Brewers’ first-round pick Small gets initial taste of spring training

While trying to figure out who might head north to Milwaukee out of spring training, just take Ethan Small off the list.

The left-hander, Milwaukee’s first-round pick in 2019 draft, might get into a game here or there. But his role in Arizona isn’t about what he does on the field, but rather off of it.

Last year at this time, Small, who turned 23 on Valentine’s Day, was heading up Mississippi State’s rotation. Now he’s around seasoned major leaguers as he hopes to one day be in their shoes. Small is making sure to take advantage of this opportunity.

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“Being able to be around these guys and being around the experience,” Small responded when being asked about what he’s taking away from his first foray at spring training. “You hear them talk about what makes them click or something on the mental side which helps them when things are going bad or not as they want them to. Or even (something like) my changeup’s not moving. They have those kind of tips.”

Manager Craig Counsell concurs with Small’s self-assessment of his role at camp.

“The goal for when guys like Ethan come to camp — it’s about ears open, eyes open, learn from everyone else, get ready for your season,” Counsell said. “(Being around veterans) it speeds up learning.”

It’s not that Small can’t pitch, of course. He was a first-round pick for a reason, having been named the SEC Pitcher of the Year in 2019 as well as the College Baseball Foundation’s National Pitcher of the Year, finishing the year with a 10-2 record, 1.93 ERA, 0.869 WHIP and 14.8 K/9.

Small began his pro career in late July and quickly showed he belonged.

Pitching twice in the Arizona Rookie League, he tossed three perfect innings – throwing just 19 pitches – while striking out five. He then made five starts for Low-A Wisconsin in August, allowing five runs (two earned) on 11 hits and four walks with 31 strikeouts in 18 innings.

“He obviously had a great debut in professional baseball,” Counsell said. “He’s a performer.”

While Small was successful in his brief minor-league action he’s not resting on those stats – or what made him a first-round pick. After a brief break after the season to go to the beach, Small was back in the gym lifting weights and getting his throwing program going.

Oh, and he also started working on a slider – and got to spring training early to continue his work on it – which is probably not good news for hitters.

“I’m really excited developing that,” Small said.

Testing a new pitch out in spring training against major-league hitters might not seem like the best idea, but Counsell noted that Small’s “performance here is not anything we’re putting any stock in. It’s about getting ready for his season.”

“For me it’s just worrying about what I can control,” said Small, who tossed a scoreless inning in a split-squad game Monday. “Kind of treating it like I have nothing to lose and giving it my best.”

No, Small isn’t going to break camp with the Brewers. But his time in Milwaukee is coming sooner rather than later.

“I think Ethan can be a fast mover in player development,” Counsell said.