For most players, spring training is nothing more than a process; re-establishing a routine and rhythm in preparation for the regular season, with statistics providing little more than confidence.
But for players such as outfielder Billy McKinney, who are trying to earn a roster spot while being out of minor league options, the luxury of a six-week ramp-up is diminished by a need to produce and impress.
"The stats don’t matter really, but they kind of do in my circumstance," McKinney said Saturday as he and the Milwaukee Brewers prepared to face the Cincinnati Reds in their first Cactus League night game. "It’s a little bit different because you kind of have to come in ready and prepared to show what you can do because obviously, the coaching staff hasn’t really seen you play yet."
McKinney, 23, has done a good job of finding the balance between those goals. Appearing in 13 of Milwaukee's first 18 games this spring, McKinney is batting .214 (6-for-28) with a .945 OPS. He's hit three home runs in his past two games, including a pair Friday in the Brewers' 9-3 victory over Arizona.
"It's a credit to him and what he's doing," manager Craig Counsell said. "He comes into camp and knows he has to show his best to make the club and that's what he's been doing."
Selected No. 24 overall by Oakland in the 2013 draft, McKinney has been involved in three high-profile trades. The A's dealt him to the Cubs for Jason Hammel and Jeff Samardzija at the deadline in 2014, and two years later he went to the Yankees as part of the Aroldis Chapman deal. He made his big league debut with the Yankees in 2018 but appeared in just two games before he was sent to Toronto in exchange for J.A. Happ.
McKinney played 84 games for the Blue Jays in 2019, batting .215 with 12 home runs, 28 RBIs and a .696 OPS. He appeared in just two games last season, spending most of his time on Toronto's taxi squad or at the Blue Jays' alternate training site.
"It was definitely a grind last year," McKinney said. "I was able to get in the cage and not really have to think about the game. I just focused on honing in on myself and my personal game. ... I obviously wanted to play but I was able to learn something new every day and try to get better."
When the Blue Jays placed McKinney on waivers in mid-September, the Brewers added him to their taxi squad. He was brought along for the NL wild card series in Los Angeles — had Milwaukee forced a third game McKinney might have seen action due to Ryan Braun's injury.
"It made things easier coming into camp because I felt like I kind of knew the guys a little bit," McKinney said. "It’s hard for guys coming in to a new team, not knowing anyone, so it was nice having those relationships already being built."
He was expected to compete for a backup job, along with Derek Fisher, another former first-round draft pick who came to the Brewers from Toronto and was also out of minor league options. Both, it seemed, were on track to make the roster as camp got underway but the addition of free agent outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. filled one of the two likely spots.
McKinney's chances improved when Fisher was sidelined by a hamstring injury that could send him to the injured list to start the season, but he isn't letting that change his approach.
"I try to not think too much about it," McKinney said. "I try to not put too much pressure on myself. ... Just do my thing, play my game and not make too much of it."
On the field
Lorenzo Cain and Devin Williams made their Cactus League debuts as the Brewers beat the Reds 4-1 Saturday night in Goodyear, Arizona.
Cain struck out on an off-speed pitch in his first at-bat and hit a hard grounder to second baseman Kyle Holder in the third before finally breaking through with a single to right in the fifth off Reds starter Jose De Leon.
"It was a good first day," said Cain, who also played five full innings in center field. "I had a chance to get a lot of reads out there. I was a little shaky on my reads out there, a little shaky at the plate. But overall, it was definitely good to be out there and get some work in."
A three-run second inning that included an RBI double from Travis Shaw and Omar Narvaez's second home run of spring provided an early cushion for left-hander Brett Anderson, who allowed six hits and a walk but struck out five batters over four scoreless innings.
Williams followed and after retiring his first two batters — including a strikeout of Nick Castellanos — walked Mike Moustakas on 10 pitches. He was a pitch away from striking out Eugenio Suarez, who doubled off the wall in right, allowing Moustakas to score and bringing Williams' debut to an early end.
"He didn’t want to get out of the box, I guess," Williams said of Moustakas. "It was a good test to see where I’m at. I probably wouldn’t typically throw that pitch (a slider) that I ended up walking him on, if it was the regular season. I was just out there trying to get my work in, so it is what it is."
After Clayton Andrews got out of the inning without further damage, Jordan Zimmermann turned in two scoreless frames, allowing two hits with a strikeout. Eric Yardley bounced back from a rough performance earlier in the week with a scoreless eighth.
