SURPRISE, Ariz. -- If this works, then Brett Lawrie will be the poster child for the Brewers’ multi-million dollar investment in sports science at the renovated American Family Fields of Phoenix.
If it doesn’t work, then at least the 29-year-old, who was a first-round Draft pick in 2008, will know he gave it a shot.
“I’m very pumped,” said Lawrie. “I have a lot left in the tank. It’s time for me to unleash that. I’m coming.”
But it will take extreme patience, just like the signing itself, which spanned 15 days from when Lawrie announced it via Instagram to when the Brewers finalized it Sunday morning. Lawrie will not appear in big league camp with the Brewers, nor will he do any baseball activities for the next six weeks, GM David Stearns said.
Instead, Lawrie will spend that time strengthening the body that has betrayed him in recent years, and the Brewers will try to get to the bottom of what went wrong since he left as a brash, but supremely talented prospect nine years ago.
“I don’t believe we would have been able to take on something like this prior to having this facility,” Stearns said.
The facility was called Maryvale Baseball Park when Lawrie first came to work here in 2009, the spring after the Brewers drafted him 16th overall. What was the cramped Major League clubhouse and tiny athletic-training room is now an entire wing of the complex dedicated to sports science, though just how much of the $65 million renovation went into that area, and what exactly the Brewers have planned for it, the club is keeping to itself.
As the space moves closer to completion, Lawrie will be among its test cases.
“The plan right now is he’ll spend the next six weeks here, really not doing baseball activities, but putting his body in the best position to succeed moving forward,” said Stearns. “It’s a long period, but we’ve got time. There’s no rush here. This is a player who hasn’t played in the Major Leagues for two years, and he recognizes that there’s a significant amount of work to be done before he can get back on the field and then progress to baseball activities. All sides are eager to take on this challenge. It’s really a no-lose situation for everyone involved, and allows us to make use of our resources here in ways that we envisioned.”
How does a “performance evaluation” differ from a traditional physical?
“I think we went a little bit farther than that in going through this with Brett, with our strength staff, with our training staff, with our integrative sports performance staff,” Stearns said. “Making sure we really understand what is going on with Brett’s body from a physical perspective.
“Brett is not hurt. He is not an injured player. He has had a number of lower body injuries, and before we put him back out on the field, we want to understand why. And we want to do our best to give him a comprehensive plan for, ‘This is how we believe we can get you back on the field consistently and as a productive player.’”
Lawrie last played in the Brewers’ organization in 2010, when he declined an assignment to the Arizona Fall League after being denied a September callup from Double-A Huntsville. Months later at the Winter Meetings, then-Brewers GM Doug Melvin sent Lawrie to Toronto for Shaun Marcum in the first of a pair of trades (Zack Greinke from the Royals was the other) that helped send Milwaukee to a club-record 96 regular-season wins and their first postseason series victory in 29 years. Lawrie was in the big leagues the following year, beginning a Major League journey that took him to the Blue Jays, A’s and White Sox before lower body injuries derailed his career.
He hit double-digit home runs in five straight seasons through 2016 before his legs gave out. After an unsuccessful attempt at rehab with the White Sox in 2017, he was out of baseball in 2018. Lawrie and his wife had a baby boy and moved from Phoenix to Seattle to be nearer Lawrie’s family.
It was several months ago, with the Maryvale renovation in full swing, that Brewers vice president of player personnel Karl Mueller had the idea to bring Lawrie back.
“I have a lot of patience,” Lawrie said. “I think the plan we have in place is to make me the ‘ultimate me.’ Try to bullet-proof me so once I get back on the field with baseball activity, I go out there and stay out there. That’s the goal.”
Lawrie’s former teammates use many different words to describe him, but “patient” isn’t among them.
Instead, they describe a player with stratospheric energy, further fueled by Red Bull and nutritional supplements. And a player with remarkable physicality.
“We were in Vegas, [playing for the] 51s,” said Eric Thames, who played with Lawrie in the Blue Jays system. “He took four scoops of pre-workout and he was trying to jump through the ceiling of the clubhouse. Like, put his head through the ceiling panels. He almost got it. He’s a freak athlete.
“We were like, ‘Dude, you’re insane.’”
Lorenzo Cain chose his words carefully when asked about their time together in Milwaukee’s Minor League system. He said he remembers Lawrie as “special,” and “a freak of nature” who had to learn to tame his emotions.
“That was a long time ago,” said Cain. “I remember him leading off and I hit second in Double-A. I always thought the guy was just more physically gifted than a lot of guys. He just had to put it all together, of course. I heard he had issues. I don’t know what actually happened. Hopefully he gets back to his old self, playing the game and loving the game and wanting to compete and have a good time. But overall, he has it. He always had it. I need to go over there and say hi to him.”
The scout who signed Lawrie out of British Columbia, Marty Lehn, is still a part-time scout with the Brewers. And farm director Tom Flanagan was the top assistant in that department during Lawrie’s first tenure with the organization.
They will be part of what manager Craig Counsell called “a long-term Minor League project.” According to The Athletic, Lawrie’s contract includes a club option for 2020, which is rare for Minor League deals.
“Look, I’m certainly well aware of both the highs and lows of Brett’s first tenure here,” Stearns said. “I’m aware of some of the really good performance years he’s had, and I’m aware of some of the challenges he had here as well. I think what we’re getting is a player who’s highly motivated to continue his career, a player who recognizes he probably needs to do everything right to continue his career, and that’s what we expect to get.
“He’s still young, right? If he had gone uninjured, he would be right in the prime of his career.”
Lawrie is hoping that career isn’t over.
“I’ve always had the itch. It’s never left me,” he said. “I didn’t get released because I was a bad baseball player. I got released because of other issues that nobody could put their finger on. That was fine with me because I always knew baseball would be there for me. Fortunately, for me, the right opportunity has come forward. I couldn’t be more excited to be back with the first team that believed in me.”
Adam McCalvy has covered the Brewers for MLB.com since 2001. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram and like him on Facebook.