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Hart says he followed more than money to Seattle

Corey Hart expected his first foray into free agency to be agonizing. Instead, it was easy, and three months later he has no regrets.

Not even about the day last September when he said he would take less money to stay in Milwaukee, only to sign for big money in Seattle.

“I would have taken less,” Hart insisted Wednesday before the Brewers and Mariners played at Peoria Sports Complex. “But I wasn’t going to — I still wanted it to be kind of close. In the long run, it wasn’t really close at all.”

Hart, coming off a season lost entirely to double knee surgery, signed a one-year contract with the Mariners that guarantees $6 million and offers $7 million more in incentives.

Brewers GM Doug Melvin could only offer $2 million guaranteed, with incentives that could push Hart to the same $6 million he was guaranteed in Seattle $4 million guaranteed, plus $2.5 million in incentives that could push Hart just above the guaranteed money in Seattle. For a father of four, it was a no-brainer.

“I even talked to Doug, and he basically said, ‘I couldn’t turn that down, so why would you be expected to?’” Hart said. “They understood there was a huge gap. It was one of those things where I would have liked to stay if it was close, but in the long run it wasn’t that close, and they weren’t pushing like these guys were. There were a lot of things that could have gone different, I guess, but they didn’t, and I’m glad to be here.”

What could have gone differently? Hart suggested that the Brewers could have made a much stronger emotional push to keep him. Melvin made it clear that he wanted Hart back, and manager Ron Roenicke, third base coach Ed Sedar and hitting coach Johnny Narron all called to urge Hart to consider returning.

But his teammates mostly stayed silent, Hart said.

“I’m sure when we see each other there will be a lot of hugs. But that’s about it,” Hart said. “I think I was expecting more players to reach out and try to keep me. A lot of the coaches reached out. But these guys [the Mariners] were overwhelming. We had a few other teams that were right there too. I thought Milwaukee would have made it harder, but at the end of it, it wasn’t a tough decision.”

More of Hart’s comments will appear on Brewers.com later today. He is over in Minor League camp today getting as many as a dozen at-bats, so those former Brewers teammates will not get a chance to say hello.

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Hank getting a new home in Milwaukee

(AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

(AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

Hank needs a doggie sweater. The Cactus League’s most famous canine is moving to a permanent home in Wisconsin.

The stray pup who has won legions of fans since showing up at Maryvale Baseball Park along with Brewers pitchers and catchers will move north to Milwaukee on Sunday. He will travel on a Southwest Airlines Charter flight with Brewers sponsors and family members and executives, one of whom is adopting Hank and taking him home.

The Brewers have decided to keep the identity of Hank’s new mom private, but his arrival at Mitchell International Airport will be a very public event. Dignitaries expected to be on hand include Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.

“We want to thank all of those who have made the effort to give Hank the care he needed down here in Arizona, as the top priority has always been to put his health and happiness first,” Brewers COO Rick Schlesinger said. “In addition to this being a captivating story, our goal has been to shed more light on the issue of stray and homeless pets, a problem that is not unique to just Arizona and Wisconsin.”

To that end, Hank has appeared throughout the spring in a concourse booth at Maryvale Baseball Park, where fans lined up for an opportunity to snap a photo in exchange for a voluntary donation to the Humane Society. The club says Hank has helped raise thousands of dollars in his two weeks of appearances.

The Brewers say they received more than 1,000 offers to adopt Hank since he wandered into camp in rough shape on Feb. 17. A stadium employee took him to a veterinarian for basic care, and in the weeks that followed, Brewers and City of Phoenix staffers, including some players themselves, took turns caring for Hank overnight. He’s been featured everywhere from MLB Network to People Magazine to USA Today. This week, Hank the Dog t-shirts went up for sale in the team shop.

“We are so grateful for the amazing care he has received, and for the way the players and the Brewers organization have used Hank’s story to highlight the needs of homeless animals like him,” said Wisconsin Humane Society President & CEO Anne Reed. “More than 10,000 animals were adopted from the Wisconsin Humane Society in 2013 and it is that incredible support which makes Southeastern Wisconsin such a kind and compassionate place for animals like Hank.”

