While the Milwaukee Brewers seized the opportunity to sign free-agent catcher Yasmani Grandal, they’ve been patient in addressing their opening at second base.
There were plenty of options early in the off-season but the Brewers were content to watch as free-agent options such as Daniel Murphy and Ian Kinsler came off the board early, with D.J. LeMahieu, Brian Dozier and Asdrubal Cabrera signing over the past few weeks.
Josh Harrison, formerly of the Pittsburgh Pirates, is the biggest ‘name” still unsigned, and he would seem to fit the bill for the Brewers considering their preference for players who can play multiple positions.
But with top prospect Keston Hiura probably a year away from becoming the regular at the position, it’s likely Milwaukee would want to offer Harrison or any other external option a one-year deal.
So with two weeks or so to go until pitchers and catchers report to Maryvale, the Brewers have what appears to be a three-headed monster at second base: Cory Spangenberg, Hernán Pérez and Tyler Saladino.
And they appear comfortable moving forward with that trio if no other moves are made.
“I think we do, for sure,” manager Craig Counsell said. “Look, if we have choices of guys that can play there and kind of put together some different match-ups or whatever, there will be somebody that will step forward and really perform.
“I do think we have a good set of choices with kind of differing skill sets that will give us somebody, and enough choices, that somebody will step forward and really perform.”
The mix is an interesting one.
Spangenberg is a former high draft pick of the San Diego Padres (10th overall in 2011) who signed a one-year, $1.2 million free-agent deal with the Brewers on Dec. 21. He never reached the heights expected for him (career .258 average, 27 home runs, 109 runs batted in over 387 games), but he has the experience, versatility and left-handed bat that should earn him plenty of playing time moving forward.
Pérez is a known commodity as he enters his fifth season with Milwaukee. He provides some pop and speed from the right side of the plate, but his plate discipline has always been an issue (.285 career on-base percentage) and his defensive versatility make him more valuable as a positional Swiss Army Knife for Counsell.
Saladino hit .246 with five homers and 16 RBI in 52 games with the Brewers in 2018. He was poised to take over the starting shortstop job after Orlando Arcia was demoted to Class AAA Colorado Springs in May to work his way out of a batting slump, but sprained his ankle, missed a month and never really regained his footing on the roster.
Travis Shaw became the Brewers’ starting second baseman late last season after the trade for Mike Moustakas, but Shaw is expected to move back over to third this year.
Mauricio Dubon and Nate Orf will also be in major-league camp with the Brewers, as will Hiura, but the trio of Spangenberg, Pérez and Saladino are going to be battling it out for the playing time at second base if the Brewers stand pat at the position.
“As I look at it right now, it’s definitely a job that will be shared,” Counsell said. “It will be a couple of players sharing those at bats, which will allow somebody to step forward either early or kind of as the season goes.
“As the season goes, we should have more options in that — hopefully have some more options with some really good players close to being ready in the minor leagues.”
Making changes:Ryan Braun talked quite often in 2018 about his bad luck, hitting the ball consistently hard but too often right at defenders and thus not being rewarded for his efforts.
With that in mind, he made some slight tweaks to his routine and approach at the plate that he hopes will turn his luck for the better in 2019.
“Always trying to get better,” he said. “I’m never satisfied with where I’m at and not accepting that I’m older, but that doesn’t mean I can’t get better. I’ve been working on some things with my swing and just doing things with the off-season that I’ve really never done before.
“The goal is to always get better and to always try to stay present, not look too far ahead and what might come in the future.”
Braun left the impression that observers won’t necessarily see a difference with his setup and stance at the plate.
“Hopefully you see it in the numbers I put up,” he said. “To people that really understand baseball, it probably will (be recognizable. It’s more like bat-path related than anything else. Just a matter of trying to stay through the ball a little bit better.
“Get back to doing some of the things that I think I did better a few years ago than I’ve done over the last couple of years.”
Suter starts throwing: Left-hander Brent Suter, who underwent Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery on July 31, began throwing off flat ground last week in his hometown of Cincinnati under the direction of orthopedic surgeon Timothy Kremchek.
