Yasmani Grandal was anxious to meet his new pitching staff and began working with them before the official reporting date.
Video by Milwaukee Brewers
PHOENIX – Yasmani Grandal could not wait to get started.
Shortly after the Milwaukee Brewers made one of the surprise free-agent signings of the otherwise quiet off-season, giving Grandal a one-year, $18.5 million deal in mid-January, the veteran catcher began reaching out to pitchers on the team to see when they would start throwing at the spring training complex.
“I started texting everybody to see who was here, who wasn’t,” said Grandal, who lives about 25 minutes away in Peoria, Arizona. “I saw a lot of guys already were here, so I wanted to get started.”
With that in mind, Grandal began scheduling bullpen sessions with pitchers who were ready for that step. Those who wanted to work in more slowly, he met for brainstorming sessions.
Having caught one of the best staffs in the league with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Grandal knew how important it was to build a pitcher-catcher relationship with his new teammates. And he saw no reason to wait for the first official workout, which took place Thursday at newly renovated and renamed American Family Fields of Phoenix.
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“Coming in here and gaining the trust of everybody is pretty much goal No. 1,” Grandal said. “To gain that trust, you’ve got to start building those relationships, not only on the field but off the field. I’m trying to make sure I speak to each one of the guys and get a feel for what they’re thinking, what they’re trying to do. For me to help them, I have to do that.
“The second thing is getting comfortable with each guy, with me behind the plate. This is the third time I’ve done this (including stints with San Diego and Los Angeles). It’s a process. Spring training, for me, is going to be the most important time. We’re going to get to points where I need to realize how every pitch is going to move and be where I want to be behind the plate. We want to eliminate as many surprises as possible.
“It’s always good to get a head start. We’ve been working with a few guys on tendencies and what they like to do in certain situations. I’ll try to give them some new ideas if I can. They’ll tell me what they like. It’s all going to help. I’ve already caught some guys four or five times.”
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Getting a head start makes a lot of sense because, unlike the regular season when Grandal might handle 11 or 12 pitchers, the Brewers have 22 on their 40-man roster entering camp, with only left-hander Brent Suter unavailable to throw while recovering from Tommy John surgery. That doesn’t include the group of non-roster invitees as well as any arms from the minor-league side who might pitch in exhibition games.
“There are a lot of pitchers here in camp,” he said. “It’s not just the 25-man roster. Sometimes it takes the whole 40-man roster. It seems like baseball is trending in that direction. Everybody is using their farm system more. Getting the right matchups are important.
“There are numbers now for just about everything. You have a lot of information now. It’s a matter of understanding it and why we’re making certain moves. It’s something we need to embrace to get to where we want to be. We want to make another run into the off-season.
“The games in April matter just as much as in September, so you have to be ready at the start. That’s what we’re going to try to do. It all starts right here. That’s what makes this so exciting. Everything matters. That’s why it’s important to get started early and get the process going.”
Grandal, 30, has had issues with passed balls at times, including his sloppy National League Championship Series performance against the Brewers last fall. But he otherwise grades out well defensively, with a reputation for helping steal strikes with slick pitch framing, an art that takes time to perfect.
Grandal’s work ethic obviously is another strong point, as the pitchers who showed up early to camp have learned. Watching it all with early admiration has been new Brewers pitching coach Chris Hook, who also was contacted by the native Cuban shortly after he joined the fold.
“We had a conversation when he signed,” Hook said. “He said, ‘Hey, I’m out in Arizona. How soon can I get with these guys?’ To me, that’s really encouraging. It’s the process of those guys being connected, and he wanted to do it as quick as possible.
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“I thought that was awesome. It makes a difference instead of waiting until the first day of camp. He’s a veteran guy who understands the importance of that. He has been very active with all of them. It’s great that he wants to do it. We’re starting to get to know each other. He could have eased into it but he’s not that type of guy.”
Grandal’s eagerness to work extends to the regular season as well. He saw action in 135 games behind the plate last season, including 110 starts. Manny Piña led the Brewers in 2018 with 84 starts at catcher, followed by 54 from Erik Kratz, who was acquired in late May from the New York Yankees.
The Brewers will carry only two catchers, meaning either Piña or Kratz will not make the club, barring injury. Piña, 31, avoided arbitration with a $1.6 million deal over the winter and Kratz, 38, did likewise with a $1.2 million settlement, though only $300,000 is guaranteed.
Manager Craig Counsell met with the catchers before camp to establish the pecking order. Piña was told he is considered the backup to Grandal, with Kratz as the No. 3, meaning he is not assured a job.
Piña began last season as the No. 1 but struggled at the plate for long stretches (.702 OPS overall) and eventually ceded time to Kratz, who handled himself well behind the plate and delivered some key hits. Looking to strengthen one of the few offensive soft spots on their roster, the Brewers jumped in with their surprise offer to Grandal after the market collapsed.
Counsell will give the switch-hitting Grandal as many at-bats as possible to take advantage of his power from the left side. He hit 24 home runs last season but only 11 at Dodger Stadium, a spacious venue not particularly kind to power hitters.
The ball carries much better at Miller Park, as Christian Yelich discovered last season, so the Brewers expect Grandal to have considerable impact.
As for the early start in getting to know his pitchers, he said, “With this new place, why not? It’s great to be here. We can’t wait to get into it.”
By the numbers
.657 OPS by Brewers catchers in 2018, 11th in the National League
.815 OPS posted by Yasmani Grandal in 2018
135 Games played at catcher in ’18 by Grandal, most in the NL
55 Passed balls by Grandal since 2014, most in the majors
73 Homers by Grandal over last three years, most among MLB catchers