MILWAUKEE — Being removed from a team’s 40-man roster can oftentimes be a career death sentence. Once a player is off, he isn’t usually coming back on.
There was a very real chance Jeff Bianchi had played his last game with the Milwaukee Brewers when the club outrighted the utility infielder off the 40-man roster on May 24. After he cleared waivers, Bianchi was assigned to Triple-A Nashville.
Because he had been outrighted previously in his career, Bianchi could have refused the assignment and hit the free-agent market. He opted to stay in the Brewers organization, a decision that has paid off, as Bianchi is back with the big-league team in a role similar to the one he started the year in.
"It makes it that much harder to get back, because now they have to make a spot for you," Bianchi said of being removed from the 40-man roster. "I’m really grateful and thankful for this opportunity. When you go through waivers and get taken off the roster, you just don’t know in this game if you’re going to get back. It can depend on injuries, how well you do. So it’s good to be back."
Bianchi proved to be a serviceable backup infielder in 2013, hitting .237 while playing good defense at second base, shortstop and third base in 100 games with the Brewers. However, a roster spot in 2014 wasn’t guaranteed.
The Brewers brought in Elian Herrera and Irving Falu to compete for the final spot on the bench, but Bianchi beat both of them out by hitting .309 in spring training.
Bianchi’s playing time was scarce in his first stint with the Brewers in 2014, and it showed. The 27-year-old collected just eight hits in 55 at-bats for a .145 batting average. When Milwaukee needed to clear a roster spot for pitching prospect Jimmy Nelson to make a spot start, Bianchi was the odd man out in late May.
Despite removing him from the 40-man roster, the Brewers wanted to keep Bianchi in the organization all along. Manager Ron Roenicke talked to Bianchi’s agent to express to him how much his client was wanted and that there was a real possibility of a return to the big leagues if he got his swing right with regular playing time.
Bianchi went to Triple-A and played almost every day, hitting .276 with three home runs and 12 RBI.
"He had some really good games there," Roenicke said. "I don’t know what he finished at, .275 or something, but he had some games where he swung the bat well and he moved around positions. So I think that really helped him and what he needed to do there for a while."
The versatile infielder played eight Triple-A games at second base, seven at third base and nine at shortstop. Roenicke feels the consistent at-bats and moving around to different positions will help Bianchi in his bench role with the Brewers.
"I don’t know what’s going to happen," Roenicke said. "(Jean Segura), we were trying to figure out when the next time he needed a day off, and it was not for a while. Things come up where I don’t know what’s going to happen. We’re covered OK with Aramis (Ramirez) at third base because we have (Mark) Reynolds who can go there, unless there’s a left-handed starter and then we’re in a little bit of trouble. But we’ve got bodies to do it. Center field and shortstop, I put Ryan (Braun in center) and he’d never been there. So it’s good to have someone who can play that."
Part of the reason Bianchi is back with the Brewers is because Falu didn’t seize the job and Herrera isn’t as experienced at shortstop to backup Segura. Falu went hitless in 10 at-bats over 12 games with the Brewers, looking overmatched at the plate, and didn’t show well in the field.
Falu was eventually claimed off waivers by the San Diego Padres, where he’s hit .154 in eight big-league games. Sent to the minors this past weekend, Herrera’s first three career big-league innings at shortstop came this season.
Bianchi has hit .222 since his return (2-for-9), making a start at shortstop and at second base. He delivered a big pinch-hit, two-run single with the bases loaded Monday, cutting Milwaukee’s deficit to 3-2 at the time.
While there are no guarantees moving forward, especially with the trade deadline three weeks away, Bianchi has earned his job back for the time being.
"The idea was to get some more at-bats and get in a groove, get my swing back a little bit more," Bianchi said. "When I first got down there, I got off the bat pretty hot by making some adjustments. It’s just great to be back."