Milwaukee Brewers: Spring Training Recap

There are 60 players in the Milwaukee Brewers clubhouse to start Spring Training.

The Wisconsin Sports Zone was live in Arizona, watching practices, meeting with players, coaches and team employees, covering their first week of full squad practices.

In case you missed any of the content, there are stories about honoring Jackie Robinson, recovering from injury and bringing your puppy to work, among others.

Enjoy!

Stories:

Owner Mark Attanasio says the team operated at a loss in 2019.

When Brock Holt was deciding whether or not to sign with Milwaukee, he called one of his best friends, former Brewers third baseman, Travis Shaw. Shaw spoke exclusively with The Wisconsin Sports Zone.

Lorenzo Cain has a custom shirt he wears under his uniform for every single game. It pays tribute to Jackie Robinson.

Corbin Burnes completely changed his off-season approach as he tries to compete for a spot in the starting rotation. Manager Craig Counsell is a fan of the adjustment.

Corey Knebel battles back from Tommy John surgery. All of his favorite activities were off-limits during rehab.

Audio:

Corbin Burnes joined The Good (Sports) Land Podcast. There’s also audio from Christian Yelich, Ryan Braun and Counsell.

Listen to the exclusive conversation with Travis Shaw about offering a recommendation on Milwaukee to Brock Holt.

Newly acquired pitcher Shelby Miller joins the podcast. Does he have any ghost stories from the times he travelled to Milwaukee as an opponent.

Ed Sedar bring his puppy, Squirt, to the clubhouse. He always appears to be having the most fun on the baseball field. Especially when throwing batting practice to the outfielders.

Corey Knebel talks about his off-season and the “gut punch” it was to watch the team in the playoffs.

Sights and sounds

Josh Hader’s first live batting practice session of the season. Throwing against the new guy, Brock holt.

Ryan Braun takes his first reps at first base.

Catchers taking part in a unique drill.

Probably the most fun moment of the week, just listen to Lo Cain discuss Milk with Christian Yelich.

Corey Knebel is aiming for two trophies in 2020

Matt Harvey. Greg Holland. Jonny Venters.

Three of the last five National League Comeback Player of the Year award recipients all have one thing in common.

Pitchers returning to the mound after undergoing Tommy John surgery.

Corey Knebel wants next.

“Selfishly, become the Comeback Player of the Year,” the Milwaukee Brewers 2018 all-star told the Wisconsin Sports Zone about his goals for the upcoming season. “Unselfishly, win the World Series. I’d love to just be back in the post-season. Contribute to the boys.

“Two years in-a-row, we missed it by just that much. So, just to be there and help them out. Can’t wait, man. To come back and be healthy and throw some high heat. Just can’t wait, man.”

The last time he took the mound, it was Game 7 of the 2018 National League Championship Series. During the following spring training, the decision was made to undergo Tommy John surgery and miss all of the 2019 season.

An operation that requires months of rehabilitation, Knebel could only watch the team as they made a push for the post-season last year. A feeling he described as a “gut punch” knowing there was nothing he could do to help.

“You’re gassed going in to the post-season,” he said. “But in the post-season another animal kicks in. So I was happy to see what the guys in the (bullpen) did last year, especially in the post-season. They looked good, there’s always just one thing, you know? Even during the season, it’s one mistake that happens and that’s how it usually is.

“That’s the name of the game. You can’t change it. What is it, ‘baseball is a game of inches?’ That’s exactly what it is. It was tough to watch.”

Brewers manager Craig Counsell called Knebel’s hardware aspirations a “great goal.” Adding that he definitely has a shot at winning the award.

Knebel is continuing with his rehabilitation process. He’s hopeful to make his 2020 debut after the first month or so of the regular season. He’s currently throwing bullpen sessions on an average of two to three times per week.

“I can’t really get too far ahead of myself in throwing,” he said. “Trying to stay healthy, that’s the main things. So, i’m getting ready to go. However long that takes, I’m going to be ready to go once I get back up.”

For athletes, the underrated aspect of returning from injury is the mental capacity endure the ups and downs of the daily grind, plus getting yourself ready to compete at a high level again. Knebel said you “go through some stuff” while working your way back to full health.

