Spring training is a process for Eric Thames

Spring training is a process for Eric Thames

PHOENIX – In general, spring training is viewed as a relaxed time for established players, who use the six weeks to get ready for the regular season at a pace far from frenetic.

Just don’t tell that to Eric Thames.

“There’s not much time to do much (other than drills),” the Milwaukee Brewers first baseman said. “The days are long; you’ve got to grind it out.”

Let it be said that Thames is bit more intense than most players when it comes to workouts and game preparation. He didn’t get his Herculean physique by lounging around in the clubhouse eating jelly donuts.

Figuring out the proper ratio of work vs. rest has been a test for Thames since returning from three years playing in South Korea, where players were pretty much on their own in preparing to play.

At certain points in his first season with the Brewers in 2017, Thames discovered he had not allowed enough recovery time between games, and he was forced to make adjustments. Manager Craig Counsell provided some guidance in that area, trying to prevent Thames from becoming his own worst enemy.

“Eric, as much as anything, I’m trying to keep him 100% healthy heading into the season,” said Counsell, who eased Thames into action this spring while giving Ryan Braun action at first base to see if he might be able to play there at times to ease an outfield logjam.

“My impression of Eric is it takes him a little bit of time to get baseball ready. I’m perfectly fine with that. That’s just how that player is.”

Thames has yet to find a groove in exhibition action. Entering the Brewers’ game Friday against Cincinnati in Goodyear, he was batting .156 (5 for 32) with one home run, three runs batted in and .510 OPS.

Thames didn’t tear it up in camp last year, either, batting .263 with one homer and three RBI while adjusting to major-league pitching for the first time since 2013. But that didn’t stop him from busting out with a record-setting April, slugging 11 home runs with 19 RBI and .345 batting average.

The rest of 2017 was a roller-coaster ride for Thames but the point is that sluggish spring camps don’t necessarily portend a slow start to the season, or vice versa.

“He didn’t have a great camp last spring as far as hitting the cover off the ball,” Counsell said. “We all try to figure that stuff out but that’s not how it works.

“Eric’s at-bats are starting to improve. I think he’s in a really good spot, actually. There haven’t been great results but I’m happy with how he’s progressing toward the end of camp. I wasn’t expecting much the first couple of weeks because it just takes him a little longer to get his timing and baseball legs under him.”

Thames made it clear he was not worried in the slightest about on-field results at this juncture. His daily challenge remains staying as flexible as possible while built like a human bulldozer.

“It’s all about being physically ready,” Thames said. “I’m just trying to get my work in. It’s really too hectic; it really is. I’m looking forward to the regular season.”

Brewers' deeper roster might leave Jesús Aguilar on the outside looking in

Brewers' deeper roster might leave Jesús Aguilar on the outside looking in

PHOENIX – As far as waiver claims go, Jesús Aguilar was about as good as it gets for the Milwaukee Brewers in 2017.

Plucked from the Cleveland Indians less than two weeks before the start of spring training, the burly Venezuelan earned the unofficial title of “Mr. Cactus League” after hitting .452 with seven home runs and 19 runs batted in and posting an otherworldly OPS of 1.376. 

It was a performance that forced the Brewers to keep Aguilar and place him on his first opening-day roster despite the fact he only played first base, a rarity on a team that values positional versatility as much as any team in the major leagues.

Aguilar went on to prove the Brewers’ decision was indeed the correct one.

Playing in a career-high 133 games, Aguilar hit .265 with 16 homers and 52 RBI while serving as both the right-handed-hitting complement to Eric Thames at first base and the Brewers’ top bat off the bench.

BREWERS PODCASTThe spin from spring training, including Chase Anderson’s opening day start and the Braun-at-1B experiment

Among his big moments were a two-homer, seven-RBI game in a win over the New York Yankees, and pinch-hit, game-winning homers to beat the St. Louis Cardinals and Colorado Rockies.

He was also surprisingly agile in the field, too, able to deftly turn 3-6-3 double plays and even played an inning at third base at one point despite weighing right around 300 pounds.

Less quantifiable but just as important were the contributions Aguilar made in the clubhouse, where he served as a leader and a unifying force despite his relative inexperience on a surprising team that displayed uncommon chemistry from the start.

