PHOENIX -- It’s a rite of spring, right alongside the player who declares himself in the best shape of his life. Someone, somewhere, is working on a changeup.
The Brewers have a couple of pitchers in that camp, including a former Opening Day starter and the front-runner for the honor this year. Junior Guerra, who is bidding for a bullpen spot this time around, and Jhoulys Chacin, the team’s steadiest starter a year ago, both said that they are intent on refining that offspeed pitch this spring.
“I’m pretty sure Jhoulys has been saying that for 14 years in his career,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said.
“Yes. I am working on my changeup again,” he said. “Just playing catch in the offseason, trying to get the feel. I’m a guy who [works] with ‘feel.’ Hopefully, I get the good feeling. I just want to throw it for strikes. … I think guys are going to dive for my slider and see something like a change, they’ll roll over. You always try to make the hitter off-balance.”
Last year in an early-season start against the Cubs, Chacin successfully introduced a split-fingered fastball to his arsenal that effectively served as a changeup. But he worries about that pitch putting undue stress on his elbow, and also that the split is too close in velocity to his other offerings.
Still, his combination of pitches produced the steadiest season of Milwaukee’s starting pitchers last year. Chacin was 15-8 with a 3.50 ERA in the regular season, including a solid start into the sixth inning of the National League Central tiebreaker against the Cubs. Then he went 2-1 with a 1.46 ERA in three postseason starts.
He has one specific goal for the regular season in 2019.
"I want to throw 200 innings,” Chacin said. “That’s always been my goal. I always wanted to do it.”
When it was suggested his goal may be tough to attain since he plays for a team that makes such liberal use of its bullpen, Chacin smiled and said, “I know. But I never give up hope.”
Versatility is king
The Brewers will decide at some point whether it’s Mike Moustakas at second base and Travis Shaw at third, or vice versa. But their position-player group is set, barring injuries, meaning this particular Spring Training is not about position battles as much as exploring positional versatility.
So, as the exhibition schedule begins Saturday, Counsell is planning to play Ben Gamel in center field throughout camp, for example. Cory Spangenberg will play some left field and shortstop. Tyler Saladino will get time in the outfield.
“We know the unforeseen is going to happen, and you want to have a plan for the unforeseen,” Counsell said. “It’s unforeseen, but you know it’s going to happen, if that makes sense. It’s baseball. You have to expect injuries and injured list -- we have to call it the injured list now -- placements. You want your team to be as strong as it possibly can throughout those times. It’s depth, but versatility really raises that floor of what happens when you do have injuries.”
Gamel is positioned as an important player for the Brewers this year. Acquired from the Mariners for out-of-options outfielder Domingo Santana, Gamel is Milwaukee’s fourth outfielder at the moment behind Ryan Braun, Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich. Since Braun will again get regular rest to avoid lower-back issues, Gamel should get plenty of at-bats.
“We thought he fit with our outfield group. That was it as much as anything,” Counsell said. “In addition, we thought he has skills as a young hitter kind of coming into his own. He checks a lot of boxes of a guy that we like. He’s at an age where there’s still more in there, for sure.”
Rain, rain go away
An unusually cold start to the Cactus League continued Thursday with a steady rain all morning and into the afternoon, forcing the Brewers to cancel their scheduled field work. Players got work under covered mounds and in the new, expanded batting cages at American Family Fields of Phoenix.
But much of the day was spent inside.
“We have covered cages, but we can’t use the field. It’s not a dome,” Counsell said. “We still are stuck a little bit with rain. We do have some bigger space to conduct some meetings. That’s probably the biggest advantage.”
The meeting space is particularly useful this year, since the Brewers have three new coaches: hitting coach Andy Haines, pitching coach Steve Hook and bullpen coach Steve Karsay.
“I think getting new coaches in front of the players as much as we can [is helpful],” Counsell said. “We want our coaches to have different ideas.”