Pitching prospect back to full strength for Brewers after rehabbing shoulder
PHOENIX -- Brewers prospect Hiram Burgos got his first taste of Major League Baseball a decade before he threw his first big league pitch. He has the Montreal Expos to thank for that.
Burgos was a freshman in high school in 2003, when the Expos began playing games at Hiram Bithorn Stadium near Burgos' boyhood home in San Juan, Puerto Rico. He worked in the booths surrounding the stadium, manning the radar gun in the speed pitch tent one day, setting baseballs on a tee for school kids to take the next whack.
He dreamed of someday working inside the stadium walls.
"That was my dream, ever since I started playing baseball," Burgos said. "I always wanted to play in Major League Baseball. But at that point, I didn't know I was going to get over there."
Of the Brewers' pitching prospects nipping at the big leagues, Tyler Thornburg has the most Major League service, Johnny Hellweg has the biggest fastball and Jimmy Nelson has the top prospect status.
Then there is Burgos, who just knows how to pitch.
"Maybe he doesn't throw 95 [mph]," Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said. "It doesn't matter if he can command the baseball."
Burgos' 2013 season was ruined by a right shoulder injury, but he remains a part of the Brewers' backup plans should they experience losses in their Opening Day pitching rotation. He is only 26, but already has an impressive resume, including Brewers Minor League pitcher of the year honors in 2012, and a terrific run with Puerto Rico in last year's World Baseball Classic (1-0 with a 0.69 ERA in three long-relief appearances), following by a run on six-starts in the Majors with the Brewers before his shoulder hurt too much to continue. After rehabbing the injury without surgery, Burgos logged a 1.40 ERA in eight starts for Mayaguez in the Puerto Rican Winter League and was named the circuit's pitcher of the year.
It was important, he said, to end the year healthy.
"You can ask any player, pitcher or position player; it's not easy to play when something is bothering you," Burgos said. "If you have some discomfort in your body, especially in your arm, you're not going to be the type of pitcher you know you are.
"When I went to Puerto Rico, I found the shoulder was healthy. And now, that's how I feel. I feel 100 percent healthy."
He added upper body bulk over the winter.
"I knew I had to get stronger," Burgos said. "I was worried about my shoulder, too, shoulder stability, so I had a trainer back home and worked out every day, even while I was playing. I think that helped me out."
General manager Doug Melvin is fond of saying that every player with a uniform has a chance to break camp with the Brewers, but Burgos will more likely return to Triple-A Nashville with Thornburg (assuming the latter does not crack the big league rotation or bullpen), Hellweg and Nelson to form a quality pitching rotation.
Before he departs, Roenicke is hoping to get a better read of what the Brewers have in Burgos. He made his second Cactus League appearance Wednesday against the A's and struck out three batters in two hitless, scoreless innings.
Burgos is known for a terrific changeup and excellent fastball command, but Roenicke remains unsure of exactly what the Brewers have in the right-hander.
With his shoulder beginning to bother him, Burgos was 1-2 with a 6.44 ERA in his six Brewers starts last season. Much of that damage came May 11 in Cincinnati, when he was shelled to the tune of 12 runs, 10 earned, on 11 hits in three innings. Ten days earlier, he had arguably his best start, striking out six and holding the Pirates to two runs over six innings of a no-decision.
"We'll need to see more of him," Roenicke said. "I think I saw him at a time when his shoulder was bothering him. His velocity was way down. I would like to see him when he's healthy, when he's good. I think he's at that point now.
"I have to go by what other guys tell me -- he knows how to pitch. He knows how to change speeds, and now it's just a matter of where that opportunity is going to be. When you're looking at starters, consistency is probably the most important thing you can do, and we think he can be one of those consistent guys."
The boy who once worked outside Hiram Bithorn Stadium realized his dream last April 20, when he stepped on the Miller Park mound to make his Major League debut against the Cubs. Chicago committed a trio of errors that led to four gift-wrapped runs and a victory for Burgos, who allowed only one run over five innings.
He made only one mistake. After throwing a 90-mph strike to start his career, Burgos tossed the baseball into the dugout as a keepsake. That sprung the Brewers' other starting pitchers into action, and after the game, a shrine of memorabilia awaited Burgos at his locker. There was that first ball, along with five more commemorating everything from Burgos' first warm-up pitch in the bullpen to his first bounced changeup. There was a second foul ball ("Sorry, a fan wouldn't give back the first," read the inscription) and a "first water bottle," a "first gum wrapper" and a "first towel sat on in the Major Leagues."
Teammates watched with glee as Burgos discovered the stash, but he took it in stride.
"The good thing is I'm still here," he said. "I have to get people out, and when the opportunity comes, take advantage of it. That's my mindset right now."