Even Brewers GM Doug Melvin played along:

http://m.mlb.com/video/v31519717

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Gallardo gets another Opening Day nod

Yovani Gallardo has the history, Kyle Lohse is coming off the best year and Matt Garza got the big money. For weeks, the question has been which Brewers right-hander would get the ball first.

Manager Ron Roenicke answered on Thursday.

“Yovani is going to pitch Opening Day,” Roenicke said. “As it stands now, Kyle is going to go two, and then we’re just seeing what’s going to happen here.”

Opening Day is March 31 against the Braves at Miller Park, and Gallardo would become the first Brewers pitcher ever to start five consecutive season openers. After the three-game series against Atlanta, the Brewers hit the road to help open Fenway Park in Boston and Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia. The Brewers’ pitching plans for those games are still being debated, but the leading scenario has Garza, who has lots of experience pitching in the American League East, holding until the Brewers’ fourth game of the season in Boston.

“You overthink these things, like we do every year, and they don’t work out the way you think they’re going to,” Roenicke said with a shrug. “I don’t want to say who’s better than whom, but say you have three guys that are really good or four guys that are really good, do you want to win every game you can as soon as you can, or do you back one of those guys off because he’s got more experience against, say, a Boston? He’s performed well against them. Those are the things we’re looking at. Then it’s, OK, who’s better when we go to Philly? It gets to the point like you’re overthinking things instead of maybe just winning the games as soon as you can. If those two are going the first two games, in the third game, should we just pitch the guy who has the best chance of winning that ballgame instead of worrying about what’s going happen in Boston? … “They’re all good teams. So it’s almost like, ‘Just line them up and we’ll go.”

Stay tuned to see how Roenicke and pitching coach Rick Kranitz answer those questions.

But this much is sure: If he gets through the spring without any setbacks, Gallardo is the guy on Opening Day.

“I think with him being on this club for a long time, with having the success that he’s had, we feel like he should be the guy that starts it,” Roenicke said. “And Kyle was fine with it, Garza was fine with it. So it wasn’t that big of a deal.”

Might it boost Gallardo’s confidence, coming off a tough 2013 season?

“I know they take it as an honor, and they should,” Roenicke said. “It’s not mean to do that; what it’s meant to do is Yo deserves to start Opening Day, and he’s going to do start.”

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Weeks feeling ‘great’ after hamstring scare

Brewers second baseman Rickie Weeks felt a pop in the same left hamstring that required season-ending surgery last August — and was grinning ear-to-ear afterward.

This time, the pop was a good thing, Weeks said. It was scar tissue breaking free.

“I’ve been waiting for that,” Weeks said. “It’s just free now, basically.”

Weeks had singled with one out in the inning to boost his Cactus League batting average to .368. He motored all the way home on Jonathan Lucroy’s double and scored on a headfirst slide, but appeared to labor halfway between third base and the plate.

He exited the game in the next half inning, but insisted this was no setback.

“It was a little knot back there, basically,” Weeks said. “On that one, I knew I had to ‘bust it,’ and I stretched out and it just released. It kind of scared me a little bit, and then the last three steps I was like, ‘Oh, I feel good.’

“It’s a great thing, for sure. Now I’m good. … Now that I’ve had that release, I can keep strengthening it more and more, and just keep working through it.”

The 31-year-old is entering the final guaranteed season of his contract after batting .209 last year and missing the final six weeks of the season following surgery. He reported to camp at full health to battle Scooter Gennett for starting duties at second base.

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Prickly situation: K-Rod steps on a cactus

UPDATED at 7:45 p.m. CT: Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said he’d talked to K-Rod, and the plan is to pitch in Thursday’s game against the Padres. 

It’s not quite as weird as reliever Steve Sparks separating his shoulder trying to tear a phone book in two during Spring Training in 1994, or general manager Doug Melvin being stung by a scorpion last year, but the Brewers have their first oddball injury of camp:

K-Rod stepped on a cactus.

Manager Ron Roenicke said Rodriguez was questionable for his Cactus League debut after the right-hander stepped barefoot on a prickly plant Monday night or at some point during Tuesday’s team off day. As Roenicke briefed the media Wednesday morning, Rodriguez was in the trainer’s room having spines pulled from his foot.

