in the bottom of the 10th inning of Game 5 of the National League Division Series, scoring Carlos Gomez and giving the Brewers their first postseason series victory in 29 years.

Morgan raced around the resulting champagne celebration wearing a S.W.A.T. Team helmet, which he still keeps at home along with other artifacts from his Brewers tenure.

“For me, it’s still home,” said Morgan. “Some very great memories in Milwaukee.”

What made it such a good fit?

“It was all the personalities in the clubhouse,” Morgan said. “It’s somewhat like here [with the Indians]. Everyone fits. There’s great team chemistry, and I was one of those pieces of the puzzle. Sometimes you don’t know if it’s going to fit until you test it out.”

Morgan fell into a reserve role in 2012 but remained a model teammate, said Brewers manager Ron Roenicke. He remembers liking Morgan from the very first introduction in Milwaukee’s Spring Training clubhouse.

“He’s high-maintenance, yeah,” Roenicke said with a smile, “but I like him. I thought his energy was great. I thought even though there were a couple of things he got in a little trouble for, the guy means well, whatever he does. The guy is a good teammate. He’s got so much energy that it’s contagious. I really like Nyjer.”

The Indians and Brewers will not meet in 2014 unless they reach the World Series, but Morgan vowed to return to Milwaukee someday.

“Twenty years from now, when they bring us all back, I’ll be a part of that group,” Morgan said. “It was a special moment. I know for sure I’ll be coming back as an older ‘T’ and a wiser ‘T.’”

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Segura’s shoulder problem lingering

Brewers shortstop Jean Segura was still taking at-bats in Minor League camp on Wednesday, unable to play the field because of soreness behind his throwing shoulder and unable to say for sure whether the problem would be solved in time for Monday’s season opener.

He underwent an MRI scan on Tuesday that came back negative, but the Brewers may decide to hold Segura out of the team’s remaining Spring Training games to preserve the option of a backdated stint on the 15-day disabled list.

“I’m not going to say it’s not [a possibility],” manager Ron Roenicke said.

Segura and Roenicke each stressed that team doctors have examined the shoulder thoroughly and do not consider the matter serious. The problem is not the rotator cuff or labrum, but a strained muscle, Roenicke said.

Segura will get more at-bats in a Triple-A game on Thursday and will travel with the team to Milwaukee.

A National League All-Star last season who is expected to bat second for the Brewers this season, Segura has not played in a big league game since March 18.

“It feels much better, but I don’t know,” Segura said. “Hopefully, it’s going to be ready for Opening Day. Maybe. I don’t know.”

If Segura feels well enough by the weekend, the Brewers would like to get him into one or both of the team’s exhibition games against the Royals at Miller Park. If the soreness persists, the team, by rule, could place him on the 15-day DL retroactive to March 21.

Because Segura’s status is in question, the Brewers opted to bring Elian Herrera along to Milwaukee for the weekend games. He was optioned to Triple-A Nashville on Tuesday, but that move could be reversed if Segura is placed on the DL.

While Segura worked to get back on the field, the clock was ticking on his agent and Brewers officials to work out a contract extension. For more on that issue, see my full story on Brewers.com this afternoon.

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Bullpen, bench all but set as Brewers make moves

Barring a last-minute addition or subtraction, the Brewers’ Opening Day roster appears set.

The Brewers made their final moves Tuesday, advising non-roster invitee Zach Duke he would make the team and optioning right-hander Rob Wooten and infielder Elian Herrera to Triple-A Nashville. As a result of those moving pieces, the Opening Day roster looks like this:

Starters
Yovani Gallardo
Kyle Lohse
Matt Garza
Marco Estrada
Wily Peralta

Relievers
Jim Henderson
Brandon Kintzler
Francisco Rodriguez
Will Smith (L)
Zach Duke (L)
Tyler Thornburg
Wei-Chung Wang (L)

Catchers
Jonathan Lucroy
Martin Maldonado

Infielders
Jeff Bianchi
Scooter Gennett
Lyle Overbay
Aramis Ramirez
Mark Reynolds
Jean Segura
Rickie Weeks

Outfielders
Ryan Braun
Khris Davis
Carlos Gomez
Logan Schafer

Disabled list
Tom Gorzelanny

The Brewers had to inform Duke of his status by Tuesday morning because of a clause in the Collective Bargaining Agreement that affects veteran players on Minor League deals. He reported for work with no idea how the day would play out.