He was fortunate enough to take a month-and-a-half to himself this off-season, traveling home to Texas to clear his head and prepare to play this season.

Unfortunately, his hobbies include golf, fishing and bow-hunting.

Three activities that you cannot participate in while rehabbing an elbow repair.

“I had to rifle hunt. And rifle hunting is not really too exciting to me,” he said. “You check them out in the scope and pull the trigger. There’s not really any work to be done until after.”

That’s where he was able to spend time with, and lean on his family. Wife, Danielle, and three-year old daughter, Ledger Staar.

“If they’re both asleep, and I’m still up, I’ll play some video games,” Knebel said about his favorite non-family activities to do during free time. “You just got to throw in a couple of things here and there that you can’t do, and you got to make do. Got to have some fun some how.

“My family is my biggest part of my life. I’d do anything for them.”

As for his highly anticipated return to the mound.

“It’s like ripping off a band-aid. You rip it off. We’re all ready to go this year.”

A tale of two off-seasons for Corbin Burnes

In October of 2018, Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Corbin Burnes watched the World Series. He had been on the mound just a week prior, pitching two hitless innings in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series.

The next night, his team was one win away from playing the Boston Red Sox for a chance at the title.

After they lost in Game 7, Burnes took a “significant amount of time off” before starting his off-season training program.

“Going deep in to the post-season, not having done that much before, I took some time to have the body regroup,” he said.

The approach was vastly different in 2019.

This time around, when the World Series was being played, Burnes’ off-season schedule was already underway.

“It was one of those things where it was a little different of an off-season, but we had a pretty plan of what we wanted to attack,” he added. “Coming in to spring we feel like we are in a pretty good place.”

As a reliever in 2018, Burnes posted a perfect 7-0 win-loss record, striking out 35 batters in 38 innings pitched.

After transitioning into a starter in 2019, his record fell to just 1-5, surrendering 70 hits, 17 home runs and 20 walks in just 49 innings pitched.

“Corbin did take a different path this winter, for sure,” manager Craig Counsell said. “Probably, the season caused that.”

Despite the significant drop-off, Burnes said that the plan for him this spring is to be “stretched out” and competing for a spot in the team’s starting pitching rotation. Refusing to be deterred by one disappointing season.

“I had a different focus this off-season,” he said. “The previous year was more of just getting the body physically ready, getting the arm ready.

“This off-season was more of taking a mental approach, along with getting the body physically ready and pitching shape ready. But, the main focus this off-season was the mental side of things.”

Counsell just wants his 25-year old pitcher to stay calm and confident.

“There are no evaluations going on right now,” Counsell said of the potential pitching staff rotation. “So for Corbin, just a lightness to him is what I want right now.

“He is fired up about what he’s doing, and that’s the best part, because he should be. He has definitely put in a lot of work and he’s made some adjustments all over for himself as a player and right now he’s rolling with that and it’s all good.”

Burnes will throw live batting practice sessions during spring training, and will also be part of the starting pitching rotation when the team starts to play Cactus League games.

RELATED: Listen to Corbin Burnes on The Good (Sports) Land Podcast.

This off-season the team experienced hefty turnover, especially on the pitcher’s mound. Zach Davies, Chase Anderson, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Lyles are just a few of the names who are no longer on the roster.

Josh Lindblom, Eric Lauer and Brett Anderson are all new faces who are expected to contribute.

“Kind of in the same spot that I was in last year,” Burnes said about the competition in camp. “That guy coming in looking to make one of the rotation spots. That’s the focus.”

Lorenzo Cain honors Jackie Robinson every game

April 15.

Some people have a calendar reminder set on that date because it’s the final day to file state and federal taxes without paying a penalty.

In Major League Baseball, April 15 represents the anniversary of Mr. Jack “Jackie” Robinson breaking the color barrier for African American players in 1947.

In 2009 the league began a tradition to pay homage and commemorate Robinson’s courage and legacy. Every April 15, each player, manager and umpire respectfully wears No.42 on their uniform.

However, Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Lorenzo Cain doesn’t wait until April 15 to celebrate one of his idols. That’s just the one date where he’s allowed to wear No.42 on the outside.

Every game before that date. And every game after. No.42 is underneath his Brewers jersey, on a custom undershirt that Under Armour made for him.