“He added some great things right off the bat and he played well, and I think for every player that kind of gives you a voice,” manager Craig Counsell said. “It was kind of the perfect storm in that way.”

In almost any other year, Aguilar would be a shoo-in to return and fill similar roles for the Brewers.

But this isn’t any other year.

Thanks to the unexpected 86-76 record the Brewers posted in 2017, the decision was made to quickly shift from rebuilding to competitive mode. That led to the late January acquisitions of Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain and left the team with a surplus of outfielders.

One of those, Ryan Braun, has spent the spring working out at first base with an eye on playing him there part-time moving forward. And with Counsell saying earlier in camp it’s likely the Brewers will carry 13 pitchers for much of the season, that means the bench will consist of only four players.

It’s math that doesn’t appear to work in the favor of a one-position guy like Aguilar.

“We’ve added players and we’ve added talent and Ryan’s playing first base,” Counsell acknowledged. “That puts Jesús in a tough spot right now. It’s part of some of the tough decisions that we have to make.

“There’s still things that are under consideration that I think can help Jesús. Right now, it’s not a perfect fit. But depth is something that we’ll always view as incredibly important here. It’s very helpful and at times it requires a decision, but we’re not there yet.

“And so we’re going to go as long as we can, and then we’ll have to make a decision.”

Aguilar reported to camp early and in noticeably better shape than a year ago, weighing in at 280. But his numbers aren’t nearly as eye-popping as they were last spring; he sat at .306 with two doubles, two homers and four RBI through 15 games entering Friday.

With just over two weeks remaining before Milwaukee’s season opener in San Diego, Aguilar admitted he’s feeling the heat – an uncharacteristic admission from the normally even-keeled slugger.

“It’s hard because you think, ‘What’s going to happen with me?’ Especially when you come from a good year,” he said. “But it’s baseball. It is what it is. They try to win more games and battle for the title and if I’m part of the team, it’s going to be great.

“If not, I keep moving forward.”

If Braun produces anywhere close to what he’s done offensively in past years and manages to stay healthy – a huge if based on recent history – the Brewers would be fine moving forward without Aguilar.

Much tougher to replace would be the camaraderie that Aguilar engenders.

From the popular forearm-bashing homer gantlet he and Hernán Pérez cooked up early last season to the pre- and post-game dance parties to the visual of him zooming around Miller Park on a hoverboard, Aguilar specializes in bringing smiles to everyone’s faces.

“I just try to be friendly,” he said. “This game is so hard so I just try to take things the right way but also stay focused. We know what we have to do here. So I try to have a fun personality.”

Aguilar spends much of his time around fellow Venezuelans and friends Pérez and Orlando Arcia. But he also possesses a unique ability to draw multiple cultures together, and does so often.

“He really is special in the clubhouse,” Braun said. “He does a unique job of getting along with everybody, bringing positive energy every day, helping make everybody’s day a little bit better and always bridging the bond between the Latin guys and the American guys – which, anybody who’s spent time in a clubhouse understands the value there is there.”

Aguilar believes the unity in Milwaukee’s clubhouse was a big reason the team was able to greatly surpass expectations and finish second in the National League Central despite the rebuild.

“We didn’t have a lot of big names last year. I think that’s why we did those things last year, because we were like a family, the Latin guys and the American guys,” said Aguilar. “Usually on other teams they’re like two big groups, separated. Here we’re together and very good friends. We’re very friendly with the American guys. We’re like a family.

“The things we did last year, nobody believed in us and we won 86 games.”


Brewers manager Craig Counsell on why it’s a good idea to hold off on making final roster decisions.

There are ways the Brewers could keep Aguilar on the opening-day roster, like juggling their pitching staff, but it would only be a short-term solution that would get them through the first week.

Aguilar is out of minor-league options and considering what he brings to the table at a bargain-basement price – he made $536,000 last year and isn’t arbitration-eligible until 2020 – there’s no question he’d be snapped up quickly off waivers by another team if Milwaukee is ultimately forced to cut him loose.

In the meantime Aguilar waits, and hopes he’ll get another chance to contribute to a Brewers team he believes is on the cusp of big things.

“Stay positive. That’s the only thing I can control,” he said. “Just keep looking forward and a lot of good things will happen. I believe that.”


Brewers manager Craig Counsell talks about team chemistry being immeasurable.