The Reds outhit Milwaukee 10-3 but went 2-for-11 with runners in scoring position.
Around the horn
The Brewers signed right-hander Zack Godley to a minor league contract, providing depth for the starting rotation. A 15-game winner in 2018 with Toronto, Godley, 30, posted a 5.97 ERA over 92.1 innings between Arizona and Toronto in 2019 and an 8.16 ERA in 28⅔ innings for the Red Sox last season. ... Left-hander Eric Lauer and right-hander Josh Lindblom will pitch in a B-game against members of the Dodgers, including left-hander Clayton Kershaw, at Camelback Ranch. ... Counsell said the team is still interested in giving Orlando Arcia work at third base during spring training games, even after officially adding Travis Shaw to the roster.
Right-hander Freddy Peralta returns to the mound for his third spring appearance Sunday when the Brewers host the Seattle Mariners at American Family Fields. Peralta has struck out 10 while walking just two and has yet to allow a run in 3⅔ innings. Mariners left-hander James Paxon is scheduled to make his first appearance in a Cactus League game after doing most of his work this spring in B-games.
Here’s everything you need to know as Milwaukee Brewers kick off spring training in Arizona
Here's everything you need to know as Milwaukee Brewers kick off spring training in Arizona
WHO'S ON THIRD
After Keston Hiura moved to first base to make way for Kolten Wong, third base remained the only position without an obvious starting candidate.
The Brewers brought Travis Shaw back on a minor-league contract, hoping he can return to the form in 2017-18, when he hit 63 home runs with 187 RBI. While Luis Urias (above) and former top-prospect Daniel Robertson are likely to get a shot at winning the job, too.
Acquired last winter in a trade with Seattle, Omar Narváez (above) was supposed to give the Brewers a much-needed offensive boost while admittedly being a work-in-progress behind the plate. Instead, Narvaez was one of many Brewers hitters to struggle last season but surprised the Brewers’ coaching staff and front office with his defensive improvements. He’s back again in 2021 but will have to battle for a job with the likes of Manny Piña, Jacob Nottingham and Luke Maile.
With Brett Anderson returning on a one-year deal, the Brewers will open camp with all five spots of their starting rotation seemingly filled. But as history has shown, it’s rare to get through an entire season with just five starters. So who’s waiting in the wings if and when the Brewers need a replacement? Eric Lauer (above) and Freddy Peralta will try to earn spots in the rotation this spring, as will former UW-Stevens Point standout Jordan Zimmermann, who is in camp on a minor league deal.
PLAYERS TO BE NAMED LATER
It was a quiet offseason for the Brewers, but they weren’t unique in that regard. Across baseball, trades and signings seemed to be few and far between as players and teams both waited out a winter of uncertainty. Now that camps are open, there’s a greater likelihood of trades and with more than 100 free agents still unsigned, the Brewers’ roster could have a new face or two before the season gets underway.
WILL IT LAST?
Baseball is back, but for how long? That might be the single biggest question this spring, not just for the Brewers but baseball as a whole. The pandemic still rages on and though vaccinations are on the rise, one infection can quickly become an outbreak that leaves an entire team sidelined indefinitely. Players resisted requests and suggestions to delay the start of spring training, and the regular season, by a month believing they proved last year they can complete a season safely. But the margin for error is still slim and another full-blown shutdown of spring training, which would ultimately impact the regular season, remains one large outbreak away.
SPRING TRAINING ROSTER
Teams are allowed to have up to 75 players in major league camp at any given time and the Brewers go into camp with all 40 of their roster spots filled along with 20 non-roster invitees. Once the regular season begins, active rosters will revert to the original 26-player limit that was planned for 2020 before the pandemic suspended operations. Teams still are allowed to add an additional player to the active roster for doubleheaders and can have a taxi squad of up to five players — including one catcher — on all road trips. Rosters will expand again in September, but only by two spots for a total of 28.
Pitchers (31): Brett Anderson, Clayton Andrews*, Aaron Ashby*, Alec Bettinger, Phil Bickford, Ray Black, Zach Brown*, Corbin Burnes, Jake Cousins*, J.P. Feyereisen, Dylan File, Josh Hader, Blaine Hardy*, Adrian Houser, Thomas Jankins*, Eric Lauer, Josh Lindblom, Hoby Milner*, Freddy Peralta, Angel Perdomo, Drew Rasmussen, Miguel Sanchez*, Ethan Small*, Brent Suter, Justin Topa, Quintin Torres-Costa*, Bobby Wahl, Devin Williams, Brandon Woodruff, Eric Yardley, Jordan Zimmermann*.
