By JOHN PESETSKI Special to FOXSportsWisconsin.com
PHOENIX — Robinzon Diaz got the start at catcher in the Milwaukee Brewers’ 7-6 victory over the Seattle Mariners on Wednesday. That could be the best indicator of the challenges the 2013 World Baseball Classic is presenting the team this spring.
With starting catcher Jonathan Lucroy playing for Team USA and backup Martin Maldonado, a player good enough to start for many major league teams, suiting up for Puerto Rico in the WBC, the Brewers have no choice but to resort to Diaz and a host of journeymen and career minor leaguers behind the plate for the time being.
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Though Diaz, Dayton Buller and Blake Lalli are all serviceable spring options, with the final three slots in the Brewers’ starting rotation open, getting the pitchers contending for those spots together with Lucroy and Maldonado is something Brewers manager Ron Roenicke wishes he could do.
“It’s important to get pitchers and catchers working together in camp,” he said. “We want to get our catchers locked in and familiar, especially with the young pitchers. But with Luc and Maldy gone, that’s just not something we can’t do right now. We’re going to miss that.”
Pitcher Mike Fiers, one of the contenders for a spot in the rotation, would also like to get some work in with the team’s regular backstops, particularly Lucroy.
“With Maldonado, that doesn’t affect me,” Fiers said. “I don’t need to work with him that much because we’ve come up through the minors together. But, with Lucroy, I haven’t thrown to him as much. We need to work together so he can learn what I can do and we can figure out how to handle certain situations together. Hopefully we’ll have time to do that later this spring.”
The Brewers, with 12 players on WBC rosters, trail only the Minnesota Twins in that area. Nine players on the Brewers’ 40-man roster are playing in the World Baseball Classic, including Lucroy, Maldanado, left fielder Ryan Braun (USA), infielder Taylor Greene (Canada), starting pitchers Yovanni Gallardo (Mexico), Marco Estrada (Mexico) and Hiram Burgos (Puerto Rico) and relievers John Axford (Canada) and Jim Henderson (Canada). At one point, the Brewers were slated to have 15 players on WBC rosters before injuries and other issues brought the number to 12.
Another challenge the WBC presents is monitoring the health of players as they move to their national team training camps. Two of the highest-profile Brewers playing in the WBC, Braun and Gallardo, are battling minor injuries beyond the watchful eyes of coaches and the Brewers’ medical staff.
Gallardo, who suffered a slight groin strain last week, pitched an inning for Mexico against the Colorado Rockies on Tuesday. Brewers pitching coach Rick Kranitz was on hand to observe and relayed an update to Roenicke.
“Rick said Yo was a little erratic,” Roenicke said. “He struck out three guys but walked a couple. He let some go, so he tested it and said he didn’t feel anything. So he’s going to go along as scheduled. We just needed him to go after it. Hopefully it won’t flair up again.”
Braun, the 2011 National League MVP, left Brewers camp earlier this week to join Team USA. A bruised knee had kept him out of the three games leading up to his departure. However, the injury didn’t seem to bother Braun Tuesday as he had three hits in Team USA’s 4-4 tie with the Chicago White Sox. Though not surprised by his slugger’s production, Roenicke confessed, “I didn’t even know if he was going to play.”
Brewers second baseman Rickie Weeks understands why some players like the World Baseball Classic.
“It’s an honor to play for your country,” he said. “I did it in college, and it’s a great, great experience. I know what those guys feel like right now and it’s a great feeling to be there.”
Weeks downplayed the potential adverse effects the World Baseball Classic might have on the Brewers.
“I’m not too worried about having our guys our out right now,” he said. “They’re still working, and they came in to camp ahead. Our guys have been around here long enough. They know what to do. We had two weeks of pregame workouts and, plus, we’ve got time after the Classic. I think we’ll be fine.”
In the meantime, Roenicke seems resigned to but hardly satisfied with the situation.
“I get it,” he said. “It’s an honor for those guys to wear that Team USA jersey or any national team jersey and play for your country. I get it. I do. And I support those guys. And if the fans like it, that’s good for baseball. But it creates some situations and it’s just hard for a manager.”