“He took out a lot of the thorns, but there’s some more in there,” Roenicke said. “I don’t think it’s that big of a setback, but I imagine he’s pretty sore today. I don’t know if you guys have stepped on one, but you know how little some of the [spines] are, and they’re in there for a while? With Frankie, he may some in today and say, ‘I’m pitching.’ I don’t know.”

Rodriguez is already behind the other relievers because he signed late in the offseason and arrived late after securing a work visa amid political turmoil in Venezuela. Roenicke does not believe the cactus caper will prevent Rodriguez from being ready by the Brewers’ March 31 season opener.

“It’ll be tough to keep him back, the way he is,” Roenicke said. “Like I said, he may end up pitching [on Thursday as scheduled]. It could happen. I just have to talk to him and see how he’s doing.”

The Brewers made some other news Wednesday by optioning pitching prospect Johnny Hellweg to Triple-A Nashville. Roenicke also updated the status of left-hander Tom Gorzelanny, who continues to make progress in his recovery from offseason shoulder surgery but probably will not have time to be ready by Opening Day. That means opportunity for other lefties in camp, including non-roster invitee Zach Duke and Rule 5 pick Wei-Chung Wang.

More on those stories will hit Brewers.com later today. Meanwhile, be careful if you’re walking around bare-footed.

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Brewers collecting funds for fallen officer’s family

109875Brewers players and staffers are collecting financial donations for the family of fallen Phoenix police officer John Hobbs, 43, who was killed in a daytime shootout Tuesday about three miles from Maryvale Baseball Park.

Hobbs, a 21-year veteran of the force, was based at the same Maryvale police precinct that supplies officers to provide security on Brewers game days. Flags have flown at half-staff at the ballpark and around the city all week, and the Brewers honored a moment of silence for Hobbs prior to the first game after his death.

“This touches home for us,” said bullpen catcher Marcus Hanel, who is in charge of collecting donations. “One of the officers stationed here who I know well was a partner of [Hobbs] from 10 years ago, still friends with the family. We asked if there was any way we could help.”

Hanel was directed to PLEA Charities, an arm of the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association that provides financial and educational assistance to officers and their families.

The Brewers plan to present their donation to the PLEA later in the week. Fans can also donate via Paypal at AZPLEA.com.

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Ramirez: ‘I’m playing tomorrow’

Brewers third baseman Aramis Ramirez says he’s ready to go.

The 35-year-old veteran underwent surgery in early January to remove a benign polyp from his colon and was set back at the start of Spring Training, but ran the bases on Friday without any problems and said he would be ready to start at third base for Saturday’s game against the Royals at Maryvale Baseball Park.

As of Saturday, the Brewers will have 2o game days before their March 31 Opening Day against the Braves at Miller Park. Ramirez considers that plenty of time.

“I just have to get in playing shape,” said Ramirez, who insisted the left knee injury that hobbled him throughout last season has completely healed. “I’m going to try to avoid [sliding]. Hopefully, I don’t have to, but I’m [trying to] totally avoid sliding here. Sometimes your instincts take over, but I’m going to try to be smart about it.”

He is eager to play, and when asked why he wanted to play third base instead of ease in as a designated hitter, Ramirez said, “I don’t want to play third. I don’t like DHing. … I don’t like to be sitting around. I want to be ready for March 31.”

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Adjustments paying off early for Weeks

Rickie Weeks has made some long-debated adjustments to his batting stance, and Brewers manager Ron Roenicke loves the early results.

“Geez, he’s killing the baseball,” Roenicke said Tuesday morning, before Weeks manned second base against the A’s. “I hope he continues it. When he’s swinging the bat like this, he is really fun to watch.”

Because he arrived amid such high expectations after the Brewers made Weeks the second overall pick in the 2003 Draft, Weeks’ batting stance has long been a focus of armchair hitting coaches. Throughout his career he has held his hands particularly low, and has waggled the bat like Gary Sheffield.