“Honestly, I had no idea,” Duke said. “There are so many factors that go into these decisions that you never know. I felt confident that I had performed well enough to get a big league job somewhere, and I’m thankful that it’s here. It’s a good day for my family.”

Duke endured the opposite outcome two years ago, when the Astros released him right at the end of camp. This time was different.

“The difference from 2012 was I pitched my way off that team with the Astros in ’12, and I feel like I pitched my way on this one,” Duke said. “I’m a different pitcher now, different role that I’m going to be in, differently equipped to take on hitters. I feel like this is a good fit.”

Duke was a starter with Houston, but will be the closest the Brewers have a a left-handed specialist in a bullpen that features three left-handed relievers. To fit that niche, Duke has added a cut fastball to his arsenal, and has also begun throwing a various arm slots to “give hitters more to think about.”

Has he seen many bullpens with three southpaws?

“Yeah, they’re out there,” Duke said. “I was in a situation in Washington last year where I was the only lefty, and I didn’t get used because of it. I feel like for a manager, the more options they have to play matchups, the more apt they are to do the matchups.”

Asked whether making a club as a non-roster invitee was extra rewarding, Duke said, “It absolutely is. There’s no consequences if they get rid of you. So yeah, being a non-roster guy, coming in and making a team, I feel like I definitely opened up eyes and made them believe in me. It’s a very rewarding feeling.”

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Francisco packs up; 1B to be settled Sunday

The Brewers made four additional camp cuts on Saturday, and Juan Francisco’s empty locker was a signal that at least one more move is pending.

Francisco reported to camp to compete with non-roster Mark Reynolds and Lyle Overbay for first base duties, and it appears he is the odd man out. Brewers manager Ron Roenicke could not confirm that following a 9-6 loss to the Angels at Maryvale Baseball Park, but said he expected to inform players of the plan on Sunday.

In the clubhouse, Overbay could not help but notice the empty locker.

“I just know that they’re going to make the decision tomorrow,” Overbay said. “I don’t take anything for granted. There’s trades out there. Hopefully, tomorrow will be the news we were looking for. Last year when I was with the Yankees, they got rid of my competition and didn’t tell me anything. Everybody is always looking.”

Overbay did eventually make the Yankees’ cut, but did not get the news from GM Brian Cashman until after the team played its final exhibition game. He will learn his Brewers fate much earlier, since a clause in Overbay’s contract dictated the Brewers release him within 48 hours of a request on Saturday, or place him on the 40-man roster.

The Brewers currently have two openings on that roster. If Francisco is traded, released or otherwise removed, it would create a third.

In official roster moves on Saturday, the team optioned right-hander Alfredo Figaro and outfielder Caleb Gindl to Triple-A Nashville and returned catcher Robinzon Diaz and infielder Irving Falu to Minor League camp. As a formality, the team also informed non-roster catcher Lucas May that he would not make the team, but would travel to Milwaukee for exhibitions against the Royals next weekend.

With Figaro out, the race for the Brewers bullpen is down to four players (non-roster invitee Zach Duke plus Tyler Thornburg, Rob Wooten and Rule 5 pick Wei-Chung Wang) for three spots. It appears increasingly likely the Brewers will keep Wang rather than return him to the Pirates.

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Gomez is Brewers’ pick to hit leadoff

After talking and tinkering all spring, the Brewers have settled on center fielder Carlos Gomez as their new leadoff hitter.

Manager Ron Roenicke had been mulling different options since the Brewers traded Norichika Aoki to the Royals in December. Aoki was a prototypical pick for that spot, a pesky left-handed batter who worked counts and got on base. Gomez is different, an aggressive right-handed batter with power.

He’s getting the nod over shortstop Jean Segura and second basemen Rickie Weeks and Scooter Gennett.

