K-Rod was in the middle of Venezuelan turmoil

Brewers reliever Francisco Rodriguez eagerly immersed himself in the monotony of Spring Training on Saturday after enduring some very tense weeks at the center of Venezuela’s political unrest.

Rodriguez’s homeland has been the scene of violent protests over the past month, particularly in the capital of Caracas. He signed a one-year contract with the Brewers on Feb. 7, but his home is in the heart of opposition-controlled territory and for four or five days, Rodriguez said, he could not leave “because they were burning tires and they closed the roads.” His security detail, former policemen, eventually devised a strategy to get him out.

Rodriguez acquired a work visa this week, arrived in Phoenix on Friday and reported to camp for the first time on Saturday morning.

“My girl and my two kids are here with me,” he said. “Eventually sometime this week, depending on how things go down there, I’m going to fly the rest of [his family]. Right now I’ve got to settle in here first. But that’s definitely what I have in mind. … I don’t want to have distractions being on the field and thinking, ‘What are they doing? Is everything all right at home?’

“I don’t want that distraction. The main thing I want is their safety. That’s the most important thing to me.”

Considering the circumstances, Rodriguez considers himself lucky to secure a visa the same day he applied. He is already two weeks late, and worried that another two-week delay might have impacted his game readiness for Opening Day on March 31.

“I was a little nervous about it, but thank God everything is in the past now and I can move forward,” said Rodriguez, who called the situation at home scary. “Unfortunately, it is. It is. If I said, ‘No,’ we’re lying. I have never seen so many protests, so much division. I hope they can come up with a resolution and everything can get back to peace. … There is nothing impossible in this world. I hope they can sit down, because the only people who are suffering are the Venezuelan people. Nobody else.”

Rodriguez said he would have plenty of time to get ready for the season. For more on his return to the Brewers, check the site this afternoon.

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Roenicke to Segura: Don’t change if you hit leadoff

Second-year Brewers shortstop Jean Segura batted leadoff in the team’s Cactus League opener Thursday, a good indication that he’s indeed the leading candidate to replace the departed Norichika Aoki.

Segura mostly batted second behind Aoki last season, but Aoki was traded to the Royals over the winter. Segura batted first only twice last season.

“He’s not the typical guy to do it because he’s aggressive,” Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said. “He’s a swinger. “I talked this morning to him about it a little bit. I don’t want him to change because I put him in the leadoff spot.

“That goes with everybody. When I put them in different spots in the lineup, I just want guys to hit. We move them around sometimes for necessity, and it doesn’t mean you hit fourth and all of a sudeen you have to start swinging for the fence. [Segura] is a guy that’s aggressive and needs to stay that way or there’s too much mental thought going on, and he won’t produce.”

Segura finished the season with a team-best .294 batting average and was second in the National League with 44 stolen bases. But his on-base percentage was a modest .329, and his highest walk total in the Minor Leagues was 45, in 581 plate appearances at the Class A level in 2010.

“I think he’s OK with [moving to leadoff],” Roenicke said. “He’s probably a little better second, and the next couple of days, maybe we’ll put him second. I’m going to move him around. … When I like is he’s comfortable enough now to come in here and we’ll talk about things. He’s a very honest guy. Some guys don’t quite tell me everything, and he’s quite honest. It’s not that guys will lie to me, they just won’t tell me.”

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MLB announces new rule for plate collisions

I’ll have some comment from Jonathan Lucroy and Martin Maldonado later today, but for those interested, here is the news release just sent by Major League Baseball regarding changes to the rule governing collisions at home plate:

Major League Baseball (MLB) and the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) have officially negotiated the addition of Rule 7.13, covering collisions at home plate, on an experimental basis for the 2014 season, the parties jointly announced today.

In 2014, the rule being implemented by MLB and the MLBPA (set out below) will prohibit the most egregious collisions at home plate. The new experimental rule sets forth that:

· A runner attempting to score may not deviate from his direct pathway to the plate in order to initiate contact with the catcher (or other player covering home plate). If, in the judgment of the Umpire, a runner attempting to score initiates contact with the catcher (or other player covering home plate) in such a manner, the Umpire shall declare the runner out (even if the player covering home plate loses possession of the ball).

