Counsell to ‘make things tough’ for opponents with Brewers’ position versatility

In the David Stearns-Craig Counsell era of the Milwaukee Brewers, one of the buzzy sayings has been positional versatility. Expect to hear that a lot more in 2020.

With Major League Baseball going from 25- to 26-man rosters this season – with a cap at 13 pitchers – teams are figuring out how to use that extra roster spot. For the Brewers it means having someone else who can play all over the field.

The signing of Brock Holt on Wednesday might have come as something as a surprise, especially since Milwaukee already had a few utility-type players on its roster already. But for the Brewers, the more the merrier for Counsell.

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The way Counsell uses his bench will be similar to how he uses his pitching staff. Out-getters? How about at-bat getters?

“I do see a lot of players getting to a pretty good number of at-bats with only one or two players getting to a really high number,” Counsell said. “That’s how it’s shaping up to be. It means we’re sharing a lot of it, almost similar how the pitching has looked. If there’s a comparison there, it’s good with this group.”

Having Holt, among others, will allow Counsell to treat his bench like a chemistry experiment. A dash of Holt, a sprinkle of Eric Sogard, a pinch of Jedd Gyorko.

One thing is certain: Counsell will have plenty of options, both in deciding who to send to the plate and how to fill in defensive positioning.

“That changes games,” the Brewers manager said of the 26th man. “The way our group hopefully is set up, I think we have a lot of guys that can make it tough on pitching staffs. I think that’s what we’re going to be good at doing, making it tough with game matchups and being a team that really makes it tough to get through innings.

“The position players are constructed around versatility for sure. It’s about us answering defensively or offensively … from who we’re pitching to or who they’re pitching. Kind of a way to highlight our players’ strengths.”

No one on Milwaukee has more positional versatility than Holt. The former Red Sox has played all around the infield (sans pitcher and catcher) and all three outfield spots. In his eight seasons, Holt has appeared in 243 contests at second base, 127 at third, 106 in left field, 80 in right field, 59 at shortstop, 36 at first and 12 in center.

“True multi-position player. It’s the kind of guy where you know you’re going to need it and he’s there for us,” Counsell said. “The more of those kind of guys the better.”

Counsell noted that Holt also gives the Brewers some insurance for Keston Hiura as well as an option to give their starting second baseman a breather, when needed.

“It protects Keston, it protects us. It doesn’t take away from Keston’s playing time,” Counsell said. “This allows us to prepare us for the uncertainty that the season always gives us.”

Holt, though, isn’t the only one with the positional versatility these Brewers love.

Sogard, like Holt a left-handed hitter, returns after a year in Toronto and Tampa Bay, where he combined to hit .290/.353/.457 over 442 plate appearances.

Sogard has mainly been a second baseman in his major-league career – including his time with Milwaukee in 2017-18 – but Counsell said the infielder would get most of his work at third base in spring training. Noting Sogard is a “fundamentally sound infielder,” Counsell isn’t worried about the move to third.

Besides offering being able to play second, third, short and even in the outfield, Sogard can give Milwaukee an offensive boost as well.

In 2017, Sogard hit .273/.393/.378 for the Brewers. In the first half of the season he slashed .331/.438/.485. Sogard proved that wasn’t a fluke with his play last season with the Jays and Rays.

“Eric’s value, when he’s good, it’s batting average and on-base percentage, that’s what he provides. He gets his offensive value a little differently, he’s a different-type player,” Counsell said. “He had a really good season last year. He had a rough season for us in 2018 and then in 2017 was kind of similar to what he did last year where he shows at times elite on-base skills. There were times in that ’17 season where he really carried our offense for a month of that season. I think we have a bunch of leadoff options and he’s definitely one of them.”

Another player who figures to get his share of at-bats this season is veteran Gyorko, who has experience playing all four infield positions in the majors.

Gyorko had a poor 2019 playing for the Cardinals and Dodgers but he had 30 home runs in 2016 for St. Louis, 20 in 2017 and hit .262/.346/.416 in ’18. He’s also considered an above-average fielding third baseman both by regular and advanced metrics.

“These are both guys (Gyorko and Sogard) that have had significant amount of big-league success, both good defenders,” Counsell said.

Also on the 40-man roster is Ronny Rodriguez, who was claimed off waivers in December. Rodriguez, who hit 14 homers in 294 plate appearances for the Tigers last season, is another who has played all four infield positions in the majors. Rodriguez has played a handful of games in the outfield in his two years as well as 41 games in three minor-league seasons.

Luis Urias, acquired from San Diego in the offseason but expected to not be ready by opening day due to a wrist injury, played second, short and third in his 71 games for the Padres in 2019. In addition, there’s Mark Mathias, acquired in a minor trade from Cleveland in November, can play second, third and short.

Non-roster invitee Jace Peterson, who can play second, third and the corner outfield spots, could also find himself in Milwaukee at some point in 2020.

Positional versatility isn’t restricted just to those who can play all over the infield.

Ryon Healy, signed in the offseason after an injury-shortened 2019, can play first or third, although Counsell admitted third base is a work in progress. Healy had 25 home runs in 2017 with Oakland and 24 in Seattle in 2018 – neither team exactly playing in a hitter’s ballpark.

Even someone like Avisail Garcia, who will be among those getting the most at-bats on the team, provides a luxury. Garcia is expected to see the majority of his time in right field, where he’s played for most of his career thanks to a strong arm, but he also has experience in left and center.

“That flexibility to me that’s been a part of our team, we’ve had that (over the years),” said Counsell of players with – yup – positional versatility. “But this team might have it more than any other team.”