On the front is a silhouette of Robinson infamously sliding into home plate and stealing the base. On the back is a No.42, with the words “thank you” through the middle.

“I wear it every single day,” Cain said during a conversation with the Wisconsin Sports Zone. “That just shows how much I appreciate what he did. Not only for me but a lot of a lot of African Americans.

“He’s a very unique person. A very special person and he’s definitely one of my heroes for sure.”

As you walk towards the front entrance of the Brewers’ training facility in Arizona, there are placards and large number statues honoring some of the team’s legendary players and staff members.

Robin Yount, Rollie Fingers and of course Bob Uecker are on display.

Despite never playing for a Milwaukee franchise, Robinson’s number is among them as well. The same way it’s displayed proudly in the Brewers ring of retired numbers at Miller Park.

The league officially retired No.42 in 1997. It hangs in every major league ballpark.

Cain said it’s “awesome” to see the subtle reminders of African American players who came before him. Not just Robinson, but Henry “Hank” Aaron, Larry Doby and other revolutionaries as well.

Doby broke the color barrier for the American League, three months after Robinson did it in the National League.

“They went through something that I don’t think I could have went through,” Cain added. “And allow myself and other African American players to play this game.”

The goal now is to continue that legacy. Making baseball appealing to young African American players. Unfortunately, representation numbers are drastically sinking.

According to a 2019 USA Sports study, there were only 68 African American players on an active major league roster, injured or restricted list on Opening Day last season.

That’s out of a total of 882 players.

7.7 percent.

“For me growing up, a lot of African American kids didn’t play baseball,” Cain said. “It’s kind of basically going around and letting them know to be involved in all sports. It doesn’t have to be just football and basketball.”

A proud father of three, Cain added that he tries to teach his kids to be involved in as many sports as possible.

“I know a lot of athletic kids that chose just those two sports. Baseball is a sport where you can go out and be great at as well.”

Baseball isn’t the most accessible sport either. Finances are undoubtedly a deciding factor in whether or not a young kid decides to show interest in pursuing a game.

Gloves and bats are expensive. Balls consistently get lost and new ones need to be purchased. Fields aren’t necessarily a given at every park, especially in inner city Milwaukee, either.

Plus, it takes more than a handful of neighborhood friends to get a game going. The kids from ‘The Sandlot’ could barely field a complete roster.

Locally, the Brewers Community Foundation and MLB’s RBI league are working to combat that. Funding teams in the city and making baseball a reality for the youth, starting at a young age.

In this case RBI doesn’t stand for ‘Runs Batted In,’ but instead, ‘Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities.’

With American Family Insurance taking over naming rights to Miller Park in 2021, the Wisconsin based insurance company has also pledged money into refurbishing and building local youth and high school baseball fields.

“You just try to introduce them to the game,” Cain continued. “Introduce more African Americans to the game.

“I think that’s all you really do. Try to introduce them as much as possible and kind of go from there.”

How Travis Shaw helped Brock Holt decide on Milwaukee

Brock Holt thought entering free agency would be a fun experience.

He quickly found out that the process is “stressful” and by his own admission he actually didn’t handle it “that well.”

As spring training camps opened up across Major League Baseball, Holt was at home, waiting to sign with a team.

On Wednesday, he was officially announced as the newest member of the Milwaukee Brewers organization.

“My wife, over the last couple of weeks was like, ‘Hey, you need to get a job and get out of here,” Holt joked while meeting with media members following his first team practice in Arizona. “I think she is finally excited that I am out of the house and not stressing about it.

“But, it’s just one of those things that’s part of it. That’s the first time that I’ve been through (free agency). I feel like everything happens for a reason. It took a while but I’m happy to be here now.”

As conversations between the Brewers and Holt picked up, Holt reached out to a good friend for advice. That friend just so happened to be an expert on Milwaukee and the inner-workings of the organization because he was the team’s third baseman from 2017 until the past off-season.

The Mayor of Ding Dong City, Travis Shaw.

“(Holt) actually reached out to me about a week or two ago saying that the Brewers had some interest and that they were starting to talk,” Shaw told The Wisconsin Sports Zone. “He was just asking about how the organization was and I gave him nothing but positive things.