· Unless the catcher is in possession of the ball, the catcher cannot block the pathway of the runner as he is attempting to score. If, in the judgment of the Umpire, the catcher, without possession of the ball, blocks the pathway of the runner, the Umpire shall call or signal the runner safe.

In determining whether a runner deviated from his pathway in order to initiate a collision, the Umpire will consider whether the runner made an effort to touch the plate, and whether he lowered his shoulders or pushed through with his hands, elbows or arms when veering toward the catcher. The rule that will be in effect in 2014 does not mandate that the runner always slide or that the catcher can never block the plate. However, runners who slide, and catchers who provide the runner with a lane to reach the plate, will never be found to be in violation of the new rule. Beginning immediately, Clubs will be required to train their runners to slide and their catchers to provide the runner with a pathway to reach the plate at all levels in their organizations.

MLB will distribute training materials throughout Spring Training and discussions on the new rule, including the retraining of catchers and base runners, will be held during MLB’s meetings with managers in the weeks ahead. Additionally, MLB and the MLBPA will form a committee of players and managers to review developments as the season progresses and to discuss the possible application of the new rule in 2015.

Finally, instant replay will be available to review potential violations of Rule 7.13. The Umpire Crew Chief will have discretion to invoke instant replay in order to determine whether Rule 7.13 was violated.

OFFICIAL BASEBALL RULE 7.13
COLLISIONS AT HOME PLATE

(1) A runner attempting to score may not deviate from his direct pathway to the plate in order to initiate contact with the catcher (or other player covering home plate). If, in the judgment of the Umpire, a runner attempting to score initiates contact with the catcher (or other player covering home plate) in such a manner, the Umpire shall declare the runner out (even if the player covering home plate loses possession of the ball). In such circumstances, the Umpire shall call the ball dead, and all other base runners shall return to the last base touched at the time of the collision.

Rule 7.13 Comment: The failure by the runner to make an effort to touch the plate, the runner’s lowering of the shoulder, or the runner’s pushing through with his hands, elbows or arms, would support a determination that the runner deviated from the pathway in order to initiate contact with the catcher in violation of Rule 7.13. If the runner slides into the plate in an appropriate manner, he shall not be adjudged to have violated Rule 7.13. A slide shall be deemed appropriate, in the case of a feet first slide, if the runner’s buttocks and legs should hit the ground before contact with the catcher. In the case of a head first slide, a runner shall be deemed to have slid appropriately if his body should hit the ground before contact with the catcher.

(2) Unless the catcher is in possession of the ball, the catcher cannot block the pathway of the runner as he is attempting to score. If, in the judgment of the Umpire, the catcher without possession of the ball blocks the pathway of the runner, the Umpire shall call or signal the runner safe. Notwithstanding the above, it shall not be considered a violation of this Rule 7.13 if the catcher blocks the pathway of the runner in order to field a throw, and the Umpire determines that the catcher could not have fielded the ball without blocking the pathway of the runner and that contact with the runner was unavoidable.

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Jenkins: Position switch should be a breeze for Braun

Geoff Jenkins, who knows all about making a mid-career move from left field to right, believes Ryan Braun will fare quite well in the transition.

Jenkins arrived at Maryvale Baseball Park on Sunday to begin a weeklong stint as a special instructor. It will give him some time to talk about the intricacies of right field with Braun, who has manned left at Miller Park for the last six seasons.

“There’s obviously some different footwork out there, and you use the spin move more when balls carom off the wall down the line, and the throws from right field are a little lengthier,” Jenkins said. “But at the end of the day it’s just about getting to the ball quick, releasing the ball quick and hitting the cutoff man.

“I actually thought right field was easier. Left field is harder.”

Jenkins found, for example, that opposite-field line drives hit by left-handed hitters tended to slice sharply toward the left-field line. In right, similar line drives from right-handed hitters tended to stay more true.

One adjustment Braun will need to make, Jenkins said, involves medium fly balls to right field that get lost in the lights. For some reason, the problem is less an issue in left field.