Through hand injuries and advancing age, Weeks has mostly remained consistent in his stance. Now, after batting .230 in 2012 and .209 in 2013, the waggle is still there but Weeks is working on some subtle changes with his hands, Roenicke said.

“It’s not just age as you get older, [but] you learn to do different things,” Roenicke said. “I think sometimes you just realize that I’m not successful in this and I’ve got to make some improvements. Sometimes it’s with stance, sometimes it’s your thinking that changes. He’s made some adjustments, and right now, it looks really good.”

Weeks was 4-for-7 with a home run in his first three spring games.

It is a well-timed hot streak. Weeks, set to earn $11 million this season in the final guaranteed year of his contract, is in a battle with 23-year-old Scooter Gennett. When Weeks tore his left hamstring last August and needed surgery, Gennett capitalized, and finished the season batting .324 while playing better-than-advertised defense.

The Brewers insist second base is an open competition, and other Major League teams are probably watching. The Brewers could try to trade one of their second basemen later in camp, or they could institute the sort of platoon that was actually working last season before Weeks was hurt.

Weeks is making the decision difficult so far.

“If you guys watch balls come off his bat, it’s pretty scary,” Roenicke said. “He’s one of those rare guys that has that kind of pop that it doesn’t matter where he hits it.”

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Expanded replay debuts today

Today’s Brewers-Cubs game is to be televised via FS Wisconsin, broadcast via the Brewers Radio Network and available online via MLB.tv and MLB.com’s Gameday Audio — and it will be especially worth a follow. Milwaukee manager Ron Roenicke revealed that today’s game is the first of three for the Brewers this spring that will feature baseball’s new system of expanded replay.

According to what my colleague Paul Hagen wrote in January, when the rule changes were approved:

Beginning this season, each manager will start a game with one challenge. If it is upheld, he retains his challenge but can never have more than two in a game. If the manager exhausts his challenges before the start of the seventh inning, he is out of luck, adding a new element of strategy to the game. Beginning in the top of the seventh, the crew chief is empowered to institute a review. …

Approximately 90 percent of all plays will be subject to review, including calls involving home runs, ground-rule doubles, fan interference, boundary calls, plays at first base, force plays, tag plays, fair-foul and trap plays in the outfield, hit by pitch, timing plays, touching the base, passing runners and any dispute involving ball-strike counts, outs, score or substitutions. All other plays, including interference and obstruction, will not be reviewable.

To initiate a review, the manager will verbally inform the umpire of his intention in a timely manner. The challenge may involve multiple portions of the same play, but each must be specified during the appeal.

Challenges must be made in a “timely manner” with discipline possible if the manager appears to be stalling.

Teams will be allowed to have a club employee monitoring video and communicating with the manager whether or not to challenge. Both the home and road teams must have equal access to all video, but no additional electronic equipment will be allowed. Camera angles in all parks will also be standardized.

Roenicke has a strategy in mind for how he will choose when to call for review of a play, and so far it appears John Shelby will be the coach stationed in the video room alerting the bench when a play should be reviewed. All of that is subject to change.

Roenicke managed his fourth Cactus League game on Sunday and said there have been two calls he would have had reviewed, including one at the plate involving Lyle Overbay in Sunday’s game against the Rockies. Overbay slid to the inside of the plate and was called out, the umpire told Roenicke, because the ump believed Overbay never touched the plate.

Overbay believes the call would have been overturned upon review.

“I didn’t get much of it, but I got enough,” said Overbay, who supports the implementation of expanded replay as long as teams do not start using it as a strategic advantage.

“The one thing I hate about football is it seems they replay anything and everything,” Overbay said. “I think ours will be different, because there won’t be a lot of plays. But I feel like sometimes it’s going to be used kind of like a time out to get pitchers ready. It won’t happen very often, but I wonder. I remember a couple of times last year in New York where we ended up going up late and Mariano [Rivera] wasn’t ready. So we’re stalling, making like something is in my eye, and some of the coaches on other teams were getting ticked. Those are things I wonder if they could come into play.

“But as long as the umpires are going along with it, I’m fine. I don’t want them to think they’re doing bad jobs. I think [the occasional close call] is part of the game. Then again, when you think about missing the playoffs by one game, [getting it right] becomes a big deal.”

