Despite freezing temperatures and inches of snow still left on the ground in Wisconsin, the Milwaukee Brewers are headed to Phoenix with hopes of putting 2013 behind them and jumping back into playoff contention this season.
With pitchers and catchers reporting to Maryvale Baseball Park on Saturday and the first full squad workout a week later, here’s five storylines to follow during spring training.
1. Figuring out first base
With the Brewers having a good idea of who will start at the majority of the eight positions heading into spring training, the first base competition will be front and center for the six weeks of camp.
All signs point to Mark Reynolds entering spring training as the favorite to be the main guy at first base and should at least make the roster barring an injury or a disastrous spring. Looking at the makeup of Milwaukee’s bench, there’s likely room for one of Juan Francisco and Lyle Overbay.
That battle seems like it would come down to Overbay’s defensive abilities at the position versus Francisco’s power potential. Overbay won’t provide the pop Francisco would, but Francisco isn’t strong defensively at first base. So much can change in these six weeks. The Brewers anticipated having Mat Gamel filling in at first base for the first six weeks until Corey Hart returned. Neither of them played an inning in 2013 and Milwaukee ran out Alex Gonzalez on Opening Day.
Hunter Morris, Sean Halton and Jason Rogers will get a chance to force their way into the mix with a big spring training, but they will likely all head to Triple-A.
Scooter Gennett opened eyes with a .324 batting average in 69 games, but Rickie Weeks is back and set to make $11 million in the final year of his contract. Manager Ron Roenicke has said Gennett is penciled in as the starter heading into spring training, but pencil is easily erased.
Again, a lot can happen in spring training. Gennett must continue to hit and Weeks must show he’s fully healed from a severe hamstring injury that ended his season in August. There could be a platoon situation coming where Gennett plays against right-handers and Weeks against lefties.
The left-handed hitting Gennett was just 9-for-36 (.154) against left-handed pitchers last year and hasn’t hit them well in the minor leagues. Weeks’ career batting average is 20 points higher against lefties than righties, so a platoon wouldn’t be farfetched.
There’s also a chance Gennett plays so well in spring training the Brewers feel comfortable trading Weeks. But it takes two to tango, and could they find a team willing to take on Weeks’ salary? All these questions will be sorted out before Opening Day.
3. Who fills the bullpen?
The addition of Francisco Rodriguez leaves quite a few arms vying for just two open spots in Milwaukee’s bullpen.
Jim Henderson, Brandon Kintzler, Rodriguez, Will Smith and Tom Gorzelanny are locks to take up five spots in the likely seven-man bullpen. Michael Blazek, Alfredo Figaro and Rob Wooten head the competition for the last two spots, while young arms like Kevin Shackelford and David Goforth could enter in the mix. Non-roster invitees Donovan Hand and Zach Duke also will get a look.
Tyler Thornburg could move to the bullpen if he loses the fifth starter spot to Marco Estrada or the Brewers could elect to have him start in Triple-A. If Thornburg earns the rotation slot, Estrada would take one of the two bullpen jobs.
Rule 5 pick Wei-Chung Wang will be one to watch, as well. The 21-year-old lefty hasn’t pitched above the rookie level but has to make the 25-man roster or be offered back to Pittsburgh. The Brewers love his potential, but that’s quite the jump.
Gorzelanny is set to miss most of spring training recovering from offseason shoulder surgery and could open the season on the disabled list. That would open another spot for a reliever to temporarily make the team until the veteran left-hander returns.
4. How will Ryan Braun’s return from suspension go?
Nobody really knows the answer to that question. The former National League MVP feels he will return "better than ever," tossing the notion his statistics could suffer out the window.
The Brewers certainly need their slugger to return to form and take back his place in the middle of the lineup. Braun will have the spotlight on him from the moment he reports to Milwaukee’s camp and will continue to hear it from fans in ballparks throughout the league all season long.
Braun has been through that before and insists he thrives off stuff like that, but there’s undoubtedly a mental aspect in his return from the 65-game suspension that ended his season last year. He’s also changing positions, shifting from left field to right field to accommodate Khris Davis.
Spring training is just the beginning of a very important season for Braun.
5. Better start
The Brewers know another slow start to the season won’t be acceptable. Roenicke has vowed to make adjustments to the team’s preparation in spring training, hoping minor tweaks will help Milwaukee avoid digging itself into a big hole in April and May.
What changes will be made? We’ll soon find out. They are likely to be minor and as simple as how much the regulars play in spring training games or how many throws the pitchers take in and out of games.
It will help having Kyle Lohse for a full spring training and Matt Garza, this year’s big free-agent acquisition, will get the full camp to adjust to his new surroundings. There also isn’t the distraction of the World Baseball Classic to worry about this year.
The Brewers need a healthy and productive spring training to ensure they are ready to go when the season starts. For some reason, they haven’t been good out of the gates the past few years. That has to change if Milwaukee is going to contend in 2014.