“It was just 45 feet but if felt great to pick up a baseball again,” Suter said. “Friday was my second session and it went well. It was so cool. I purposely didn’t pick up a ball for a long time because if I did I knew I’d be tempted to do a throwing motion and stuff.”
Pitchers who undergo TJ surgery normally miss a year of action, so Suter hopes to be pitching in games again by August. That would leave him one month of minor-league action before those seasons conclude, leaving September in the big leagues as a final option.
Does Suter think he will pitch in the big leagues in 2019?
“I do,” he said. “My goal has always been about a year out from having surgery. I think I can do it. That’s the hope. We’ll see what happens.”
Aguilar’s heart in Venezuela: First baseman Jesús Aguilar, who lives in Maracay, Venezuela, made it to the festival but his heart remained back home with his country, which is experiencing massive political turmoil. Incumbent president Nicolas Maduro has been challenged by upstart Juan Guaido, leaving the country’s leadership up for grabs.
On the baseball side, the Caribbean Series scheduled to be held in Venezuela was postponed and expected to be moved to another country.
“It’s a tough situation,” Aguilar said. “Let’s see what happens. There’s a lot of tension there. I was able to come here but there are so many angry people. It’s crazy how many people are out in the streets. Some people don’t have food. They are tired of all that.”
As a player making a big-league salary, Aguilar said he has to be careful in a country with so much poverty.
“I don’t go out a lot,” he said. “People know you make good money so you have to pay attention to what you’re doing and where you go.”
Hang in there: Of all the minor-league prospects on hand for the event, outfielder Tyrone Taylor deserved praise for staying the course when things didn’t go his way. A second-round draft pick in 2012, Taylor was rated the top prospect in the organization entering the ’15 season by Baseball America magazine.
Injuries and poor showings caused Taylor to fall all the way out of the Brewers’ Top 30 before he regrouped last season at Class AAA Colorado Springs, batting .278 in 119 games with 20 home runs, 80 RBI and .825 OPS. The Brewers rewarded Taylor by putting him on the 40-man roster, guaranteeing his first invitation to big-league spring training.
“I was very young (18) when I was drafted,” said Taylor, who turned 25 last week. “My biggest development has been learning who I am as a person. That’s the main thing.”
As for the tough years when other prospects blew by him in the rankings and pecking order, Taylor said, “Knowing why I played baseball really helped, and that’s having fun. Sometimes, you forget that, especially when you’re struggling.
“At times it was a little discouraging but I’ve always been a pretty positive person. People tell me I smile a lot. I never realized it. That was just me. I’m pretty sure I got that from my mom. It’s a good reminder because there’s a lot of negativity in the game. I’m excited to be coming to big-league camp. I’m going to try to absorb as much as I can.”
Healthy and happy: Third baseman Lucas Erceg, a second-round pick in 2016 out of Menlo (Calif.) College, has one priority for this season: stay healthy. Before last season began, he had an injection in his lower back to address a bulging disc, which prompted the Brewers to take it easy with him in spring camp.
Erceg was off to a solid start at Class A Biloxi when he was beaned by a pitch on April 23 near his right temple, crumpling to the ground. His helmet and protective C-flap prevented serious injury, and Erceg only missed a couple of games but he struggled at the plate for a long period afterward.
“I never really thought about it, moving forward,” he said. “It could have been a lot worse than it was. That type of stuff happens. I just went out and played as hard as I could.”
Erceg put together a strong finish but batted only .248 in 123 games with 13 home runs, 51 RBI and .688 OPS, a disappointing showing for a player with tremendous pop in his bat.
“It was kind of a tough year but I’m glad I’m going through it now and learning from it,” said Erceg, who also banged up his knee colliding with a railing chasing a foul ball late in the season.
Erceg opened some eyes in Brewers’ camp in 2017 when he belted two homers in one game against Cincinnati, including a smash that landed on the roof of the clubhouse beyond right field in Goodyear. He was coming over from the minor-league side that spring but this year has been invited full-time to big-league camp.
“My back’s feeling pretty good now; I’m doing a lot of exercises and stuff or it,” he said. “I’m looking forward to being healthy and having a big year. I’m very excited and blessed to get this opportunity to be in Brewers camp.”