Brewers considering four-man rotation to start year so they can keep Jesus Aguilar

Brewers considering four-man rotation to start year so they can keep Jesus Aguilar

We’ve spilled a lot of digital ink over the past couple months trying to figure out how the Milwaukee Brewers are going to manage their outfield logjam, and how the plan to get Ryan Braun time at first base could lead to another roster crunch at that position as well.

Just about every scenario involved Jesus Aguilar’s spot on the roster being in jeopardy. But it looks like there’s been one that’s been overlooked — and it’s one the team is considering, according to Adam McCalvy.

In his latest Opening Day roster prediction piece, McCalvy says the fact the Brewers have an early off-day on Easter Sunday has them considering opening the season with four starting pitchers and eight relievers on the roster, opening the door for Aguilar to make the team — at least for the first week of the season.

“There’s value in extending that decision; not having to make it until you absolutely have to,” manager Craig Counsell said.

Brent Suter and Wade Miley have arguably made the strongest arguments for the 4th and 5th spots in the rotation this spring, but as McCalvy points out, Suter has two options left and Miley has to be told by next Saturday if he’s making the team or be paid an extra $100,000 as a retention bonus. For that reason, McCalvy is predicting that Miley breaks camp as the #4 starter, and Suter will be summoned once a 5th starter is needed the second time through the rotation.

If the Brewers go that route, the 5th pitcher in the rotation would make his first start of the season on April 6th against the Chicago Cubs.

The team could conceivably start Suter in the minor leagues to start the year, making sure his schedule sets up to allow him to pitch that day on regular rest.

Some creative roster moves could end up further delaying that tough decision on what to do with Aguilar, and it’s always possible the Brewers go back on their plan to carry eight relievers, at least to start the year when everyone is fresh. Counsell told Tom Haudricourt it could almost be a day-by-day decision, depending on what’s needed and what information is available.

Those plans could also change depending on who becomes available as other teams make roster cuts. For example, the Chicago Cubs released potentially useful reliever Justin Grimm Thursday. While Grimm was hit hard last year, he’s carried very good strikeout rates over the past few years, even as he’s struggled with walks.

As for Aguilar, he’s putting together another strong spring campaign, hitting .306/.342/.528 in 36 at-bats over 15 games. He has mashed two home runs, including a late-inning dinger a couple days ago that helped the Brewers win a game against the Rangers.

Even with the glut of 1B/DH types available virtually for free, the amount of team control Aguilar offers even without any options remaining makes it unlikely the Brewers would be able to sneak him through waivers and stash him in Colorado Springs — where Ji-Man Choi has also made a strong case for a job this spring.

Statistics courtesy of MLB.com

Brewers still have rotation and bullpen decisions to make as end of spring training nears

Brewers still have rotation and bullpen decisions to make as end of spring training nears


Brewers manager Craig Counsell explains the reason for optioning Aaron Wilkerson to AAA.

SURPRISE, Ariz. – And then there were four.

When the Milwaukee Brewers optioned right-hander Aaron Wilkerson to minor-league camp Wednesday, it left four candidates vying for two open spots in the starting rotation: left-handers Brent Suter and Wade Miley, and right-handers Junior Guerra and Brandon Woodruff.

Wilkerson, 28, who spent most of 2017 at Class AA Biloxi before being summoned by the Brewers in September, went 1-1 with an 8.22 earned run average over five appearances covering 7 2/3 innings in Cactus League play before being cut.

“We went into camp with him on the list, and he started behind some of those other guys in the pecking order,” manager Craig Counsell said. “With their health and their performance, he just stayed there. Not due to anything he did but due to what everybody else has done. And we ran out of innings (to give Wilkerson).”

Counsell said the plan for Wilkerson is for him to begin the season in the starting rotation for Class AAA Colorado Springs, where he pitched seven no-hit innings (11 strikeouts) in a playoff game last season.

With right-handers Chase Anderson, Zach Davies and Jhoulys Chacín guaranteed spots in the rotation, the battle continues for the two openings. Non-roster invitee Miley (1.38 ERA in four games with 15 strikeouts in 13 innings) and Suter, who started Thursday against Texas, have fared the best thus far but Guerra – the Brewers’ 2017 opening day starter — and Woodruff have shown enough to stay in the equation.

