At this time last year, nobody expected Khris Davis to break camp with the Milwaukee Brewers.
Not only did the powerful outfielder make the roster with a big spring training, but also he left enough of an impression where the team felt it had to clear a spot for him in the lineup.
The changes made to make way for Davis weren’t minor either, as productive leadoff hitter Norichika Aoki was traded to Kansas City and Ryan Braun was asked to move to right field. While Davis is going to be pushed by Logan Schafer and Caleb Gindl, the left field spot is his to lose.
"It’s time for them," Brewers general manager Doug Melvin said. "They’ve performed at the minor leagues, and last year, they were productive through the unfortunate Braun suspension and (Corey) Hart injury. It gave opportunities to them. We tell young players that when they have the opportunity to take advantage of it and they certainly did."
Davis was the lone positive to come out of the Braun suspension. The 26-year-old struggled, like many young players, to adjust to a bench role, but thrived when put into the lineup regularly. Davis hit .321 with eight home runs and 19 RBI in his first 81 at-bats and 29 games after Braun was suspended on July 23.
As good as August was to Davis, September was challenging. Nagging wrist and hamstring injuries limited him to just 10 starts in the season’s final month, hitting .237 with three home runs and eight RBI in his final 38 at-bats.
Davis eventually was shut down with a couple of games to go and knew he needed to get right before getting back to work in the offseason.
"This offseason I was privileged to work with this massage doctor," Davis said. "He got my body feeling right. I got connected to him through the Brewers. It was a good offseason because I learned more about myself as far as my body.
"I feel fresh, actually. It was a slow offseason, and I got the rest I needed. I feel prepared."
The rigors of a full season caught up to Davis in 2013, but he doesn’t believe it will be an issue this season, even if he plays every day.
"I’m going to try to stay after the games a little longer," Davis said. "You know, like 20 minutes worth to get a contrast in, just maintenance."
If Davis can stay healthy, the Brewers expect big things offensively. Project his numbers in 56 games last season over a 162-game season and it’s a 32 home run, 78 RBI pace. Hoping Davis hits 20 or more home runs and drives in over 70 runs is probably a more realistic expectation, but the power potential is why he’ll be in the lineup.
An aggressive hitter, Davis walked just 11 times in 2013. He had success early in at-bats, as he hit .313 with three home runs when swinging at the first pitch. Davis didn’t hit any home runs after falling behind 0-2.
"It’s a cat and mouse game," Davis said. "I’m just going to go up there and look for the first good one."
Playing with low Class-A Wisconsin in 2010, Davis hit .280 with 22 home runs and 72 RBI. He hit .350 with 15 home runs and 52 RBI with 82 combined games in rookie ball, Double-A and Triple-A in 2012.
The question with Davis has never been if he will hit, but would he be able to overcome a lack of arm strength. Braun is moving to right field because of Davis’ throwing arm.
But Davis was far from a defensive burden in his 33 starts in left field last season, showing solid range and the ability to catch anything he gets to.
"I really saw a good defender last year," Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said. "I didn’t think he was bad (previously), but I saw a good defender. His throwing is coming along. His throwing is getting better. His range is good, he runs good routes.
"I feel comfortable when he’s out there, he’s going to catch balls."
Davis has spent a lot of time working on his defense with outfield coach John Shelby and seems committed to improving in that aspect of his game.
"Little things, really," Davis said of what he’s worked on with Shelby. "He likes to keep it simple out there. We work on this little tennis ball drill. It can’t be more basic than that. Just basic fundamentals."
The Brewers do have options if Davis doesn’t work out. Schafer is an outstanding defender and should hit better in his second full season in the big leagues. He hit just .211 in 298 at-bats while adapting to a bench role for the first time, but Schafer is a career .294 hitter in the minor leagues.
He’s hitting .364 in five spring training games and is preparing with a starter’s mentality.
"We’re trying to be a better ballclub," Schafer said. "Whoever is going to be out there that day, the other guy is going to be rooting for him. That’s how we operate. We are all good friends and we try to better ourselves and learn from each other."