PHOENIX -- The imminent addition of Jackie Bradley Jr. appears to reduce by one the number of bench jobs up for grabs in Brewers' camp among a diverse array of candidates who are drawing praise from manager Craig Counsell in the early going.
Utility man Pablo Reyes and outfielder Derek Fisher are among the extras catching Counsell’s eye -- Reyes for a series of long and high-quality at-bats, and Fisher for some loud contact. The Brewers have not settled on a pitcher-hitter breakdown for their 26-man Opening Day roster, and even once those figures are set, they are likely to vary based on the demands of the schedule.
“When you start to consider the next group of guys, they're often going to be in roles where flexibility is important,” Counsell said. “I do feel like we do have a good group of those players, and that should help us get through some times during the season when you get a little thin.
“Really, it's about getting through the bumps and the bruises of a season, when you're a little thin day-to-day, when versatile guys can help you out. That's how they get your at-bats, that's how they get their playing time and that's how they get their chance to make an impression.”
Assuming that Bradley, Lorenzo Cain, Avisaíl García and Christian Yelich are the Opening Day outfielders, and Orlando Arcia, Keston Hiura, Luis Urías, Kolten Wong and, perhaps, non-roster invitee third baseman Travis Shaw are on the infield, and Omar Narváez and Manny Piña are the front-line catchers, here are some of the players vying for the final spot or two:
Mark Mathias, Tim Lopes, Jace Peterson, Reyes and Daniel Robertson represent true utility men who can man the infield and the outfield – typically favorite pieces of Counsell and president of baseball operations David Stearns. Mathias, Lopes and Robertson are all on the 40-man roster, and Robertson, a former MLB Pipeline Top 100 prospect, who is still just 26 years old and came to the Brewers on a one-year free agent deal, is the only out-of-options player among the 40-man group, and after Arcia and Urías is next on the depth chart at shortstop, Counsell said.
“I don’t know where I’ll be playing. I don’t really care, to be honest,” Robertson said. “I’m going to work at all of them, just keep staying sharp and be ready for whatever opportunity presents itself.”
Mathias and Peterson each had some nice moments for the Brewers in 2020 while showing that they could play all over the field, but Peterson has been down a few days with a minor thumb injury, and both have been upstaged so far by Reyes, who is 3-for-10 with a homer while consistently putting up solid plate appearances.
Mathias is on the 40-man roster. Reyes and Peterson are non-roster invitees.
“[Reyes] is doing very good things,” Counsell said. “What I’ve been impressed with is just the ball-strike stuff. This is not a free-swinger. His ball-strike decision making has been excellent in every at-bat so far. He’s controlling at-bats, so he’s getting a good pitch to hit in every at-bat and he’s putting a good swing on it. He’s been as locked-in as any hitter we’ve had so far.”
Should there be a roster spot available in the outfield, Fisher, Billy McKinney and Corey Ray are former MLB Pipeline Top 100 prospects in the running with Tyrone Taylor. Fisher and McKinney are out of options, while Ray and Taylor have options. Of the group, McKinney probably has the most versatility, having played some first base in the big leagues. Fisher has had the most eye-opening early showing, including an opposite-field homer on Friday at the Rockies that topped 110 mph exit velocity, per Statcast.
Was Fisher discouraged when he learned the Brewers were in agreement with Bradley?
“I can’t control it,” he said. “I look forward to being able to play with him and learn from him. I’ve been on the other side for quite some time playing against him and he’s, obviously, a really good player. So, being able to pick the brain of some of the best is always a plus.”
The wild card at the moment is Daniel Vogelbach, whose chances took a double hit this week with news of the imminent Bradley and a report that the designated hitter rule is unlikely to return to the NL in 2021. Vogelbach is out of options and best suited as a DH.
Veteran left-hander Brett Anderson made his first spring start later than the other Brewers pitchers after re-signing with the club at the start of camp. He worked around a leadoff, four-pitch walk to deal a scoreless first inning in Saturday’s 3-1 loss to the Cubs to begin what he hopes is a healthy camp after battling blister issues at the start and end of last season.
“Being drier here [in Arizona] actually helps,” Anderson said. “I usually build up a callus vs. going into Milwaukee last year [for Summer Camp] and getting a blister from the outset. I know what to expect here from the dryness and things like that. It’s easier to monitor and take care of, having a normal Spring Training. I know what to expect with the thin air. Not having the humidity right away helps you build a callus. I’ve had quite a few Spring Trainings here so I know how to go about it.”
Said Counsell: “It took him five pitches to get going, but after that he threw the ball very well like he wants. He joked that two strikeouts matched a lot of his season totals last year, so he was very happy, yeah.”
• The Brewers are off Sunday before returning on Monday against the Angels at American Family Fields of Phoenix. Presumptive Opening Day starter Brandon Woodruff is scheduled to start and pitch one inning.
• The Brewers plan a cautious approach with infielder Urías after he tweaked his left hamstring in Friday’s game against the Rockies, with Counsell saying, “The best way to say it would be day-to-day. He will not play Monday. We'll have him run around the field, most likely run and then take a day of batting practice and ground balls. But I feel confident. I mean, right now, we're just going make him day-to-day, and I’m not ruling him out past Tuesday."
• Minor League right-hander Miguel Sánchez struck out a pair in a scoreless inning against the Cubs, giving him four strikeouts in his first three spring innings. Sanchez signed with the Brewers out of the Dominican Republic in 2016 and was not part of the club’s alternate training site last year.
“He has a really good changeup working right now,” Counsell said. “It’s kind of the harder version of one. He’s been interesting, for sure. Last year he hurt his back kind of early in camp so we didn’t see him, but he had a nice 2019 in camp here. Always been interesting. With the amount of innings we need this year, he’s definitely a guy that’s on our radar.”