Braun is poised to pass Jenkins on some of Milwaukee’s all-time leaderboards. Jenkins ranks third in Brewers history with 212 home runs, one ahead of Braun entering the season. Jenkins is also fourth with 704 RBIs as a Brewer (Braun is sixth at 681) and fifth with 661 run scored (Braun is seventh at 644).

Braun is making the switch in part to open playing time for Khris Davis, a promising young hitter who does not have the arm for right field. Like Braun, Jenkins had been the Brewers’ regular left fielder for six seasons before switching to right field for the 2005 season, after the Brewers traded for slugger Carlos Lee.

“I did what was right for the team,” Jenkins said. “With Carlos Lee coming in, it was a big deal for us to get a good hitter in the middle of the lineup. And at the end of the day, it was just, ‘Go catch the ball. Play your position.’

“In a weird way, I thought it was kind of fun to make the switch. Sometimes changing can be scary, but I took it as a positive.”

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Photo gallery: First full-squad workout

Ramirez aiming for healthy 2014

A family history of colon cancer led Brewers third baseman Aramis Ramirez to have a colonoscopy during the offseason, and it turned out to be a wise preventative measure.

Ramirez reported to Maryvale Baseball Park in time for the Brewers’ first full-squad workout on Saturday but will not be quite ready to play when Cactus League games begin next week. He underwent arthroscopic surgery in early January to remove a non-malignant polyp.

“I just wanted to do it because my dad died of colon cancer,” said Ramirez, whose father, Victor, was 61 when he passed away. “I wanted to get checked out because usually it’s a family thing. Sure enough, I didn’t have cancer, but I had a polyp.”

Ramirez and his doctors knew right away the polyp was benign. He had the surgery in Miami and was told to expect an eight-week recovery.

“I don’t know how many [Spring Training] games I’ll miss,” Ramirez said. “Hopefully it’s not many.”

The experience was scary, he said, “because I never had surgery before. That was my first one and hopefully my last one.”

Ramirez was able to take part in batting practice Saturday and said he can field grounders and run the bases, but will play it safe until he feels 100 percent. The sprained left knee that limited him to 92 games in 2013 was fully healed long before Ramirez had his colon surgery.

He is entering the final guaranteed season of his three-year contract with the Brewers. The deal includes a mutual option for 2015.

“I can’t wait to get back,” Ramirez said. “Last year was a tough year, as you guys now. I didn’t play much; 90, 91, 92 games. That’s not what I get paid for. I should be out there at least 140, 145, 150 games. Hopefully I can do that this year.

“It’s hard to play when you’re not 100 percent. When you’re playing on one leg, it’s a lot harder. Like I say, if I’m healthy, everything should be OK.”

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Mom played ‘big’ role in Gomez’s rise to big leagues

Gomez chats with Prince Fielder's son Haven  before the MLB All-Star Game in New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Gomez chats with Prince Fielder’s son Haven before the All-Star Game. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

The way Carlos Gomez tells it, his ascension to Major League All-Stardom was all part of his father’s master plan.

“”[This is] his dream, because he always wanted to be a professional baseball player, and he never got the opportunity,” said Gomez, whose dad has the same name. “He said, ‘I’m going to marry a big woman to have a big kid.’”

True story. Gomez says his dad is 5-foot-8 or 5-foot-9, and mom Belgika is at least 5-foot-11. The Brewers list Carlos Jr. as 6-foot-3.

“That’s what my dad tells me, and my mom tells me, too, ‘Your dad is lucky for me, because I’m big,’” Gomez said. “I’m the biggest guy in my family. I have a brother and a sister, and my brother is 5-foot-11 and my sister is, like, 5-foot-4. I’m 6-foot-3.”

Gomez’s father is actually in Phoenix at the moment. The two share a very strong bond, with Carlos Sr. traveling often to Milwaukee during the season and spending time in the clubhouse. Both Carlos Sr. and Belgika were able to travel to New York last July to see their son play in the All-Star Game.

Carlos Sr. was a fine shortstop and outfielder in the Dominican Republic in his day, and often has friendly arguments with his son about who is better.

“I’m the one who’s a professional, I’m the one who’s an All-Star, and every time I get a hit, in the Dominican they call me, ‘Carlos Gomez’s son,’” Gomez Jr. said with a smile. “People think my dad is the big deal when I’m the big deal.

