Williams making strong impression for 'pen role

Right-hander earned September callup last season after missing 2015-16

March 7th, 2018

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- was 23 and in his first big league camp when he threw that memorable round of live batting practice. It was 2015, and the fastball was so explosive that compared Williams to then-Braves closer . The good first impression came with a price.

Williams' right elbow was sore by the end of that spring, and when it did not heal with rehab, he succumbed to Tommy John surgery. He missed two full seasons before returning cautiously in 2017 and building all the way to Milwaukee by September.

Now, three springs later, Williams is impressing again. So good has he been, including an inning against the White Sox on Tuesday in which Williams surrendered a run but ran his strikeout total to seven in four Cactus League innings, that Brewers officials are debating whether he deserves a spot in the Opening Day bullpen.

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"He's certainly a guy that we've taken note of," Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. "I don't think we've made any decisions on Taylor yet. He's made an impression here, for sure."

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This time, Williams hopes the impression lasts.

"No limits this year," Williams said. "No chains attached."

There were limits last year -- significant ones. Williams made 14 starts for Double-A Biloxi but never pitched past the fourth inning. He took three weeks off at midseason as a precaution. When he returned in August, he pitched in relief, always with at least two days off between outings.

But Williams got results. He struck out 11 batters per nine innings. In August, Williams surrendered a hit to two of the 29 batters he faced, with 10 strikeouts.

When the Brewers made Williams a September callup, it was generally considered a surprise. But one of the Biloxi catchers, , says he saw it coming.

"Probably a week before he got called up, it was like, 'OK, this is ridiculous. He doesn't belong here,'" Houle said. "Early in the season, it took him a bit to get adjusted to the long season again."

The Shuckers were in Mobile, Ala., when Williams got word he was Milwaukee-bound. Manager Mike Guerrero announced it to the whole team at once, and the room erupted, Houle said.

He was one of the first teammates to wrap Williams in a hug.

"We all knew what he went through," Houle said. "I know what it's like to have baseball taken away."

Houle missed all of 2015 following his own Tommy John surgery, and while that comeback is generally easier for a position player, it is still grueling. Houle and Williams spent eight or nine months together rehabbing at Maryvale Baseball Park.

"The way they were using him, me and a couple of guys close to him sensed that something could be coming," Houle said. "He was dominant. He's got big league stuff."

But does Williams have big league bounceback ability? Counsell and club officials must answer that question as they make roster decisions in the coming weeks. The schedule calls for at least one multi-inning appearance this spring, plus one set of outings on back-to-back days.

Even with an eight-man bullpen, Williams will have to pass those durability tests to make the cut.

"There are questions with Taylor, for sure," Counsell said. "As a professional, he just hasn't pitched a lot, so those questions are there. I think he's pitching in a way that makes us ask, 'Can we finish that at the big league level?' He's forcing those questions."

For Counsell and Williams, the most important thing that with Spring Training past the halfway point, Williams is healthy.

In his September stint with the Brewers he allowed a run on four hits, with two walks and four strikeouts in 4 2/3 innings over five appearances. He spent the winter with his girlfriend in Phoenix and worked out at the Brewers' complex with catcher .

"It was a huge confidence boost. That was the biggest thing," Williams said of last season's strong finish.

Brewers farm director Tom Flanagan said the club has held up Williams as an example to other young pitchers of how to rehab a significant injury. Williams has helped others along the way, including 2015 supplemental first-round Draft pick Nathan Kirby as he recovers from Tommy John surgery.

In the near-term, Williams' best bet for the big league roster is the bullpen, but the club has not completely ruled out returning him to the rotation at a later date, Flanagan said.

Williams would love a chance to start again, but he isn't being picky.

"After missing two seasons, you kind of just become grateful for your health and your opportunity to play this game," Williams said. "Whatever it is, starting or relieving, I just want to be up there."