“Brock is one of my favorite teammates that I’ve ever played with. He keeps it loose in the clubhouse. Obviously he is a great player, he can play all over the diamond, but just his presence in the clubhouse and in the dugout, he keeps things loose and he keeps things fun.”

Shaw and Holt were teammates for the Boston Red Sox in 2015 and 2016.

“You always want to feel wanted, no matter what you do,” Holt said of his decision to sign with Milwaukee over a few other interested teams. “I felt like the Brewers wanted me to be here and that was a deciding factor for me to get a deal done and I couldn’t be more excited to be here now.”

Milwaukee’s general manager, David Stearns, said that Holt is someone the team has had on their radar for quite some time. Even dating back to when the Brewers initially traded for Shaw from the Red Sox, they thought then that Holt would have also been a good fit.

“To bring him in as part of this group, I think it’s really beneficial agreement for both sides,” Stearns said after the signing was officially announced.

“Brock has a lot of things that we like in a player. First and foremost he plays all over the field, and we really like those types of guys. We don’t feel like you can have too many of those types of guys. It gives (Manager Craig Counsell) tremendous flexibility, allows him to mix and match in a variety of different ways over the course of the season, depending on who is healthy, who’s performing and who we are playing.”

Counsell is a fan of Holt’s ability to play all four infield positions, and outfield if needed, and feels that he is a good insurance policy for the inevitable ebbs and flows of a 162-game season.

“One of the things we thought about, and kind of how our roster looked position player wise was probably the guy we were least protected on is that we are depending on Keston (Hiura) a lot. This protects Keston and protects us. Just in case, really.

“Now, Keston is going to be out there. This doesn’t take away from Keston’s playing time at all, but it does ‘in case.’ And, the thing we believe is that the ‘in case’ usually comes up.”

Away from baseball, Holt will quickly become a fan favorite in Milwaukee, as Shaw remembers first hand him impact on the community and those around him.

“Step off-the-field,” Shaw said. “All of the stuff that he did with The Jimmy Fund in Boston, in the hospital working with all of the kids throughout the community in Boston. He is just a class act all the way around and the Brewers definitely got a good one with him.”

The Jimmy Fund is an organization in Boston that raises money for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Holt was a five-year captain for The Jimmy Fund, He and his wife, Lakyn, would attend charity fund-raisers and events to help increase awareness and money for their efforts in treatment.

Although Shaw and Holt both played a lot of third base in Boston, Shaw, like Stearns and Counsell, was complimentary of Holt’s ability to play all over infield.

“He’s like the ultimate Swiss Army Knife,” Shaw said. “He can play whatever and he plays all of those positions well, too. Defensively he is pretty good at whatever position he plays.

“He’s a good pickup for them.”

Shaw added that he was “kind of bummed” that Holt didn’t come to Milwaukee just one season sooner, so the two could have played together while he was still on the team.

“After weighing my options, and looking at the roster that the Brewers have, I just felt like this was the place that I would be happiest,” Holt added. “That’s important to me. The money is great and everything, but at the end of the day, I want to be happy where I am at. I want to be able to build relationships and have fun with my teammates.

“Just looking at this roster, I thought I would be able to do that here.”

Lorenzo Cain is one of those teammates, and he was the first person Holt saw upon arriving early to the team facility on Wednesday. The two had breakfast together.

“I just said ‘what’s up, Brock?’ just saying hi and we sat down and had breakfast and ate and talked,” Cain recalled. “He told me he is from Texas. I let him know I was a big (Dallas) Cowboys fan. Just a little conversation. We’re just getting to know each other. Just kind of start from there and build off of that.”

Holt said that Cain was outgoing and very welcoming.

“I always enjoyed watching him play,” Hold added. “The way he is always smiling and always having a good time. I think we’re going to have a good time together this year.

A day following the official announcement of Holt’s signing, manager Craig Counsell commented on what it means to him and the team to receive a positive recommendation from a former player.

“It means a lot, it does. Travis (Shaw) had a tough season last year. It’s challenging, it can color how you think for sure and I’m glad Travis remembers everything well here because he, withstanding a tough season, I thought he handled himself really well. He was a big part of the foundation and getting us to where we were at in 2018.