“He always says, ‘When I was 21, I was better than you, blah, blah, blah. I say, ‘But I’m the one who’s a professional, almost eight years in the big leagues! You never made it.’ We always have that conversation. We have fun.”

My MLB.com colleague Lyle Spencer was in Brewers camp this morning for Gomez’s first meeting with reporters, and will file a story later today with much more. Check Brewers.com for Lyle’s take on one of Milwaukee’s core players.

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Hellweg bulks up to avoid second-half fade

Brewers pitching prospect Johnny Hellweg admits he was worn down as he lost weight in the second half of last season, and spent the winter bulking up to avoid the same fate in 2014.

The 6-foot-9, hard-throwing Hellweg, acquired with shortstop Jean Segura and fellow right-hander Ariel Pena in the July 2012 trade that sent Zack Greinke to the Angels, finished last season at 208 lbs. but reported for duty this week at 245.

“Just worked out hard, changed my diet, ate right,” said Hellweg, 25. “I cut out a lot of bad stuff in my diet. Mostly protein and carbs, no gluten. It helped. It was a lot of work, actually. In the end I was sick of eating so much this offseason. It’s a grind.”

And now?

“I feel great,” he said. “Spring Training is always a fresh start. It’s another year to prove yourself.”

Hellweg was the Brewers Minor League pitcher of the year and Triple-A Pacific Coast League’s pitcher of the year last season after going 12-5 with a 3.15 ERA in 23 starts. He led PCL starters with a .228 opponents’ batting average, and enjoyed one 10-start stretch from mid-May through the end of July in which he was 9-0 with a 1.16 ERA.

It earned a promotion to the Majors, where Hellweg struggled badly with command and went 1-4 with a 6.75 ERA in seven starts and one relief appearance. He walked 26 batters and struck out only nine in 30 2/3 innings.

Hellweg did not blame those struggles on his falling weight, but wanted to report for his second full season in the Brewers organization a bit stronger.

“I lost a lot of weight in July and August, so I just wanted to put it back on to make sure that if I was going to lose it again, I was going to be OK weight-wise,” he said. “I think I was just underweight to begin with. It’s something I have to work on.”

Hellweg is not expected to break camp with the Major League team, though that could change with injuries.

Club officials will be looking for him to show better command.

“It’s time on the mound,” Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said. “It’s confidence and knowing that when you’re behind in counts you can throw a ball over the plate and still get by with it. The guys that throw 90 who are pretty straight, it’s hard to just say, ‘I’m going to throw this ball right down the middle because I’m behind in the count.’ When you throw 95, 96 and you have movement, you should be able to go at a guy any time you want to.”

Over time, Roenicke is confident Hellweg will develop that confidence.

“If you go over his Minor League career, this isn’t a guy who was a starter every year,” Roenicke said. “He doesn’t have a lot of total starts in the Minor Leagues, so I think it’s going to take a little time.”

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Roenicke says Braun saga is ‘over with’

Brewers manager Ron Roenicke was ready to welcome Ryan Braun to Spring Training on Thursday, and is just as eager as Braun to move beyond Biogenesis and on to baseball.

“We need him on this club, and he’s paid the penalty that Major League Baseball has put in place, and it’s over with,” Roenicke said Thursday morning, just before Braun arrived in camp. “I think we all make mistakes, and we’re pretty forgiving people. I think everything will be fine. I think [teammates] will welcome him back really well.”

Roenicke reiterated that he has heard everything he needs to hear from Braun, who admitted last summer in the wake of his suspension that he took a banned substance to speed his recovery from an injury in 2011. Since then, Braun has apologized to his teammates in private and to fans in public, holding two press conferences during the offseason.

On Thursday, he was met by some of the national media for the first time.

Roenicke is weary of the saga. He figures Brewers players are, too.

“Yeah, they’re tired of it,” Roenicke said. “We want to move forward. We’re excited about this season. I think we’ve got a very good club and we’re excited to move on and to worry about how Ryan and everyone else in that room can help us win this year.”

