PHOENIX — Last spring, the Milwaukee Brewers took a flier on left-hander Wade Miley and were ultimately rewarded for it.
They can only hope that things turn out the same this season with their addition of veteran right-hander Josh Tomlin.
The 34-year-old agreed to a minor-league deal just prior to the start of camp that will reportedly pay him a $1.25 million base salary and includes $2.25 million worth of incentives if he makes the major-league roster.
Tomlin, with 144 career starts to his credit, will compete for a spot in the Brewers’ rotation with the bullpen as a fallback option.
“He’s got a lot of starting experience in the big leagues. He’s had success in the big leagues,” manager Craig Counsell said. “He had a rough 2018 where he just couldn’t get on track.
“He did a lot of work in this offseason evaluating that, and I think that’s important. He has very clear ideas of what he wants to try to do to kind of amend that. Now, he just goes out and he does it.”
Miley used some honest self-assessment in remaking himself in the 2017 offseason and it paid off for him and the Brewers after the two sides agreed on a free-agent deal at the outset of spring training.
He twice missed large chunks time with groin and oblique strains, but otherwise was one of the team’s steadiest performers in 16 starts.
Tomlin is coming off a 2018 season that saw him go 2-5 with a 6.14 earned run average with the Cleveland Indians. He was removed from the rotation after six starts, suffered a hamstring injury and finished the season in the bullpen.
He also allowed 25 home runs in just 70⅓ innings, so time will tell if Tomlin can rebound as well as Miley did.
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“Wade delivered pretty darn good results, so we’ll see,” said Counsell. “But it is similar. It’s similar in how they kind of assessed themselves (the previous) year and then came into this year.
“The player has made this decision to change, and how he’s going to do it. Now our job is to provide some more cues along that path.”
It’s a completely fresh start for Tomlin, who spent 13-year professional career with the Indians. A native of Tyler, Texas, he went 61-53 with a 4.77 ERA in 183 total appearances.
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His best season came in 2016, when he went 13-9 with 4.40 ERA in 174 innings. Tomlin also led the major leagues by averaging just one walk per nine innings and started four games in the postseason, including two in the World Series.
“It’s a little bit different coming here and not knowing anybody as the new guy,” Tomlin said. “I told my wife I had butterflies coming here and that anxiousness of getting going.
“On paper, this is a really good team and that’s what I really wanted to be a part of ultimately. You saw what they did last year and we have a chance to do it again this year.
“Seeing that and having an opportunity to be a part of that was a no-brainer for me.”
Counsell has made much in recent years of labeling his pitchers as “out-getters” rather than as starters or relievers, and based on Tomlin’s comments he’s a perfect fit in that regard.
“Even with Cleveland I knew I was probably going to be a starter, but I always had the mind set of, ‘I’m a pitcher. I’m not a starter, I’m not a reliever. Whenever you tell me to go pitch is when I’m going to go pitch.’ So that’s what my mind set is,” he said. “If they want me to be a starter, then I’ll get built up to be a starter. If they need me in the ‘pen, I’ll do whatever I need to do to help this team win.
“That’s kind of how I’ve gone about my business my entire career, and I plan on taking the same approach here.”
Albers looks for turnaround
For the first two months of the 2018 season, Matt Albers was one of the most effective relievers in the major leagues. Over 21 games, covering 25 innings, he allowed only three runs, good for a 0.72 ERA, while logging 21 strikeouts.
Albers then suffered a shoulder strain and was never the same. With a hamstring injury later thrown into the mix, he pitched only 9⅓ innings over the remainder of the season, getting pounded for 28 hits and 25 runs (24.12 ERA). Not surprising, the veteran righty was excluded from postseason play.
Albers, 36, who signed a two-year, $5 million deal before last season, certainly does not want that to be his final memory with the Brewers. Accordingly, he is highly motivated this spring to show he still has some gas left in the tank.
“I’m a competitor. Obviously, I was not excited about the results,” Albers said. “I wanted to be there to help the team. The main thing about acting the same is to show the young guys when I came in the clubhouse they couldn’t tell if it was the first two months of the season or the last two months, where I wasn’t pitching effectively.
“You want to be the same. I wanted to be a good teammate and root those guys on. Obviously, I wasn’t happy about how I was performing. I felt good enough to get people out.”
Though the shoulder and hamstring issues were major factors in his collapse, Albers thought he still had enough to get hitters out. His main problem was not finishing off hitters after getting ahead in the count.
“I was getting to two strikes and leaving balls over the plate,” he said. “I was using my fastball a little too much and leaving it over the plate and getting hurt. The difference of spin rates and some of that stuff really wasn’t different from what I’ve done before.
“In this game, if you’re a reliever, especially not getting a lot of chances there at the end, you’re this close to being lights-out. You’ve just got to make a few adjustments, here and there. I’m not going to reinvent the wheel. The main thing is to come in feeling healthy and confident, and work on those things. I think I’ll be fine. I want to focus on how to get guys out.”
The good news is the Brewers prospered even in Albers’ absence, thanks to a deep bullpen that got even deeper with later acquisitions. The possible bad news for him is that there are more big arms in camp than ever vying for bullpen jobs, so he knows he’ll have to be on top of his game.
“I’ve had a lot of spring trainings where I wasn’t sure I was going to make the team,” he said. “I’m feeling good right now. But, obviously, I have to go out there and prove it. Nothing is going to be handed to you. I’m not going to go out there and struggle and think everything is cool. You’ve got to go out there and do it. That’s what I’m focused on.”
Guerra willing to do anything
One of the reasons Junior Guerra is still wearing a big-league uniform at age 34 is his willingness to adapt. When you don’t play your rookie season until age 30, it shows a willingness to do whatever it takes to survive.
Accordingly, Guerra is willing to vie for a bullpen job this spring after spending much of the 2018 season in the Brewers’ starting rotation. There are more candidates than available spots in the rotation this spring, so Counsell said Guerra will be looked at in a relief role this spring.
“If he needs me in the bullpen, I’ll be ready for that,” Guerra said. “I’ll be ready for any situation.”
Guerra was in the last pitching cut in camp in 2018 but was back in early April and pitched in the rotation until late August. After suffering a forearm strain in mid-July, he was not the same, going 0-2, 7.03 in five starts in August.
Guerra was moved to bullpen duty afterward and also pitched twice in that role in the NLCS, allowing only two hits and one run over 4⅔ innings. Knowing he might be asked to pitch out of the pen again this year, Guerra tuned up with five relief outings in winter ball in Venezuela.
“All my career, I’ve never known what (my role is),” Guerra said. “The best thing is I feel really healthy this year.”
Staying healthy has been problematic at times for Guerra, whose main “out” pitch is a splitter that puts stress on the elbow and forearm. But, without that pitch never would have made it to the majors, so he isn’t about to abandon it now.
“It’s the pitch that got me here,” he said. “I feel ready, and I think I can help the team in any role. In the bullpen, you have to be ready in any game, in any inning. You have to be ready when the phone rings.”