Notes: Hiura at 1B; Burnes on recovery

February 19th, 2021

Among the 10 or so position players already taking part with Brewers pitchers and catchers in the early days of Spring Training is , the erstwhile second baseman who will spend the next six weeks acclimating to first base.

Hiura agreed to the move after the Brewers signed Gold Glove Award-winning second baseman Kolten Wong to a multiyear contract earlier this month. Hiura has been working with Brewers bench coach Pat Murphy, third-base coach Jason Lane and Class A Advanced Wisconsin manager Matt Erickson at his new spot.

“This is very similar to how we’ve approached Ryan Braun in Spring Trainings past at first base,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “It’s really just about a little bit each day and just making progress every day. Spending a little bit of time, either through working or talking, on what’s new there. You have six weeks, I think that’s how you treat it -- just a little bit every day.”

The Braun experience reinforced that nothing is better than game experience at a new position, but for now, Hiura is building a foundation. He has never played first base in an organized game at any level.

The Brewers expect some tradeoff in terms of Hiura’s defense. On one hand, as a middle infielder, he should posses better lateral movement than a typical first baseman. On the other hand, he is listed as 6-foot-0 in the Milwaukee media guide, and Hiura himself said that he might actually be that that tall -- if he has his spikes on.

That fuzzy math makes it somewhat difficult to examine where Hiura would rank on a list of the Brewers’ most vertically challenged first basemen. Roberto Pena made some starts at first base for the Brewers in 1970 and ’71 at 5-foot-8. Just last year, Jedd Gyorko proved capable there at 5-foot-10. And Prince Fielder and Eric Thames were listed at 5-foot-11.

(For the record, on the other end of the historical spectrum are 6-foot-7 Richie Sexson and 6-foot-6 Corey Hart.)

“There’s no arguing that wingspan and size logically help you at first base when you’re catching throws,” Counsell said. “But the ball in the dirt is probably the more common ball; the scoop ball is probably the more common play than the wide/high throw.

“Keston’s got all the tools to be a very good first baseman. He was a middle infielder in the big leagues, and it’s a pretty rare move for a middle infielder to go to that place. So that part of it, to me, bodes well for him to be really successful at this. And the challenge, really, is brand new. Traditionally, it’s an offensive position, and that’s the other thing -- generally, the great offensive players are just big dudes. So, that’s where the other part of first base comes. We know Keston’s a very good offensive player, and it’s just in a different package.”

Burnes hits ground running
Oblique injuries can linger, but Brewers right-hander was fortunate that the issue that prematurely ended his 2020 season on Sept. 24 in St. Louis was on the mild side.

“Mid-Octoberish, I was back in here getting after it again,” said Burnes, set to lead the Brewers' starting rotation into 2021 alongside fellow homegrown right-hander Brandon Woodruff. “Obviously, the start of the offseason looked a little different because I was still recovering from the oblique, but after about a week off in the offseason, [he was able to] get back in here. There was a week of no throwing, just straight rehab, and then I was able to start a normal throwing program pretty early on. Normal throwing, normal working out, so it was a pretty normal offseason as far as a rehab and recovery standpoint.”

Burnes, 26, finished sixth in National League Cy Young Award balloting after going 4-1 with a 2.11 ERA in 59 2/3 innings. He was one out shy of having the innings to qualify for the league ERA title when he exited his start against the Cardinals with discomfort in his left side.

Had he been healthy, Burnes was lined up to start Game 1 of the NL Wild Card Series against the Dodgers. Despite that lofty billing, he reported to Spring Training with the same mindset of other seasons.

“I'm trying to go out and earn a rotation spot,” Burnes said. “When I start getting complacent, start falling back and not working as hard, is when things start to go bad. For me, it's coming in from day one trying to show the pitcher I am and show that last year wasn't just a fluke, and that everything's still there. For me, it's attack the mound every time I go out there and prove what I've got and see what happens.”

Boxberger deal official
While the Brewers ponder whether to keep Josh Hader in the more traditional closer role he filled the past two seasons, or revert to a more flexible approach, the club finalized a deal with former Rays and D-backs closer . It’s a Minor League contract with an invitation to big league camp.

Boxberger led the American League with 41 saves and made the AL All-Star team in 2015 while with Tampa Bay, and saved 32 games with Arizona in 2018.

“We’re a relatively young group down there [in the bullpen],” Counsell said. “I think there’s experience, closing experience. There’s just ‘been in a bullpen a long time’ experience. I think a little bit of the reverse split nature of his arsenal with the good changeup is an interesting thing to look at for some different looks from our players and kind of matchup stuff. Those are the two things that come to mind really quickly, and I think kind of what we were missing previous to his name being added.”

Regarding those splits: Boxberger, a right-hander who works with a four-seam fastball that averaged 92.5 mph last season, a changeup and a slider, has held left-handed hitters to a .641 OPS in his career. Right-handed hitters are at .736.