PHOENIX — You’ll forgive Craig Counsell if he’s reluctant to make any sweeping conclusions or offer any predictions about the state of the Milwaukee Brewers’ offense as Opening Day nears.
The manager learned his lesson the hard way a year ago when he expressed optimism that his team, which finished with the second-most strikeouts in 2019, would be a much more contact-oriented group in the shortened 2020 season.
Counsell turned out to be dead wrong as Milwaukee finished near the bottom of almost every statistical category last season, except for strikeouts. The Brewers led the National League with 583.
“Apparently I’m not good at making predictions anymore,” Counsell said Sunday as the team prepared to break camp and head to Texas for a pair of exhibition games ahead of the season-opener Thursday in Milwaukee. “But I think we’re going to score more runs. ... I’m not going to get picky about how we do it.”
If spring training is any indication, Counsell isn’t wrong. After a seven-run effort against the Cincinnati Reds in their Cactus League finale Sunday, the Brewers left Arizona with an MLB-leading .842 OPS, tied with the Kansas City Royals for the top slugging percentage (.496), second to the Royals with 44 home runs and tops among National League teams with 148 runs scored.
Individually, catcher Omar Narvaez appeared to turn the page on a miserable 2020 performance by batting .311 with three home runs, six RBIs and a 1.098 OPS in 13 games. Outfielder Christian Yelich seems poised to return to MVP-caliber form after batting .400 (10-for-25) with three homers, 10 RBIs and a 1.402 OPS in his 12 appearances.
Newly acquired second baseman Kolten Wong made a positive first impression with a .412 OBP and three leadoff home runs. Keston Hiura’s transition to first base didn’t hinder his offense as he batted .286 with four homers, 10 RBIs and a .976 OPS in 17 games.
“The guys are in a good spot to start the season.” Counsell said. “I think we got our guys ready.”
Though just about every hitter on the roster did some sort of evaluation and refinement during the offseason, Counsell points to the return of normalcy from the COVID-19 pandemic in terms of the schedule as a leading factor in the offensive turnaround.
Instead of having just two weeks of summer camp to get back up to speed after a three-month hiatus, players this year had a full spring to work on their swings. There were just 60 games last season, which normally would get a player from Opening Day to Memorial Day.
So what would be classified as a cold start in any other year became a season-long funk with little time to turn things around.
“I think what the camp did last year was it didn’t allow you to relax because the season was always just right around the corner,” Counsell said. “(Getting back to normal) has certainly made a big difference for our hitters.”
With extra time this spring, hitters were able to break down individual parts of their swings and their approaches, then put any adjustments and improvements into practice during games.
Counsell also changed the way he built up some of his hitters. He got them into games earlier than in years past, then pulled back a bit to let them work before ramping back up again of the final few games.
Judging from the results, as meaningless as they are at this point of the year, the plan has worked.
“For the most part, we’ve been able to accomplish exactly what we wanted to with them,” Counsell said. “They’ve been able to get into a solid, I don’t want to say leisurely, but an at-their-own-pace routine.”
On the field
Corbin Burnes struck out nine in his final tuneup and Avisail Garcia hit his fourth home run as the Brewers beat the Cincinnati Reds 7-1 at American Family Fields of Phoenix.
Burnes (3-0) went five innings, allowing one run on three hits and a walk. In five spring appearances, he posted a 1.65 ERA and struck out 26 batters with five walks over 16⅓ innings.
Around the horn
Right-hander Justin Topa will start the season on the injured list after experiencing elbow discomfort while pitching in a simulated game Saturday, Counsell said. … Two days after he was released, right-hander Brad Boxberger returned to the team on a minor league contract and will begin the season on Milwaukee’s taxi squad. … Daniel Vogelbach learned over the weekend that he will be on the Opening Day roster, serving primarily as a pinch hitter while also seeing occasional action at first base when Hiura needs a rest.
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.