“It’s important for sure. Especially when you’re having to fill a team up in a season like this with free agency and you’re competing against other teams for a guys services. Obviously the dollar figure is probably number one, but when the dollar figure is really close for guys and they have to make a decision, that’s important.”

Attanasio says the Brewers operated at a loss in 2019

The Milwaukee Brewers had a payroll of $135,889,019 in 2019.

That dollar amount, according to Sportrac, was the 16th highest in Major League Baseball and just slightly below the league average.

Ryan Braun, Yasmani Grandal and Lorenzo Cain were the only players who made more than $10 million for the season.

The team’s 2020 roster is not yet finalized, but unless there is a block-buster trade where the Brewers take on a large contract, there is a ballpark estimate of where their payroll will stand.

23rd overall, right around $91 million.

“We had an operating loss last year,” team owner Mark Attanasio told reporters at spring training in Phoenix, AZ. on Tuesday. “If you’re going to run a baseball team properly, the season snap shots, you really have to look on a rolling basis how you’re doing. We had some years as we were building and we want to keep our powder dry somewhat for the next opportunity, whether it comes next season or the next off-season.”

This year Christian Yelich will make $12.5 million, replacing Grandal on the list of players who will surpass more than a $10 million salary.

Grandal left in free agency after accepting a 4-year, $73 million offer with the Chicago White Sox. The team also watched Mike Moustakas sign a multi-year deal with the Cincinnati Reds worth $64 million.

Milwaukee traded pitchers Chase Anderson and Zach Davies to help shed salary. They also released Eric Thames to avoid his pending $7 million payday in 2020.

“Franchises get into trouble when they overspend and end up with a mountain of debt,” Attanasio continued. “Then you go into a long period of rebuild.

“This isn’t a media guide, I didn’t commission this statistic, (Milwaukee) is 5th in the National League in wins over our 15 seasons. I give our whole ownership group credit for that because they’ve been supportive of everything we’ve done.”

The Brewers did spend some money in free agency this off-season. Avisaíl García, Brett Anderson, Justin Smoak, Omar Narvaez and Josh Lindblom are all new additions and all of them rank in the top-10 of the team’s payroll.

Garcia is set to make $7 million in 2020.

“You can ask Doug Melvin and David Stearns both, in 15 years I’ve been blessed to have two great people in charge, I’ve never said no to a player acquisition because of cost. Never once because of cost,” Attanasio said.

Looking back at the 2019 payroll, the owner admitted that the team went over their budget for payroll, but stood by not telling his general managers ‘no’ because of cost.

“We had an opportunity with (Grandal) that he came to us without doing a long term deal, and then (Moustakas) was available,” he explained. “We had a budget. That exceeded the budget but we could get Moose, and we got him.

“Really if you look around the edges, and I asked (Stearns) this question, there is nothing that he didn’t do this off-season that he wouldn’t have done if we had a different budget number. He is always free to come to me and say ‘look, I want to do ‘fill-in-the-blank,’ or I want to acquire ‘fill-in-the-blank,’ and I’ve never said no.”

Attanasio did admit that the team would have liked to bring back Grandal, but a deal was never finalized.

“There is nobody we missed this off-season because of price that was on our list,” he said. Then after a short pause, he continued.

“We did want to sign (Grandal), so maybe one.”

Brewers add David Phelps to bullpen

The Milwaukee Brewers have signed relief pitcher David Phelps to a one-year contract, the team officially announced on Thursday evening.

Phelps, 33, has played for five other teams since entering the major leagues in 2012 including the New York Yankees, Miami Marlins and Chicago Cubs.

He made 24 appearances for the Cubs in 2019, posting a 3.18 earned run average while giving up two home runs in 17 innings pitched. He struck out 18 while walking 10 in that time span.

To make room for Phelps on the 40-man roster, the team announced that pitcher Deolis Guerra was designated for assignment.

MLB.com’s Adam McCalvy spoke to Brewers general manager David Stearns about the acquisition.

Report: Luis Urías to miss 6-8 weeks

The Milwaukee Brewers will be without newly acquired shortstop Luis Urías for the next 6-8 weeks after he underwent wrist surgery in Scottsdale, AZ.

