PHOENIX — With Corey Hart departing this offseason, Rickie Weeks is all the Milwaukee Brewers have left from the group of top prospects that helped the franchise from the cellar to the postseason.
Locked into a battle at second base with Scooter Gennett, the longest-tenured member of the Brewers isn’t about to give up his job without a fight.
Weeks has been locked in early in Cactus League play, starting 4-for-9 before going 0-for-2 Thursday to bring his average to .364 with a home run. The 31-year-old has walked five times and struck out just twice in 16 plate apperances.
"He’s killing the baseball," Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said. "I hope he continues it. When he’s swinging the bat like this he is really fun to watch.
"If you guys watch the balls come off the bat, it’s pretty scary. He’s one of those rare guys that has that kind of pop where it doesn’t matter where he hits it."
In the final guaranteed year of his contract that will pay him $11 million, Weeks is coming off yet another season-ending injury. Six of his nine full seasons in the big leagues have been shortened in some way due to a serious injury, and 2013 was no different.
Weeks ruptured his left lateral hamstring tendon while running to first base on Aug. 7 and had season-ending surgery a week later, ending a frustrating season in which he hit just .209 with 10 home runs and 24 RBI.
His batting average and RBI total were career lows, while he only hit fewer home runs in 2009 when a torn wrist tendon ended his season in May. With Weeks out, Gennett came up and hit .324 in 69 games, positioning himself to at least battle for the starting job this spring.
Weeks spent the offseason getting healthy before beginning workouts with his brother, Orioles second baseman Jemile Weeks, and Dodgers infielder Dee Gordon. He came to spring training fully healthy and not thinking about trying the competition at second base.
"It’s fine," Weeks said of his hamstring. "The rehab is pretty much finished. It’s about going in there and keeping it strong and playing my game. That’s all I can ask for right now."
The veteran, who has a vesting option for 2015 at $11.5 million if he reaches 600 plate appearances this season, made a few adjustments to his swing this offseason. Weeks is trying to keep his hands higher and slow everything down to stay smooth with his swing.
Weeks was the National League starter at second base in the 2011 All-Star Game but never really recovered from a severe left ankle sprain suffered running to first base in late July of that season. He was hitting .272 with 19 home runs at the time and hasn’t come close to that production since.
"As you get older, you learn to do different things," Roenicke said of Weeks making adjustments. "I think sometimes you just realize that, ‘I’m not successful in this and I’ve got to make some improvements.’ Sometimes it’s with stance, sometimes it’s your thinking that changes. He’s made some adjustments, and right now, it looks really good."
So far, Weeks has been pleased with the early returns.
"Everybody looks forward to this time to show what they did in the offseason," Weeks said. "I’m here ready to do the same.
"I’ve felt good. Spring training has been coming along good so far. Everyone here is trying to work and get better. I’m just feeling good right now."
Weeks’ hot start to the spring has coincided with Gennett suffering through a bit of a slump. The 23-year-old is hitting .077 (1-for-13) and again has struggled to hit left-handed pitching. There’s still plenty of time left before any decisions have to be made, and Roenicke plans to continue to give both players equal playing time.
"It’s just keeping him focused on what he needs to do," Roenicke said of Gennett. "I told him (Wednesday) not to worry about the numbers. I don’t worry about the numbers, so I don’t think they should.
"I just want to see good at-bats, good plays on defense. We know he can hit. Whether he is a .325 hitter or whatever he hit last year, I don’t know that, but he can hit."
A likely scenario could be to have a platoon at second base, with Gennett seeing the majority of the playing time against right-handed pitchers and Weeks playing against the left-handers. Gennett hit .159 against southpaws in 2013 and hit 40 points higher against right-handers in Triple-A.
Weeks could draw interest on the trade market, especially if he continues to tear up the Cactus League. The Brewers may need to eat a chunk of the $11 million owed to him and may not want to pay him to play for somebody else.
"I don’t like to go on spring training (numbers)," Roenicke said. "I know sometimes you have to. We’ll see what happens at the end."
For now, Weeks isn’t thinking about anything but playing baseball.
"You are trying to get ready for the regular season," Weeks said. "Baseball is a long season. You just try to feel your way through spring training and take it one day at a time.
"I just have to work to get better and better every day to get ready for the regular season."
Ramirez ready: Brewers third baseman Aramis Ramirez will make his spring debut Saturday against Kansas City at Maryvale Baseball Park.
Ramirez had surgery in early January to remove a polyp from his colon and has been working his way back into shape after being shut down for eight weeks. He ran the bases Friday and felt good enough to proclaim himself ready for game action.
"Ran the bases this morning, got after it pretty good to make sure he was OK and he told me he was fine," Roenicke said. "The plan is to have him out there tomorrow.
"He’s been doing everything. He’s also been doing all the fundamental work with us. He’s ready."