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While that battle goes on, Counsell and general manager David Stearns must decide whether they will break camp with four or five starters. With a day off April 1 after the opening three-game series in San Diego, they could go until the eighth game (March 6 vs. the Cubs) before using a fifth starter.

“It’s something that we’re considering, a little different way to go through the rotation the first time,” Counsell said. “Even if we do go that route, we’re going to need a starter quickly into the season, so it’s going to be limited time we can do that.”

With only two off days before April 23, Counsell prefers to carry eight relievers. If the Brewers also break camp with five starters, there doesn’t appear to be room for backup first baseman Jesús Aguilar, a big contributor off the bench last season (15 doubles, 16 homers, 52 RBI in 279 at-bats).


Brewers manager Craig Counsell explains why he might hold off on filling the last two spots in the Brewers’ rotation.

“That’s part of it,” Counsell said. “There is a way to have less relievers or less starters and the same number of relievers. Most of the scenarios of going with four (starters) involve carrying an additional position player.

“There’s value in extending that decision, not having to make it until you absolutely have to. The information changes on a daily basis, almost.

Another factor is the possibility of an outside personnel move at the end of camp, as the Brewers have done in the first two springs under Stearns. They acquired reliever Carlos Torres in 2016 and reliever Jared Hughes last year.

“You have to allow for that,” Counsell said. “Will something happen we want to pursue at the end of camp? That’s the time players become available.”


Brewers manager Craig Counsell on why it’s a good idea to hold off on making final roster decisions.



Brewers pitching prospect Nathan Kirby is finally healthy and ready to establish himself

Brewers pitching prospect Nathan Kirby is finally healthy and ready to establish himself

PHOENIX – Nathan Kirby has been something of a forgotten man for the past 2½ years in the Milwaukee Brewers organization.

Now finally healthy after undergoing two major surgeries on his left elbow, the 24-year-old is ready to finally establish himself as the prospect the team believed he could be when it drafted him 40th overall out of the University of Virginia in 2015.

“It’s definitely a new feeling,” Kirby said of his fresh start this spring.

“The past 2½-3 years have been up and down, but I feel like a lot of our paths in our lives and especially in the minor leagues are not straight. Some guys struggle in low A, some guys get hurt and I feel like at the end of the day, I’m where I need to be.

“I feel really confident that everything’s been cleaned up, and now I can focus on my mechanics and put my best foot forward.”

Kirby was one of the most decorated pitchers in the nation at Virginia as a junior, helping the Cavaliers to their first College World Series title. But he missed a large chunk of the season with a muscle strain in his left side, pitching in only 12 games, and his draft stock took a hit as a result.

The Brewers eventually took him as a Competitive Balance Round A pick and signed him five weeks later for $1.25 million – about $30,000 under slot – because of lingering medical concerns.

Kirby was assigned to Class A Wisconsin, but his stint there didn’t last long. After making only five appearances, he was shut down and later diagnosed with a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow.

The Tommy John surgery that followed cost Kirby all of 2016. He eventually worked his way back to the mound with the expectation he’d be ready to go for 2017, but by May he had been shut down again, this time due to ulnar neuritis in his left elbow.

That meant another operation and another season lost for Kirby without throwing a pitch in an official game.

But Kirby persevered again, and by September he was back on the mound and pitching in games in instructional league.

“It was awesome,” Kirby said. “My body, I had kind of lost a little bit with timing and whatnot, but it felt good to get back on the field. The competitive part of me was a little frustrated that I wasn’t immediately my old self. But fortunately I’ve been through it and I understand that’s going to take time.”

Kirby is generally ranked toward the bottom of most top-30 organizational prospect lists, and the Brewers have finally begun to build up some pitching depth.

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But Kirby is a left-hander with plenty of motivation, and his progress should be interesting to monitor assuming he’s able to stay healthy. Expect him to start at advanced Class A Carolina.

“To his credit, he’s battled through so much,” farm director Tom Flanagan said. “But mentally, he’s a really tough kid and I think he’s held up really well. He had so much adversity early on that as a college pitcher he should be able to get back on track fairly quickly.

So I think it’s a big year to that end for him. We’ll challenge him. Obviously we’ll watch his innings.”

