PHOENIX -- Brewers manager Craig Counsell declined Thursday to name his Opening Day starter. That was no surprise, considering the team’s pitchers and catchers had just taken the field to stretch for the first official workout of Spring Training.
First things first. Counsell & Co. have a lot of work to do in the six weeks or so before Opening Day, and here are three predictions about what’s to come:
1. While fans fret about third base, the Brewers will direct more attention to the bullpen.
Last year, the Brewers came to camp with the bulk of the bullpen locked down. Remember the day Counsell touted “The Electric Dudes” trio of Josh Hader, Corey Knebel and Jeremy Jeffress? In the end, neither Knebel nor Jeffress was active on Opening Day, and Knebel needed Tommy John surgery that cost him the entire season.
This year, much of the ‘pen is up for grabs. Hader is a lock after winning a second straight National League Reliever of the Year Award. The Brewers have high hopes for newcomer David Phelps in his second season off elbow surgery. After that, everything depends on performance and circumstances. Ray Black is out of options. Knebel isn’t expected back until May at the earliest. Brent Suter will probably be in the ‘pen, unless the Brewers lose a bunch of starters in Spring Training and need him in the rotation. Likewise, the roles of Corbin Burnes and Freddy Peralta depend on what the rotation looks like.
“I think we have questions to answer in the bullpen,” Counsell said. “And I think our mind is pretty open to a lot of people in that scenario. I don’t exactly remember the situation last year, but I do think we have multiple spots and a pretty good list of players that we’re considering.”
2. Burnes will be the most popular pick to click.
Spring Training is all about optimism, and the Brewers don’t have a clearer bounce-back candidate than 25-year-old Burnes. Last year was an unmitigated disaster for the right-hander, who allowed 11 home runs in four March/April starts and was shifted to the bullpen before later getting demoted to the Minors and then sent to the team’s pitching lab in Arizona in search of answers. His final numbers weren’t pretty: An 8.82 ERA and 17 home runs allowed in 49 big league innings.
Burnes never stopped working, unless you count the 10 days off in early October. He lives year-round in Phoenix and worked out at the Brewers’ complex. He also saw a sports psychologist.
“I didn't want to wipe the slate completely clean because, as far as the metrics, the slider was one of the better pitches in baseball,” Burnes said. “For me, it was how can we start with the slider and make everything around it better which, in turn, makes the slider better. … Last year, things just kind of blended together. They have a kind of similar look, and they were starting to take away from each other. We reworked a lot of things this offseason, and I think you'll see better results this spring.”
3. Omar Narváez will be the busiest man in Maryvale.
Give the Brewers’ new catcher this: He is clear-eyed about what he needs to do to be a better player.
“Everybody knows I’m going to work a lot on my receiving, on my framing stats,” Narváez said. “I made some improvements last year. Obviously, not enough. My goal is to try to be in the [middle] of the ranking for now. Once, I’m there, obviously my goal is going to be No. 1. But I’m just trying to make baby steps for now.”
The Brewers acquired Narváez from the Mariners in December and put a plan in motion to help his defense catch up to his offense. It began over several days in Milwaukee around Brewers On Deck in late January, during which Narváez met with Counsell, bench coach Pat Murphy and other club officials to get on the same page.
Murphy is leading the project with input from bullpen catchers Marcus Hanel and Robinzon Díaz. Brewers manager of Major League strategy Walker McKinven is closely aligned with the catchers in terms of game-calling. Triple-A manager Rick Sweet will be involved after having success in a similar project with Jacob Nottingham. And the Brewers will also rely on their respected catching coordinator, Charlie Greene.
“This is a team effort,” Counsell said. “A lot of what we've talked with Omar about is awareness: awareness of the situation and awareness of what you're doing. There's a lot of trial and error, like with anything. You have to make yourself comfortable and that comes from practice and doing it. There's also feedback from Manny Piña. He's taken part in the meetings, as well, and has been a great resource. Manny's really made big improvements at the big league level.
“I like our plan. I really like the plan we're going to undertake, and Omar is excited to get started.”