If there was a benefit to spending much of the last year under coronavirus-induced lockdowns and quarantine, it was having plenty of time to pick up a new skill.
Justin Topa used the time to refine his slider and has turned into a bona fide major league pitcher.
Topa, who turns 30 on Sunday, was an early-invitee to spring training last year and expected to see nothing more than late-inning action in Cactus League games once the regulars had gotten their work in and called it a day. And that’s pretty much how things played out. Topa made a total of four appearances, posting a 6.75 ERA over 2⅔ innings, before the remainder of the schedule was called off because of the pandemic.
“He was not as much on our radar, specifically before spring,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “We did not speak of him in the big meeting we have every year. However, you did see him throw in a minor-league ‘B’ game or an extra game or whatever and say, ‘Wow, that’s a really good arm.’ He was coming on the radar at this time in the spring last year because the velocity had started to really pick up.”
Still, the Brewers saw enough in Topa, whom they’d signed a year earlier based on video they saw of him pitching in independent ball, to add him to their 60-man player pool when baseball resumed later in the summer.
Working at the team’s alternate training site in Appleton, Topa flummoxed hitters with his newly refined slider that made his 97 mph fastball all the more effective. The coaching staff took notice, too. When the Brewers sought to reinforce their bullpen for the final month, Topa earned his first big-league call-up.
Topa’s debut was hardly noteworthy: He allowed two runs on two hits over two innings in a 12-1 loss to the Tigers on Sept. 1. How he responded, though, was remarkable as Topa wouldn’t allow another earned run and didn’t walk a batter in his next five appearances.
He followed that with two scoreless innings in the Brewers’ 4-2 loss to the Dodgers in Game 1 of the National League wild card series.
It was quite an adventure for a player who’d undergone not one but two Tommy John surgeries, turned to unaffiliated baseball in the hope of keeping his career alive and wasn’t even sure if he’d pitch in an actual game at any point in 2020 since he wasn’t on Milwaukee’s 40-man roster.
“I was a pending minor league free agent again coming into the offseason so I didn’t really know where I was going to be (in 2021),” Topa said. “Just to get the call to go to the alternate site was huge for me. Once I got there and started throwing and everything, it was in the back of my mind and I knew that there was still a lot of things that had to fall into place.
“I just took it one day at a time and go out there and do what I could to control the situation, and just go out and pitch the way I knew I could.”
A year after coming to camp as an unknown, Topa is in position to make his first Opening Day roster.
“He’s done a nice job keeping himself going and getting himself to this place,” Counsell said. “The slider, the movement on the fastball, there’s been improvements there that I think are the ‘next step’ type of stuff that instead of making him a candidate make him a real guy for this team.”
On the field
Topa struck out two Wednesday in his first spring appearance and was one of four Milwaukee pitchers to combine for a no-hitter through five innings in an 8-5 victory over the Padres in Peoria, Ariz.
Drew Rasmussen started for Milwaukee and struck out three batters over two innings. Along with Topa, left-handers Brent Suter and Angel Perdomo also struck out two apiece against the Padres, who didn’t record a hit until Jake Cronenworth doubled with one out in the sixth off Eric Yardley.
“I thought it was a good day for our guys,” Counsell said.
Mark Mathias gave Milwaukee an early lead, scoring on a wild pitch in the second inning, and Pablo Reyes made it a 4-0 game in the fourth with a three-run home run off right-hander Pierce Johnson.
Reyes has played in three of the Brewers’ four games and is 2-for-6 with three walks.
“Pablo has been impressive so far,” Counsell said. “Really, every at-bat has been very good.”
The Padres cut the lead in half with two runs in the sixth. Milwaukee got one back in the seventh on Nick Kahle’s RBI double. After Gosuke Katoh tied the game at 5 with a two-run homer in the seventh, the Brewers pulled back in front with three runs in the eighth on an RBI single by Garrett Mitchell, a wild pitch and Nick Kahle’s sac fly.
Around the horn
Reyes’ home run was Milwaukee’s sixth in four spring games. The Brewers are second only to the Red Sox, who have hit nine through four games, and lead all National League and Cactus League squads in homers this spring. ... Left-hander Josh Hader will get his first work of the spring on Friday when he works an inning in a B game at the Brewers’ complex while right-hander Devin Williams won’t see action until after the team’s second scheduled day off on March 17. ... Counsell said players have not started wearing the Kinexon tracking devices that MLB is using to help with contact tracing during the pandemic. So far, several members of the coaching staff have been testing the devices, which are similar to the ones used by the NFL and NBA. ... Infielder Eric Sogard and the Chicago Cubs have agreed to a minor league contract, pending a physical. The 34-year-old Sogard hit .209 with one home run and 10 RBIs in 43 games for Milwaukee last season.
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
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.
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.
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.
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).
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)
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.