Urías, posted photos from his hospital bed with the caption “I’ll be back soon.”

He was part of the trade that sent Zach Davies and Trent Grisham to the San Diego Padres. Milwaukee received Urías and left handed pitcher Eric Lauer in return.

MLB Insider Robert Murray was first on the timeline for his return.

https://www.instagram.com/p/B74pFSBJcG6/?igshid=2d5od22tgg9v

The Brewers full roster is set to report to Spring Training on February 17.

During the team’s annual “On-Deck” event, manager Craig Counsell told reporters that the injury wasn’t something that occurred sliding into a base or being it by a pitch. Rather a nagging discomfort that needed to be examined.

Murray further reported that the surgery was to repair his left hamate bone.

Braun: This could be my last year playing baseball

Craig Counsell stood in front of a Milwaukee Brewers branded backdrop in a hallway at The Wisconsin Center during the team’s annual “On-Deck” event.

Reporters circled him. Counsell answered questions left and right about the off-season, injuries, spring training and more. Veteran left-fielder Ryan Braun meandered around the hallway as well. Well within earshot of Counsell’s responses.

“Ryan has a really fun year ahead of him is what I think,” he said when asked about the possibility of this season being Braun’s last.

“I think it’s a motivating year. He’s already promising me things privately that I am going to hold him to, I’ll tell you that. So I’m interested to see what happens there.”

Braun smiled and continued on his way.

Earlier in the day, Braun was asked about the retirement word when discussing his contract, championship aspirations and future with the organization.

“I don’t take for granted that this could be my last year playing baseball,” he said. “Obviously there is a sense of urgency every year. But for me, knowing that this could be my last chance ever, it’s something that certainly adds to that sense of urgency.

“I feel good about the fact that they put a team together that should be competitive again. We went to the post-season the last two years and the team that we lost to last year ended up winning the whole thing.”

Drafted fifth overall by Milwaukee in 2005, Braun has spent his entire career within the Brewers system. He made his big-league debut in 2007, winning the National League Rookie of the Year Award.

A year before drafting Braun, the franchise was sold by Bud Selig to current owner Mark Attanasio. He was also asked about the possibility of Braun hanging it up after the 2020 season.

Initially, Attanasio joked that the team has a club option on Braun for the 2021 season.

“We’ll try to convince him to play another year but he does have a third child coming,” he said. “He’s one of those exceptional athletes who wants to go out on top so this could be his last season.

“It’s been rare for someone to spend their whole career with one organization. Especially when they perform at the absolute highest level, as he has.”

Braun is in the final year of his five-year, $105 million contract extension.

“It’s definitely a possibility,” Braun added. “We’ll see how the year goes, see where I am at physically and obviously my family is always my top priority, so we’ll see how everything is going.

“I don’t anticipate being able to make a decision until I get through the season, seeing how it goes. Seeing where I am at physically, see how this team looks for next year and see how the family dynamic changes with the third kid.”

The 2011 NL MVP also said that he expects to see a similar number of plate appearances this season as he did last year. Admitting that a good number of those could be while playing first base.

Milwaukee cut ties with first baseman Eric Thames this off-season, but did sign Justin Smoak as a free agent. Braun took reps at first base during the beginning of the 2018 season.

“I think you definitely get a little bit nostalgic and think back on the years and how quickly it goes by. I think there is a little bit more reflection and nostalgia knowing that there is a possibility of (retirement).”

Brewers, American Family Insurance announce new name for stadium

We learned last year that American Family Insurance had acquired the naming rights for what is now called Miller Park. We now know exactly what the stadium will be called when those naming rights kick in after the 2020 season.

The Brewers and Am Fam announced Tuesday night that the ballpark will be called American Family Field.

“The name American Family Field incorporates what we learned from fans, the Brewers and marketing research that included analysis of our brand and other sporting venue names,” said Jack Salzwedel, American Family chair and executive officer.
 
“The name is short, simple and sweet with its alliteration of ‘Family’ and ‘Field’. The words ‘American Family’ capture our brand and reflect the family-orientated atmosphere that our research showed fans clearly value in the ballpark.”

This will be just the second name for the facility since it opened in 2001. The naming rights will take effect Jan. 1, 2021.