PHOENIX -- Wednesday marked three weeks since Brewers pitchers and catchers reported for Spring Training and three weeks until the eve of Opening Day. In other words, we’re halfway home.
It seemed an opportune time to poll players in camps all around baseball about who has stood out this spring. In Brewers camp, we posed a simple question to 26 players -- an Opening Day roster’s worth.
Who has most impressed you so far?
We heard 13 different names in response, including one that you won’t find atop a locker in the Major League clubhouse at American Family Fields of Phoenix.
“This is kind of a hard question for me because I haven’t participated much yet,” said Christian Yelich, the most impressive Brewers player of the past two seasons. “It’s like, what constitutes ‘impressed’? It’s subjective. That’s a tough question.”
We let players determine their own definition, and an underdog emerged victorious:
Winner: UTIL Mark Mathias (four mentions)
Brewers manager Craig Counsell loves a good backstory, and Mathias has it. He’s a long shot for Opening Day with Milwaukee, which added the 25-year-old in a November trade with the Indians before getting similarly-versatile players like Ronny Rodríguez, Eric Sogard, Jedd Gyorko and Brock Holt. But Mathias has impressed everyone from the coaches’ room to the clubhouse with his play, which has consisted of manning the outfield for the first time since he was a kid.
“Mathias has made a pretty big impression,” said All-Star starter Brandon Woodruff. “He’s moving all over and playing some good baseball. He’s probably playing some spots he normally doesn’t play. That’s how we [the Brewers] like to do things. That’s who pops to mind first. I’m sure he’ll be a popular pick.”
Woodruff was right. Most players mentioned some runners-up after making their selection, and Mathias was almost always one of the players discussed.
“He’s a ballplayer,” said reliever Justin Grimm. “I was making a joke the other day, ‘Hey, Mark is in the lineup. We’re trying to win today.’ He’s been playing all kinds of different positions, and he’s been doing it well. That’s very valuable. And he’s hitting. He’s timed-up. He’s ready to go.”
“Everytime I see him,” said another Brewers reliever, Devin Williams, “he gets a knock and makes a diving play.”
Added catcher Payton Henry: “I like the way he plays.”
Runners-up: SS Orlando Arcia, RHP Corbin Burnes, RHP Drew Rasmussen (three mentions each)
On Arcia: “It’s hard to single out just one, but Arcia is up there as far as being one of the guys who is doing well. He looks like he’s determined to prove something this year. You like to see that fire in his eyes.” -- Adrian Houser
On Burnes: “I watched Corbin the other day and it was nasty. It was gross. I mean, I know he’s always been gross, but it was really, really good. How last year went, he’s motivated. He’s been chucking it. He’s been disgusting. I was at that game against the Dodgers to watch Woody, Corbin and Clayton Kershaw, and Corbin was nasty.” -- Jake Faria
On Rasmussen: “I play catch with him every day. It’s impressive. I’m trying to get a couple miles an hour from him. With the curveball and everything. I think he’s going to be huge.” -- Trey Supak
Third place: OF Lorenzo Cain, 2B Keston Hiura, LHP Eric Lauer, C Jacob Nottingham (two mentions each)
On Cain: “He looks good. His batting practice is noticeably better than it’s been the last couple of years. I’m serious -- I’m telling you, I’m serious. He looks better, man.” -- Ryan Braun
On Hiura: “I didn’t really know much about him. We’ve been in the same hitting group for basically the whole camp, so I’ve been watching him. It’s like, ‘Yeah, this guy is a really good hitter.’” -- Justin Smoak
On Lauer: “Lauer’s been nasty, dude. It’s in, out, slider-slider-slider. First of all, I thought he threw 87 mph. It comes out and he’s sitting [mid-90s]. Two weeks into camp and he’s already got a feel for all of his pitches. Really impressive. It looks to me like he’s in midseason form.” -- Ray Black
On Nottingham: “I think he’s made some pretty good strides as far as his all-around game, his preparation, learning what it takes to contribute at the big-league level and what that demands. I spent a lot of time around him in the offseason [working out at the same gym], and you see he’s grown a lot since last season ended. It’s a noticeable change. You hope he stays on that trajectory.” -- Yelich
Honorable mention: RHP Justin Grimm, RHP Mike Morin, 1B Logan Morrison, INF Luis Urías, RHP Phil Bickford (one mention each)
Bickford, the choice of Brewers lefty Brent Suter, was an interesting name because he’s not even in big league camp. He is one of the Minor Leaguers who has seen action late in Cactus League games, and his success has garnered attention because it was not too long ago that his career appeared on the rocks in the wake of a suspension, a broken hand suffered on a comebacker and then velocity issues.
“You know what? I’ve seen Bickford pitch a couple of times and he stands out,” Suter said. “I saw him last year at this time working through some injury stuff, working through some things, and to see how far he’s come from that thanks to the work he put in, I’m so happy for him. I was here for a lot of the summer with him last year. I’m so impressed by his pitching.”
Adam McCalvy has covered the Brewers for MLB.com since 2001. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram and like him on Facebook.