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Squirrelly Phillips going nuts in search for hits

Brewers prospect is likely to start regular season with Triple-A Colorado Springs
MLB.com @AdamMcCalvy

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- "Just imagine me as a squirrel," said Brett Phillips, and he's going somewhere with this, so let's hear him out.

First, some context: Phillips put up an .851 OPS over the final month of the 2017 season in the thick of the Brewers' pennant chase while making a series of Statcast-worthy throws from center field, and he entered the offseason with a chance to play a prominent role for the Brewers in '18. He still could very well do that, but Phillips' path to the Opening Day roster was, shall we say, complicated by the late-January additions of Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich to an outfield that already included Ryan Braun and Domingo Santana. Phillips, it seems, is bound for Triple-A Colorado Springs.

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- "Just imagine me as a squirrel," said Brett Phillips, and he's going somewhere with this, so let's hear him out.

First, some context: Phillips put up an .851 OPS over the final month of the 2017 season in the thick of the Brewers' pennant chase while making a series of Statcast-worthy throws from center field, and he entered the offseason with a chance to play a prominent role for the Brewers in '18. He still could very well do that, but Phillips' path to the Opening Day roster was, shall we say, complicated by the late-January additions of Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich to an outfield that already included Ryan Braun and Domingo Santana. Phillips, it seems, is bound for Triple-A Colorado Springs.

He has said all the right things this spring about remaining optimistic and being a good teammate, with actions to match. But before he connected for his first spring homer against the Rockies on Tuesday, Phillips was hitting .098 after his first 41 Cactus League at-bats. He finally showed the first hint of frustration when he kicked the dirt on his way back to the dugout after striking out against the Dodgers on Sunday.

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So, back to the analogy. The squirrel.

"No, listen. Pay attention to detail here," Phillips said. "Imagine me as a squirrel, and in the fall he gathers up all his nuts and stores them away. I worked hard in the fall to gather all my nuts, and here comes the spring, and next thing you know, I forgot where I hid them. My hits, my nuts. So I'm just trying to un-dig them.

"It's looking like they're probably behind the dugout in Colorado Springs, or in the clubhouse. I don't remember being there in the offseason to bury them, but I think that's where they're probably going to be at. Which is fine. I'll go get them. I'll gather my nuts and I'll be eating again.

"That's basically where I'm at."

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Yes, Phillips concedes with a smile, there is frustration.

"As a competitor, I don't want to be where I'm at," Phillips said, "but thank God it's not going on the back of my baseball card."

That sentiment did not surprise Brewers manager Craig Counsell, who said he was surprised the other day when he noticed Phillips' low batting average. By the eye test, according to Counsell, Phillips' at-bats have not been that bad.

"If I were Brett I'd be saying, 'I'm glad this happened during the spring and not during the season," Counsell said. "He's 40 plate appearances into 2018, and I'll tell you this: Everyone wants to be locked in going into the first day of the season, and then on the first day of the season, everything that happened in Spring Training becomes irrelevant to the players."

Video: Top Prospects: Brett Phillips, OF, Brewers

Does Counsell think Phillips' poor results are tied to disappointment over the team's offseason additions?

"I don't really think it is," Counsell said. "Look, was he affected by our moves this winter? Certainly, he was affected. Regardless, would he have been a lock on the team? No, he would not have been a lock on the team. There would have still been a lot of considerations."

Phillips, the Brewers' No. 6 prospect according to MLB Pipeline, vowed to keep plugging away. Then he went out and smacked an eighth-inning go-ahead two-run home run off Colorado's Jairo Diaz in his first plate appearance on Tuesday.

"That guy was throwing absolute laser beams, missiles, probably from one of the newer generation-type model spaceships," Phillips said after the final out of a 4-4 tie. "Honestly, I couldn't see it. So it was a matter of swinging as soon as he got started. Luckily, I was able to square it up. Thank God."

He called it "something to build on." Even before connecting against the hard-throwing Diaz, Phillips was looking for reasons to stay positive.

"Obviously, it's not where anyone wants to be," Phillips said, "but I've still got six months ahead of me that actually matter. I'm just using this to grow through and get ready for my season.

"Like a squirrel."

Adam McCalvy has covered the Brewers for MLB.com since 2001. Follow him on Twitter @AdamMcCalvy and like him on Facebook.

Milwaukee Brewers, Brett Phillips