Former first-round Draft pick summoned to bolster bullpen
MILWAUKEE -- He was the same person, yet he was totally different. The Jeremy Jeffress who sat on the Brewers' bench on Monday bore only a passing resemblance to the 18-year-old first-round Draft pick of eight years ago, the admittedly immature kid who would be slapped with multiple suspensions for marijuana use before being traded away and bouncing between the bush leagues and big leagues with the Royals and Blue Jays.
The Jeffress who returned is 26, still has the big fastball, is "clean and sober" and free of the anxiety and seizures that plagued him in recent years, and is the father of a 5-month-old girl he says changed his life.
The Brewers summoned the right-hander from Triple-A Nashville on Monday to infuse a power arm into the bullpen of a recently fading team. To make room on the 25- and 40-man rosters, Milwaukee optioned Rob Wooten to Nashville and shifted Jim Henderson to the 60-day disabled list.
"You can only live by what you do in the future, what's to come," Jeffress said. "People have always told me, 'What can happen will happen if you can go out there and play to the best of your ability, keep the off-the-field stuff clean.' Because everybody knew I was a good pitcher and I had the stuff to do it. I just had to put it into play."
He still must prove he can put it into play in the Majors, but his recent results at Nashville were promising. Released by the Blue Jays after three forgettable appearances, Jeffress was given a second chance by the Brewers and delivered a 1.51 ERA and five saves in 30 games, the last nine of them scoreless. His ratio of strikeouts to walks (2.50) was his best since 2010, when he returned from a 100-game suspension and enjoyed a late-season stint in Milwaukee.
The Brewers traded him that December to the Royals in the Zack Greinke deal, but he never gained a foothold in Kansas City. He went to Toronto in November 2012 and found more of the same, while at the same time experiencing a worsening of the seizures that had intermittently plagued him since his days with the Brewers. They would strike in the mornings, and for years doctors attributed them to stress and a lack of sleep. Jeffress suffered five such episodes in one month, and worried so much about having one on an airplane during a road trip that he seriously considered quitting baseball.
Early last year the Blue Jays sent Jeffress to Women & Children's Hospital in Buffalo, where he was diagnosed with juvenile epilepsy and put on a new regimen of medication. He said that he has not had a single seizure since.
Another big change came earlier this year, when he became a father, and he lit up on Monday when talking about his daughter, Journey Giselle.
"Something came over me as soon as she came out," he said. "It was the greatest experience in the world. My first Father's Day was exciting. Everybody's text messages and stuff brought tears to my eyes."
By Father's Day, Jeffress was in a groove at Nashville. He had been designated for assignment by the Blue Jays, who wanted him to remain with the organization and earn $27,000 per month in the Minors. Instead he opted for free agency, and the first official to call agent Josh Kusnick expressing interest was from Brewers assistant general manager Gord Ash.
Other teams were interested; Kusnick and Jeffress eventually narrowed their options to the Brewers and two other teams, each of which probably offered a faster path to the Majors than a Milwaukee club that was red-hot at the time. But Jeffress was eager to reunite with some of his former bosses, including Ash; farm director Reid Nichols; and Matt Krug, director of psychological services, all of whom had been supportive during Jeffress' earlier struggles. Nichols was a particularly important influence.
"We kept picturing how amazing it would be for him to get back to the big leagues with Milwaukee," said Kusnick. "So we made the decision that Milwaukee was the best place for him. He had unfinished business there."
So Jeffress opted for a smaller paycheck and re-signed with Milwaukee.
"He feels he owes something to the Brewers," Kusnick said. "I don't know this for sure, but I don't think without that sense of obligation he would have put up the sort of numbers [in Nashville] that he did."
Now he's getting another chance in Milwaukee.
"The big thing was, he pitched well enough," GM Doug Melvin said. "We talked about getting a power arm since [injured relievers Tyler] Thornburg and Henderson left, so that's the reason he's here. I told him he's got an opportunity. Take advantage of it."
The Brewers had been seeking a reliable righty to aid left-hander Will Smith in setup situations. Brandon Kintzler served that role capably last season but has been inconsistent in 2014. The opportunity exists for Jeffress to pitch his way into a prominent role.
"I hope adding a power arm helps," manager Ron Roenicke said. "You don't know. Sometimes a guy might not command it as well. It just depends on if he's able to put his great stuff into good locations."
Jeffress said that Monday felt like "a big homecoming."
"I never thought I would be back, I didn't," he said. "I know my time here was a great experience. It was home for me. I felt comfortable here. It was great for me. … I never wanted to leave, but that's the nature of the game, they make trades and all that stuff. It's very much a homecoming for me."