Pitching, defense shine in Brewers' spring

March 26th, 2021

PHOENIX -- The Brewers had already made a commitment to winning with pitching and defense when they made the mid-Spring Training signing that sealed it. joined an outfield on March 8 that already included two other Gold Glove Award winners in and , plus .

How to spread at-bats among that quartet of established outfielders is manager Craig Counsell’s problem. But the Brewers’ other defense-first signing, second baseman , liked the look of the team with Bradley in the mix.

“It’s going to be one of those teams that people really need to look out for, because we’ve got it all,” Wong said. “Our pitching staff is really good. We’ve got ‘Yeli,’ who just knows how to flat-out hit. You’ve got Lorenzo Cain coming back. To add JBJ to that, that’s going to be awesome.”

Bradley got a late start to Spring Training but is on track to be ready for the opener. Cain is back from a quad injury. Wong has been healthy and hitting for a bit of power. And while the Brewers have suffered some injuries within their depth pool, the mainstays of their promising pitching staff ended the last full week of exhibition season in good health, including top starters and , and ace relievers and .

“I think I knew right away once [the Brewers] got into the mix that I was excited,” Bradley said. “You look at this team, there’s a lot of great talent here so I was excited to sign and get here. I’m excited to be in the mix. The opportunity is going to present itself.”

Best development
The best thing was that there were few surprises for Milwaukee’s mainstays. Yelich looked like Yelich. This does not qualify as a surprise development, but it was nevertheless an important one for a team counting on Yelich returning to Most Valuable Player Award-winning level given a full season to work with. Some of the Brewers’ other hitters coming off a disappointing showing in 2020 also put up proficient at-bats in camp. Catchers (.562 OPS in 2020, 1.207 OPS in 28 Cactus League at-bats through Thursday) and (knee surgery last year, 1.157 OPS in 14 at-bats through Thursday), García (.659 OPS in 2020, .867 OPS in 40 at-bats through Thursday) and new first baseman (.707 OPS in 2020, .823 OPS in 31 at-bats through Thursday) looked particularly good at the plate.

Unfortunate events
This was a big spring for Cain, who made the decision at the start of last August to not play the remainder of the year over concerns about the coronavirus and a desire to reconnect with his faith. Coming into camp, he faced a challenge getting his legs back under him and reacclimating to Major League pitching and couldn’t afford any setbacks. Unfortunately, he suffered a setback almost immediately, straining his right quad in a baserunning drill soon after Cactus League games began. He didn’t play until the final 12 games on the Brewers’ exhibition slate, leaving Cain precious little time to get the work he needs to be ready for Opening Day. And along the way, the Brewers signed another Gold Glove Award-winning center fielder in Bradley.

It was also an unfortunate camp for many members of the Brewers’ depth brigade, which is particularly important this year because of workload concerns around baseball as the sport reverts to a 162-game schedule. Pitchers ticketed for bulk innings at the alternate site and Triple-A Nashville, like (right shoulder fatigue), (right elbow), (right forearm) all got hurt during the spring, and it emerged that had undergone surgery for a stress fracture in his right elbow and would be out until late May or early June. Reliever went down with an oblique injury.

It wasn’t just the pitchers. Utility players (right shoulder) and Tim Lopes (oblique) also suffered serious injuries in Cactus League games and landed on the 60-day injured list, and catcher will start on the IL as he slowly recovers from offseason left thumb surgery. All told, the Brewers’ depth took a rather significant hit in recent weeks.

Player who opened eyes
Even Robin Yount played 64 Minor League games before making the Majors as an 18-year-old Opening Day shortstop in 1974, so perhaps it is wise to pump the brakes on the hype train. Still, the Brewers’ first-round Draft pick in 2020 was incredibly impressive during his first professional Spring Training, especially considering that his pro experience coming into camp consisted of four games in the fall instructional league. Mitchell, a left-handed-hitting center fielder, metaphorically rolled out of bed and started hitting, beginning his Cactus League with a 10-for-20 clip that included a slew of loud outs and seven hits against left-handed pitchers. That certainly opened eyes for Counsell and his coaching staff, who can file the memory away for a date in the future -- maybe 2022? Or 2023? -- when Mitchell has the Minor League experience under his belt to be an option for the Major League club. He made quite a first impression.

Wow moment
A bout of COVID-19 delayed ’s assignment to the alternate training site last summer, but the left-hander finished strong in the fall instructional league and followed up that performance with an eye-opening (albeit brief) stint in the Cactus League. In his first two appearances, Ashby recorded all six outs via strikeouts, showing off one of the system’s best sliders and an array of deliveries meant to play with hitters’ timing. When other prospects were cut from the formal big league camp roster, Ashby earned a few extra days, an acknowledgement of the good work he’d put in. He’s 22 and hasn’t pitched an inning above High-A ball, but given the stresses ahead for teams going back to a 162-game season, Ashby has an outside chance of making the leap to the big league bullpen later in 2021 if he continues to pitch like that.

In case you missed it
Bob Uecker celebrates his 50th anniversary in the Brewers’ radio booth later this year, and for the first time in all those years, he actually has a contract. Uecker ended a streak of handshake agreements with Brewers owners Bud Selig and Mark Attanasio that stretched all the way back to 1971 after losing the health benefits he’d long received via the Screen Actors Guild. When that policy expired last year due to the pandemic, Uecker signed with the Brewers in order to join their insurance plan.

Uecker is vaccinated against COVID-19 and part of the Brewers’ Tier 2 staff this spring. That means he can be back around the guys again after spending all of 2020 up in the booth.

“It’s amazing how you take everything for granted,” said Uecker, 87. “Being down there on the field, shooting the bull. Then when you can’t do it, it’s bad. You really lose that.”