Spring training preview: Brewers’ next generation on deck
MILWAUKEE — Ryan Braun, a former NL Rookie of the Year and MVP, can add a new entry to his baseball resume this spring.
Meet the Milwaukee Brewers’ elder statesman.
Given that the Brewers are still rebuilding, it is possible that the club’s most recognizable player might still be dealt away. But Braun has had to live with trade rumors for a while, too.
So for now, the 33-year-old outfielder heads to spring training as the longest-tenured member of a team in a multi-year transition.
“There’s been a lot of turnover, a lot of change . It’s scary how fast it goes by,” said Braun, entering his 11th season in the majors.
Braun, a career .304 hitter coming off a bounce-back season, likes the direction of the franchise. Milwaukee finished 73-89 in 2016 in its first full rebuilding season under general manager David Stearns, a five-win improvement from 2015.
“When you’re a small-market team you have to have impact-level players that come up to the major leagues because we’re not going to be able to go and sign the top free agents year in and year out,” Braun said. “And at least from what it looks like on paper and what I hear from the front office there’s a lot of guys that they’re really excited about.”
The first prospect with the potential to become a cornerstone of the team arrived in August when rookie shortstop Orlando Arcia was called up to the majors. As the Brewers await for the next wave of prospects, Stearns has turned to low-cost players with experience or potentially high ceilings at other positions, including the pitching staff.
“We’re still at the point where you have to get players to kind of explore what they can do, give them freedom to do some things,” manager Craig Counsell said.
Some other notes and things to watch this spring with the Brewers:
Eric Thames’ bushy beard made him look like a lumberjack this offseason. He was signed to a relatively economical $16 million, three-year contract to play first base following a successful, three-year stint in the Korea Baseball Organization. Thames, who had previous stints with the Blue Jays and Mariners, adds a left-handed bat to what was a mainly right-handed lineup last season. He’ll replace Chris Carter at first, a low-average, high-strikeout slugger who was let go despite an NL-high 41 homers.
The Brewers also brought in another left-handed hitter, Travis Shaw, to play third. That means speedster Jonathan Villar, who moved to third at midseason last year to make room for Arcia, is likely going to second base, with Hernan Perez returning to a utility role. Neftali Feliz was signed as a free agent to potentially take over as closer. At catcher, Counsell must choose between Jett Bandy, Manny Pina and Andrew Susac to take over behind the plate with Jonathan Lucroy and longtime backup Martin Maldonado gone.
ROOKIES TO WATCH
Arcia enters his first spring training as the starting shortstop. Otherwise, the team’s other top prospects like left-handed starter Josh Hader and outfielder Lewis Brinson will get a taste of big-league life in camp but figure to need more seasoning in the minors.
Shortstop, first base and, for now, left field. Braun is entering the second year of a five-year extension that will pay him $20 million this season.
Counsell doesn’t like to assign labels to jobs in the bullpen, though the Brewers do need to sort out the back end after trading away Tyler Thornburg in the offseason and Jeremy Jeffress in July.
It’s another spring that will be focused on the future at Maryvale, the team’s training complex in suburban Phoenix. Counsell likes the depth and flexibility on the roster, and he said the influx of top prospects should help create more energy and competition in camp.
MILWAUKEE BREWERS CAPSULE
Manager: Craig Counsell (third season).
2016: 73-89, fourth place.
Training Town: Phoenix.
Park: Maryvale Baseball Park.
First Workout: Feb. 15/18.
He’s Here: 1B Eric Thames, 3B Travis Shaw, RHP Neftali Feliz, C Jett Bandy, LHP Tommy Milone.
He’s Outta Here: 1B Chris Carter, RHP Tyler Thornburg, C Martin Maldonado, RHP Blaine Boyer.
Going campin’: The rebuilding project appears to be moving along on schedule entering the second full season under general manager David Stearns. Ryan Braun has the largest veteran contract left to move, though the slugger making $20 million this season is also content in Milwaukee. He’s says he’s looking forward to working with the next generation of Brewers. Slick-fielding Orlando Arcia, the first key piece to arrive in the majors, enters his first full season as the starting shorstop. A new-look infield will also feature Thames at first and Shaw at third, two left-handed hitters who provide balance to the lineup. The bullpen needs a closer with Thornburg shipped to the Red Sox in the offseason for Shaw. Feliz and holdover Corey Knebel are the likely top candidates. In the rotation, Wily Peralta hopes the improvement he showed over the final 10 starts of 2016 carries over to this season, while Junior Guerra and Zach Davies look to build off solid rookie campaigns.