From a production standpoint, Roenicke expects the same Braun who produced a National League Rookie of the Year season in 2007, and drove in 100 runs in each of the three subsequent seasons that followed before Braun was ever connected to PEDs. Roenicke indicated he believes Braun only took banned substances in 2011, when he first ran afoul of MLB’s drug program.

“So I expect him to be the same player, yes,” Roenicke said. “He’s in great shape. He’s in a good frame of mind. He knows this stuff is behind him, and I expect him to come out and be the kind of guy that he’s always been.”

That guy will be playing a new position.

Khris Davis, a slugger who turned 26 over the winter, did enough last season in Braun’s absence (11 home runs, .596 slugging percentage in 136 at-bats) to convince Brewers officials that he deserves a more prominent role in 2014. Davis does not possess a string arm, so Braun is moving to right field. In the long term, the Brewers believe it is generally easier to find left fielders. In the short term, it opens opportunity for Davis.

“That’s never an easy decision,” Roenicke said. “I actually thought about it my forst year here [in 2011]. Usually, when you see that good of a defensive outfielder, an a guy who can throw, you usually think of him as a right fielder. … It won’t be that easy of a transition, even though he’s a very good left fielder. It’s different when that ball turns the other way.”

The Brewers will put Braun through more defensive drills to get him up to speed, Roenicke said, and as usual will let Braun have a say in his schedule once Cactus League games begin.

At Miller Park, Braun will face some challenges in right field. In addition to the 90-degree caroms sometimes produced by grounders down the line, Miller Park features a party area in right field that juts onto what used to be the warning track. The outfield wall takes several unusual turns because of that.

“He’ll get used to it,” Roenicke said. “You’ve got to be able to turn your head off the ball and run and see exactly where that cut-out is. The throwing part won’t be an issue because he throws well and is accurate. It’s a lot easier when you have a straight wall and it’s curved nice for you and it’s padded an all that. Maybe he plays a little deeper at the beginning to help that out. I know [Norichika] Aoki played deeper.”

The Brewers will also work to find ways to keep Braun healthy. Before the suspension last year, he was severely diminished by neck and thumb issues that sapped Braun’s power. The thumb is a long-term concern, Roenicke indicated.

“The trainers are working to pad-up either the gloves he puts on or the bat itself in trying to get a little pressure off that,” Roenicke said. “I know he doesn’t like that, because he really likes to feel the bat on his fingers, and you lose a little bit of feeling [when you pad the bat]. Hopefully they come up with something that will help that and we won’t fight with that all year.”

At some point, Roenicke hopes, things will be back to normal for Braun.

“I’m hoping he gets off to a great start, and the better he does, the less he’s going to hear about things,” Roenicke said. “Hopefully he’ll have a great year.”

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Ramirez set back a bit after colon surgery

Brewers third baseman Aramis Ramirez underwent surgery in December to remove a non-cancerous polyp from his colon and will not be game-ready when Cactus League play begins late next week, club officials said. Ramirez is expected to arrive in camp on time ahead of Saturday’s first full-squad workout.

“My understanding from [head athletic trainer] Dan Wright, who followed this closely, is that there were no [long-term] issues to be concerned about or alarmed with,” said Brewers assistant GM Gord Ash. “He’s just behind, and what’s the rush? If he’s a week to 10 days behind [it is not a problem].

“Part of the problem in giving you updated information is we haven’t seen him. This is all word of mouth. Until we see him — I expect him to be here for the physical on the weekend — then we’ll know more. .. But our understanding is this will be a question of days. There are no problems.”

Brewers manager Ron Roenicke spoke to Ramirez on Tuesday and was told Ramirez has been doing some hitting lately in the Dominican Republic. The 35-year-old is entering the final season of his contract and coming off a 2013 marred by a nagging left knee injury.

Ash also provided an update on reliever Francisco Rodriguez, who has been delayed because he signed so late in the offseason. Rodriguez has an appointment at the U.S. consulate in Caracas, Venezuela on Feb. 26 to acquire a work visa, Ash said, and the Brewers hope to see him in camp several days later. It is unclear whether the recent violence in the Venezuelan capital will impact Rodriguez’s plan.

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