One interested party following Kirby’s progress is Taylor Williams. Currently attempting to win a spot in the Brewers’ bullpen, Williams was paired with Kirby in rehab for all of 2016 when he was coming back from his own Tommy John surgery.

“Some things in life come unexpectedly because I’d say he’s one of my best friends now,” said Williams, who also shared a condo with Kirby last spring.

“He’s a really charismatic person. Good dude, hard worker. Very mentally tough, I’d say. Especially with the struggles he’s been through so far, and to still be approaching things with such a positive perspective. I think that shows a lot about his character.

“He’s going to get what he deserves. I think things will start turning in his direction as long as he can stay healthy this year.

Considering the circuitous route he’s traveled to this point, Kirby answered quickly when asked what his expectations were for this season.

“I have none,” Kirby said. “I’m a believer that if I focus on what’s in front of me they’ll make the decisions they need to make and all I’ve got to do is put the pressure on them. That’s what we try to do as baseball players – focus on what’s in our little circle and let them handle everything else.

“I just want to win and play for a team and that’s it. Pretty simple.”


New OF Christian Yelich gives Brewers lefty bat, flexibility

New OF Christian Yelich gives Brewers lefty bat, flexibility

Milwaukee Brewers’ Ryan Braun (8) high-fives Christian Yelich (22) after hitting a grand slam against the Chicago White Sox during the second inning of a spring training baseball game Wednesday, March 14, 2018, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York)

PHOENIX (AP) — Christian Yelich is giving the Milwaukee Brewers‘ outfield a new look.

The Brewers could plug him into the No. 2 spot in the lineup, while Yelich has shown the ability to play every outfield position.

”They had a good thing going last year and fell just a little short” of the playoffs, Yelich said. ”So hopefully we can push over that hump this year and bring some good things to Milwaukee.”

Brewers veteran Ryan Braun has been so impressed with Yelich’s approach that he thinks his new teammate has MVP-type potential.

”He’s a phenomenal athlete: he’s a special player,” Braun said. ”The time I’ve seen him so far, he’s even better than I thought he was.

”I think he’s got a chance to be in the running for the MVP race this year. I really think he’s that good,” Braun added.

The 26-year-old Yelich was acquired in offseason deal with the rebuilding Miami Marlins. He made 155 starts in center field last season, ranking first among big league center fielders in fielding percentage (.997). He started 120 games in left field in 2016 and has worked in right field in spring training and could be used there at times to allow Braun to play in left.

”He’s athletic enough. He’s fast enough. He’s young enough that I’m confident that he can make that transition,” Braun said.

The combination of Lorenzo Cain and Yelich will give the Brewers added speed and pop at the top of the lineup.

Yelich hit .282 with 18 home runs and 81 RBIs last season, and he set career highs in runs (100) and walks (80).

”Probably the power is the thing that hasn’t completely shown up as far as his numbers,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. ”At some point in his career it will come. I think it’s going to come organically; it’s not something he has to force. He will just start squaring up more balls and getting better counts.”

Yelich was part of a young Marlins’ core that included slugger Giancarlo Stanton and Marcell Ozuna. Stanton, who led the majors with 59 homers last season and was voted the National League’s MVP, was traded to the New York Yankees this offseason while Ozuna was sent to the Cardinals.

Yelich and Ozuna came up together in the Marlins’ minor league system and remain close, so that could add some fuel to the Cardinals-Brewers rivalry this season.

Brewers third baseman Travis Shaw thinks Yelich will benefit from the switch from Miami’s spacious home park to the more hitter-friendly Miller Park.

”I think he’s easily a 20-plus guy in Milwaukee, in this division,” Shaw said. ”He’s got plenty of power; he can pop 30 if he gets hot and has a good year.”

Cain hit in the leadoff spot in Wednesday’s spring training game against the Chicago White Sox, with Yelich batting second, Braun third and the left-handed hitting Shaw in the fourth spot. Braun hit home runs in his first two at-bats, including a grand slam in the second inning.

Yelich worked a bases-loaded walk, showing patience that set up Braun’s grand slam in a six-run inning.

”Putting the ball in play helps,” Counsell said. ”It’s two guys you hope to give a lot of plate appearances, who are very good offensive players and don’t strike that out often.”

More AP baseball: https://apnews.com/tag/MLBbaseball