Before you ask:  Cubs manager Rick Renteria said no, he will not have a flag in his pocket to throw on the field if he wants to challenge a call.

“I think the protocol will be if you want to challenge, you have to go out and talk to the umpire and either invoke it or he may ask me to invoke it depending on how long you stand out there conversing with him,” Renteria said.

Renteria said the umpires will try to resolve the disagreement first.

“I would imagine that if my gut is telling me immediately that I saw it completely different [he'll challenge] — but you don’t want to waste it if you don’t have to,” Renteria said. “There’s going to be some availability as it’s set up to get the information that tells you if [the call] is good or not.”

When he met with the media three hours before Monday’s scheduled first pitch, Roenicke still had plenty of questions about the procedure for Monday.

“It’s our first challenge day, and I don’t know how I’m supposed to do it,” he said. “I know they don’t have as many TV cameras set up as they are going to have [during the regular season], and I don’t know who is looking at those replays, for one to tell the umpire, but also to tell me whether I should challenge it or not. I know we have walkie-talkies, but that’s all I know. … Somebody said, ‘Well, maybe it’s just a walk through,’ but what am I supposed to walk through? I’m going to go out there and say, ‘This is my practice walk out here to see if I’m going to challenge?’ I hope we have something in place that I can say, ‘Yeah, I’d like to challenge it,’ and they can take a peek at it.”

Roenicke is mostly comfortable in the knowledge of what he can challenge and what he cannot. Eighty percent of calls, Roenicke said, will be tag plays and out-safe calls on the bases.

“We’ll just pay attention to those two things,” he said. “The others, all the judgement calls are not reviewable. Hit by pitch is reviewable. I know enough of the things that are, but I don’t know every single one.”

It can be tricky. Trap calls on the infield are not reviewable, but traps in the outfield are. Foul balls along the baselines are reviewable if they are fly balls, but not if they are ground balls because of the challenge of determining the exact angle of where the baseball crosses the bag.

On Monday, the plan called for the Brewers and Cubs broadcasts to listen in on conversations between the umpires on the field and officials in the TV truck reviewing a play. During the regular season, those reviews will happen at MLB.com’s offices in New York.

Monday’s dry run was intended simply to give on-field personnel a first taste of how the process will play out, and Roenicke was on board with that.

“I think that’s good,” he said.

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Crew closer Henderson adding to arsenal

Brewers closer Jim Henderson has yet to appear in a Cactus League game, but he and manager Ron Roenicke each assured it’s no cause for concern. The role does not require a heavy Spring Training workload, and Henderson has preferred to work amid the privacy of the back mounds at Maryvale Baseball Park because he is developing a new pitch, Roenicke said.

Roenicke said he was not merely referring to the slider refinements that Henderson mentioned earlier in camp. He was talking about an entirely new pitch.

“They can see it,” Roenicke said, referring to rival scouts, “when it happens.”

Henderson enjoyed his first full Major League season in 2013 as a 30-year-old, assuming closer duties after only one week and going on to log 28 saves in 32 appearances, with a 2.70 ERA. According to FanGraphs.com he threw all fastballs (77 percent, with an average velocity of 95.3 mph) and sliders (23 percent, 85.6 mph).

Presumably, an addition to Henderson’s arsenal would help against left-handed hitters. They managed a .786 OPS against him last season, compared to .475 for right-handed hitters. Six of the eight home runs off Henderson were produced by left-handed hitters.

“I think we’ll mess around with some stuff during the spring here,” Henderson said as camp opened. “Whether it’s a new pitch, whether it’s just defining my slider a bit more. My slider was really good in the beginning of the year last year, then it kind of [fell off]. … That’s one of the nice things, too, about this spring for me, is that I can afford to make some mistakes out there in Spring Training and not be worried about it too much. We’ll hopefully have something set in stone by the end of the spring.”

Henderson threw some live batting practice on Sunday while the rest of the Brewers played the Rockies in Scottsdale, Ariz. His next step after that could be a Cactus League game.

“There’s no reason to ramp him up quick,” Roenicke said. “He’s been working on some things, some pitches, so we backed him off.”

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