Catchers (6): Mario Feliciano, Payton Henry*, Luke Maile, Omar Narvaez, Jacob Nottingham, Manny Pina.
Infielders (11): Orlando Arcia, Zach Green*, Keston Hiura, Tim Lopes, Mark Mathias, Jace Peterson*, Daniel Robertson, Travis Shaw*, Brice Turang*, Luis Urias, Daniel Vogelbach, Kolten Wong.
Outfielders (11): Lorenzo Cain, Dylan Cozens*, Derek Fisher, Avisail Garcia, Tristen Lutz*, Billy McKinney, Garrett Mitchell*, Corey Ray, Pablo Reyes*, Tyrone Taylor, Christian Yelich.
* — Non-roster invitee
Manager Craig Counsell’s coaching staff will have a different look in 2021. Third-base coach Ed Sedar has transitioned into a new, advisory role while longtime bullpen catcher Marcus Hanel’s contract was not renewed by the team after last season.
Sedar will be replaced on the staff by Quintin Berry, who had been the Brewers' minor-league outfield and base-running coordinator for the last two seasons after concluding his 13-year playing career serving as a player/coach with Class AAA Colorado Springs in 2018.
Néstor Corredor and Adam Weisenburger will replace Hanel and Robinson Diaz as the team's bullpen catchers.
The rest of Counsell's staff will remain intact moving forward, including hitting coaches Andy Haines (above left) and Jacob Cruz. Chris Hook and Steve Karsay will handle Milwaukee’s pitchers and bullpen, respectively, and Pat Murphy returns for a sixth season as Counsell’s bench coach.
Jason Lane, the Brewers’ first base coach last season, returns, too, though Counsell planned to decide during spring training where Lane and Berry would be used in games this season.
Manager — Craig Counsell (7th season). Bases — Quintin Berry (1st season), Jason Lane (5th season); Bullpen — Steve Karasy (3rd season); Bench — Pat Murphy (6th season); Hitting — Jacob Cruz (2nd season); Andy Haines (3rd season); Bullpen catchers — Néstor Corredor (1st season); Adam Weisenburger (1st season).
CACTUS LEAGUE SCHEDULE
The Cactus League schedule underwent a last-minute adjustment earlier this month with the elimination of split-squad games. The Brewers will play 27 games in Arizona — 14 at American Family Fields and 13 on the road — and wrap up their exhibition slate with a pair of contests against the Rangers at Globe Life Park on March 29 and 30 before returning to Milwaukee ahead of their April 1 regular-season opener against the Twins at American Family Field.
February: 28 — @ Chicago White Sox. March: 1 — at Diamondbacks; 2 — vs. Athletics.; 3 — at Padres; 4 — vs. Cleveland.; 5 — at Rockies; 6 — vs Cubs; 7 — OFF; 8 — vs. Angels; 9 — vs. Giants; 10 — at Athletics; 11 — vs. Royals; 12 — at Cubs; 13 — vs. Rangers; 14 — at Mariners; 15 — vs. Padres; 16 — at Dodgers; 17 — OFF DAY; 18 — at Angels; 19 — vs. Diamondbacks; 20 — at Reds (7 p.m.); 21 — vs. Mariners; 22 — vs Cleveland; 23 — vs. Dodgers; 25 — at Giants (8 p.m.); 26 — vs. White Sox; 27 — at Royals; 28 — at Reds; 29 — vs. Rangers (Arlington, Texas); 30 — vs. Rangers (Arlington, Texas).
(NOTE: Unless otherwise noted, all games start at 2:10 p.m. local time prior to March 14 and 3:10 p.m. after, due to Arizona not observing Daylight Savings Time)
IF YOU GO
Unlike previous seasons, fans will not be able to watch the team’s workouts, which take place on the complex’s ancillary fields. That means no opportunities for kids — little and big alike — to get autographs and pictures. The team store at American Family Fields will be open and the team announced last week that a limited number of fans — up to 23% of capacity at the 10,000-seat stadium — will be allowed to attend games when Cactus League play gets underway.