“I’m liking what I see so far, so unless something happens in these few games after [Monday’s] off-day, we’re going to do with it,” Roenicke said.

Segura will likely bat second, giving the Brewers tremendous speed atop the lineup (Segura was second in the National League with 44 stolen bases last season, and Gomez fourth with 40 steals). Right fielder Ryan Braun, third baseman Aramis Ramirez and catcher Jonathan Lucroy will fill the 3-5 spots, leaving left fielder Khris Davis, the first baseman (Mark Reynolds, Lyle Overbay and Juan Francisco are still battling) and the second baseman (Gennett and Weeks look likely to platoon) to fill out the lineup in some order.

Gomez is coming off a career year in which he led the Brewers in doubles (27), home runs (24), extra-base hits (61), total bases (271) and slugging percentage (.506). He tied Aoki for the team lead with 80 runs scored and set career highs with a .284 batting average a .338 on-base percentage, 44 points better than his career OBP entering the season.

Roenicke urged Gomez not to change his approach in an attempt to “fit” the leadoff spot.

“I always feel like I should say something to him, and then you see how the player reacts to it,” Roenicke said. “If he’s going to go about it differently, then you may have to make a change.”

Asked what he liked about Gomez in the leadoff spot, Roenicke smiled and said, “Yesterday.”

The Brewers played the Rangers in Surprise, Ariz. on Friday, and Gomez led off with a hard line drive that buzzed Texas third baseman Adrian Beltre before Beltre could even raise his glove.

“I think that’s a really good way to start off a game,” Roenicke said. “[An opposing pitcher] has got to be careful, and they’re not really locked in. The first batter is usually where they have the worst command.”

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Roenicke weighs in on first base

Juan Francisco is having a terrific spring, batting .346 with a .500 on-base percentage after working five walks in his past two games. Statistically, Lyle Overbay is having a lousy spring, entering Friday batting .133. But Brewers manager Ron Roenicke suggested this morning that there is much more to the team’s choice of a backup first baseman than those numbers.

“I think [Francisco] is confident — again, he’s coming out of winter ball, so he’s pretty locked in. But the improvements are there,” Roenicke said. “Overbay had a bad spring last year, too, and he started off the first two months really good. So there’s a track record with him, and it’s more making sure that we’re seeing the things that fit on what we need for this team. That’s why I don’t really like to go by numbers in Spring Training, although when you look at Juan, you see improvements. It’s not just like the numbers are better. The improvement are better. That’s what I want to see.

“Bad memories always come up when you talk about this stuff, but I want into a camp one year [as a player], and I usually had a lousy spring. I had a good spring, but the guy who beat me out always always has a good spring, and had a fantastic spring. They kept him, and then a month later he was released.

“I’ve heard from the guys I really enjoy talking to and listening to, basically mentors, who have told me do not be fooled by Spring Training. So that’s the part that gets hard. You see things in spring and you have all this hope that someone is maybe that much better, changed, or whatever you want to say, and then you go back to the season and things seem to go back to normal. …

“There’s so much going on, you cannot just go by the numbers. It’s the fit, it’s the history, it’s everything.”

Expect some movement on this front beginning Saturday, when Overbay can request his release if he’s not promised a spot on the 25-man roster. If he makes that request, the Brewers would have 48 hours to add him to the roster or release him.

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Hand out: Righty returned to Minor League camp

The Brewers’ bullpen picture gained further focus Friday when right-hander Donovan Hand was returned to Minor League camp. The move left 34 pitchers in big league camp including 10 bullpen candidates. Four can be characterized as locks (closer Jim Henderson, right-handers Francisco Rodriguez and Brandon Kintzler, and left-hander Will Smith) and one will begin the season on the disabled list (Tom Gorzelanny), so three spots remain for five others: Zach Duke, Alfredo Figaro, Tyler Thornburg, Wei-Chung Wang and Rob Wooten.

Wang is a Rule 5 pick whom the Brewers would like to keep if possible. Duke is the only non-roster invitee in that mix. Thornburg is on the bubble between the big league bullpen and Triple-A Nashville’s starting rotation.

What are your predictions for how this will shake out?

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