PHOENIX — With six weeks of work under his belt, Keston Hiura feels more than ready to take on the challenge of playing first base for an entire season.
“It just takes time,” Hiura said Monday as the Milwaukee Brewers prepared to face the Rangers in an exhibition game at Globe Life Park in Arlington, Texas. “I’ve got a handful of innings over there and every game, every inning, every play is going to help me feel more comfortable.”
Milwaukee moved Hiura after signing free agent second baseman Kolten Wong. While Hiura had shown improvement defensively since he joined the organization as a first-round pick in the 2017, teams don’t sign Gold Glove winners with the intent of playing them at a different spot.
That meant Hiura had little choice but to adapt. The process of learning the position, particularly the nuances of positioning and footwork, was difficult and required daily work in addition to playing in games. But it was a challenge Hiura was more than willing to accept.
“For as long as I’ve played baseball, I’ve seen myself as a gamer, being able to adjust to different situations,” Hiura said. “I’ve been pretty proud about that and being able to handle it, so the past couple weeks definitely have felt better and hopefully I can keep it going as the season starts.”
It will take some time before Hiura is considered a “good” first baseman, but Brewers manager Craig Counsell has little doubt that it will happen.
“We want good defenders everywhere,” Counsell said. “Our goal is to make Keston as good a defender as we possibly can.”
The extra defensive work hasn’t gotten in the way of Hiura’s efforts to improve at the plate. He hit 10 home runs with an .707 OPS during the shortened season in 2020, but led the National League with 85 strikeouts and finished with a .212 batting average and .297 on-base percentage.
Hiura’s ability to hit has never been in question. The Brewers knew when they first called him up in 2019 that he’d experience growing pains in both aspects of the game, so the struggles last year weren’t a surprise. How he’d adjust was the bigger question and his .289 average, four home runs, 11 RBIs and .956 OPS in 45 spring at-bats was encouraging, even if his 16 strikeouts were the second-highest total on the team.
“I’m pretty confident going into the season,” Hiura said.
On the field
Right-hander Adrian Houser bounced back from two bad outings to pitch 5 2/3 scoreless innings, allowing two hits with one walk and six strikeouts in the Brewers’ 4-0 exhibition victory over the host Rangers in Arlington, Texas.
“After the first inning, he really got his stuff going,” Counsell said. “He was efficient. His stuff was in the strike zone consistently.”
Relievers Josh Hader, Devin Williams and Brad Boxberger each recorded three strikeouts in their one inning.
Orlando Arcia hit a two-run double and Hiura had an RBI single.
Right-handed reliever Justin Topa will miss at least the first half of the season after sustaining a strained flexor tendon in his right elbow while pitching in a simulated game Saturday.
The good news is Topa will avoid surgery. Instead, he plans to get a second opinion, then begin a rehab program in Phoenix.
“It’s a significant injury and that’s unfortunate, but it’s not the really bad one,” Counsell said. “He’ll start on a rehab track and we’re hopeful we’ll get him back this year.”
Topa, 30, was expected to start the season in Milwaukee’s bullpen despite his shaky numbers in Cactus League play (12.71 ERA, 2.82 WHIP, .448 BAA).
From the infirmary
Utility man Mark Mathias will not undergo surgery after sustaining a shoulder injury earlier in camp. Like Topa, he’ll remain in Phoenix and begin rehabbing along with Tim Lopes, another utility player who spent most of camp sidelined by an oblique injury.
Around the horn
Outfielder Tyrone Taylor is feeling better after sustaining a thigh bruise in a collision Saturday against the Royals. He traveled with the team to Texas and worked out before the game, but was held out of the lineup. ... Right-handed reliever Drew Rassmussen was told he’s made the Opening Day roster. Rasmussen posted a 2.89 ERA in six Cactus League appearances with 11 strikeouts in 9⅓ innings. ... Counsell said a decision hasn’t been made on whether to add right-hander Brad Boxberger to the active roster before Opening Day. For now, Boxberger is slated to begin the year on the taxi squad.
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.