It’s been 146 days since the Milwaukee Brewers have played a competitive baseball game against another team, defeating the Colorado Rockies by a score of 6-4 on October 2nd, 2016. That streak mercifully ends today, as our local nine kicks off this year’s slate of Spring Training games at 2:05 PM CST with an exhibition against the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. It’s not yet the regular season and not even a major league opponent, but hey, it’s baseball right?
Now that the games are starting, we can say that Spring Training is really beginning in earnest. Doing drills, throwing bullpens, and taking live batting practice is one thing, but performances in Cactus League games will go a long way into determining who will make the roster and who will begin the season in the minor leagues. For the Brewers, pretty much every spot in the starting lineup is already spoken for besides catcher, and there are seven major league veterans competing for the starting rotation. There will be some competition, however, for the final couple of spots on the bench and in the bullpen.
Each season, there are a few surprise players who make enough of a case to begin the year in The Show. Last year, Chris Capuano and Blaine Boyer broke camp with Milwaukee after signing minor league deals the previous winter. In 2015, Michael Blazek was the unheralded prospect who showed enough to get the call to the big leagues. In 2014, non-roster veterans Mark Reynolds, Lyle Overbay, and Zack Duke all earned Opening Day nods. So which players could catch us off-guard with a strong spring this year and earn a ticket to Milwaukee come April? Here are some players I’ll be watching this spring:
RHP Ryan Webb
A veteran of parts of eight major league seasons, the Brewers signed the 31 year old Webb to a minor league deal back in December. His velocity was down a bit in 2016 during a small, 17.3 inning sample with the Rays, and he managed only a 5.19 ERA and 5.05 DRA before getting cut. He did display above-average command last year (0.10 percent CSAA), and prior to 2016 he had posted league-average or better ERA’s and DRA’s every year dating back to 2010. The ground-ball specialist (58 percent GB rate for his career) could serve in that sort of Blaine Boyer-type role in the front of the bullpen, providing a steady veteran presence to help along the younger arms while also eating up innings.
LHP Andrew Barbosa
As recently as 2015, Andrew Barbosa was out of MLB-affiliated ball and pitching for the Long Island Ducks of the independent Atlantic League. The former 36th round pick (2012, Diamondbacks) parlayed that successful showing into a minor league deal with the Mets last year, and he responded by posting a 1.51 ERA and 71:19 K/BB ratio in 71.1 innings across four levels, including reaching the AAA level for the first time in his career. Barbosa towers over hitters standing at 6’8″, and his over-the-top delivery creates a significant downward angle that makes his 90ish MPH fastball quite a bit more intimidating for hitters. He’s coming off a highly successful showing with Mayaguez in the Puerto Rican winter league, and with only Brent Suter and Tommy Milone realistically competing for left-handed spots on the roster (it’s highly unlikely the club will ignore service time implications for Josh Hader), the 29 year old Barbosa may be looking at the best opportunity of his career to make it to the big leagues.
RHP Jorge Lopez
It wasn’t too long ago that Lopez was considered the organization’s top pitching prospect, but a brutal 2016 season has dulled most of the outside excitement around the 24 year old. After working on some mechanical adjustments during Fall Instructs, Lopez dominated the Puerto Rican winter league circuit, posting a 1.56 ERA across 34.7 innings with 32 strikeouts, 13 walks, just 17 hits allowed, and a league-leading 0.87 WHIP. A return trip to Colorado Springs for the young righty would not be advisable, in my opinion, and Lopez has nothing left to prove by pitching a third season in AA. BPMilwaukee editor-in-chief Nicholas Zettel made the case for Lopez to begin the year in the big league starting rotation earlier this month, however a role as a swingman in the bullpen may be more realistic. Pitching in such a capacity would allow Lopez to prove he can get major league hitters out in lower-leverage situations and he could work his way into a more prominent position should he find success; when the club inevitably needs a spot starter or someone to move into the starting rotation, Lopez could make that transition. This is similar to how the Orioles deployed Dylan Bundy last season.
1B Jesus Aguilar
Jesus Aguilar is no longer considered a rookie and is currently on the 40 man roster, but his situation is a bit tenuous as an out-of-options player. The Brewers claimed him off waivers from the Indians a few weeks ago and unless he can win a bench spot in camp, he would need to be exposed to waivers once again in order to be sent to the minor leagues. The 27 year old has shown plus power in the minor leagues, clubbing 68 home runs in 386 games at AAA, including an International League-leading 30 round-trippers last year. He’s posted palatable strikeout (19.5 percent) and walk (10 percent) rates at the highest level of the minors along with an .818 OPS. Aguilar just hasn’t been able to carry that production over to the big leagues yet, where pitchers have exploited him to the tune of 21 strikeouts in 64 plate appearances while he’s hit .172/.234/.190. That’s hardly enough of a sample to accurate conclusions from, of course, and Aguilar should get a decent shot this year to prove he can be more than a quad-A first baseman. He could serve as a right-handed compliment to Eric Thames at first base and provide some insurance there if Thames cannot translate his KBO production back to the MLB. Aguilar has also played a little bit of third base and left field during his minor league career, and if he can show Craig Counsell the ability to be passable at multiple positions it would greatly improve his chances of making the roster.