Craig Counsell has never been shy about sharing his belief that baseball needs to change.
The Milwaukee Brewers manager didn’t complain last year when several adjustments were instituted as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, including seven-inning doubleheaders, starting extra innings with a runner on second base and adding the designated hitter to National League play.
And Counsell isn’t going to grouse now after Major League Baseball announced it was planning to test new rules in minor league games that would limit defensive shifts, change the pickoff rules for pitchers, expand the size of bases and even test automated strike zones.
“I’m pleased that we’re attempting, trying to find ways to improve the game, and I think that’s how we should look at it,” Counsell said. “My firm belief is we have to start exploring changes. We absolutely have to.”
That’s not to say he is necessarily in favor of the aforementioned changes. But Counsell thinks baseball owes it to itself and to its fans to try new things, even if they’re unpopular at first or ultimately don’t work out.
“Are they all going to be successful? Are we going to like all of them? Probably not, but we have to try some things,” Counsell said. “We can sit there and judge all these rule changes and criticize them and say, ‘Get off my lawn, this is baseball,’ but the game, we have to move it forward and this is the way we’re experimenting without affecting the product on the biggest stage. I like all the experimentation, even if they’re all not going to come into play at the highest level because I think they’re a step forward in the way we’re thinking as an industry. That’s really important to improving our product.”
Because they’re only being instituted in the minors, none of the rules will impact Counsell or the Brewers this season. But if limits on shifts made it to the majors, it could significantly change the way the Brewers play defensively.
According to BaseballSavant.com, the Brewers employed a shift 968 times last season, the fifth-highest total in the majors. Milwaukee’s 699 shifts against left-handed hitters were the third-most among MLB’s 30 teams in 2020.
It’s been a key factor in the Brewers’ success over the past three seasons, each of which ended with a postseason appearance. Even still, Counsell is willing to at least see what the changes do in terms of increasing action and and creating more fan interest.
“I think it’s important to do,” Counsell said. “I don’t want to be the downer on any of these things. I want to see them in action. I don’t really know if I’m right or wrong, so I think we should try it and find out. You hear arguments from both sides of these arguments, and I think people are making valid arguments on both sides.”
Shifting has become a cornerstone of Milwaukee’s defensive philosophy under Counsell and president of baseball operations David Stearns. Because the team employs shifts so frequently, players are taught the value of it starting at the lowest levels of the minor league organization.
“Every year, more and more hitter information is trickling down to the lower levels where we’re now able to acquire quite a bit of information,” Class A Wisconsin manager Matt Erickson said. “Even in (Class) A ball, a majority of the time we’re in some kind of an over-shade, a mini-shift or even a full shift where we have three infielders on one side of the field. That’s something we have increased over the last several years, especially since David Stearns, Matt Arnold and the new front office has come in. We try to use data as much as possible.”
Erickson and his staff will have to help his pitchers adjust to the new pickoff rule, which he thinks could have a significant impact on left-handers and could lead to a rise in injuries.
“For a left-hander to have to step off and make a snap throw, there’s some potential medical and health issues to think about there because that throw isn’t for everybody,” Erickson said. “Anything that puts an athlete in a precarious situation for injury, I’m not for, and obviously I think that one does.”
But like Counsell, Erickson doesn’t get to decide the rules. It’s up to him to implement them and get his players on board with adhering to them.
“Baseball has always been about making adjustments,” Erickson said. “It doesn’t matter how skilled or talented you are, if you’re unable to make adjustments you’ll be unable to stay consistent in the game of baseball.”
On the field
Garrett Mitchell went 2-for-2 with a walk and hit his first home run as the Brewers and the Texas Rangers played to a 4-4 tie Saturday at American Family Fields of Phoenix.
Mitchell, the Brewers’ first-round pick in last summer’s draft, is batting .538 (7-for-13) with a double, home run, four RBIs and a 1.446 OPS in 10 games.
“He’s continued to have great at-bats and he did it again today,” Counsell said. “Right now, he’s earning more at-bats.”
Daniel Robertson also hit his first home run while Jackie Bradley Jr. went 1-for-3 with a run scored in his first game action since signing a two-year contract last week.
Tyrone Taylor tied the game at 4 with a sacrifice fly in the seventh off Texas Brett de Geus, who left the game with two outs in the inning after being examined by the Rangers’ medical staff, ending the game early.
“That’s how the rule is written; you can do that,” Counsell said. “Obviously, it’s to protect players and something was going on with the player, so I understand.”
Brewers starter Drew Rasmussen allowed two runs on three hits while striking out three over 2⅔ innings. Aaron Ashby, who’d struck out six of his first seven batters this spring, allowed his first run and added another strikeout. Josh Hader bounced back from his rocky spring debut earlier in the week to record two strikeouts in a scoreless fifth.
From the infirmary
Infielder Luis Urias tested his injured left hamstring and is expected to return to the lineup Sunday, Counsell said.
- An MRI on left-hander Brent Suter’s hand, injured during a scrimmage Friday, revealed no fractures. Suter planned to play catch Saturday and be ready to pitch in a few days.
Right-hander Adrian Houser (0-0, 3.38 ERA) is scheduled to start Sunday when the Brewers travel to Peoria to face left-hander Yusei Kikuchi (0-2, 3.60 ERA) and the Seattle Mariners. Houser allowed a run on three hits and a hit batter while striking out four over 1⅔ innings on March 9 against the San Francisco Giants.
Here’s everything you need to know as the 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.