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Remember: Disregard (Almost) Everything Spring Training Produces

Jim Souhan of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune has a helpful reminder on what to take away from MLB Spring Training: virtually nothing.  The Twins broke camp last year thinking Aaron Hicks would be their centerfield star all year and that Opening Day starter Vance “Vanimal” Worley could be an ace in the making.  It didn’t turn out that way.  Brewers fans may remember two words that should ward off overanalyzing whatever comes out of Maryvale for the next several weeks: Brad Nelson

I’d almost forgotten about Nelson, and honestly, many of us have.  I was doing some maintenance on my baseball card collection recently and came across a Nelson card from years ago, when it looked like Nelson could be the next Rob Deer or Matt Stairs.  Instead, Nelson was closer to Chuckie “Hacks” Carr

Actually, that’s a gross misstatement.  Carr had 13 homers, 123 RBI and 144 stolen bases in his MLB career, which spanned over 500 games.  Brad Nelson has two hits in 31 plate appearances at the major league level.  Nelson has bounced around a bit in the minors since the Brewers released him, trying to get another chance in “The Show.”  Somewhat ironically, he signed with the Minnesota Twins as a free agent on February 6, though I haven’t heard his name mentioned yet regarding the Twins’ spring camp.

It’s cruel to pick on Brad Nelson, though.  Nelson, 31, was drafted by the Brewers in the 4th round of the 2001 draft and the burly slugger has hit over 200 homers in his minor league career.  He fits the mold of the quintessential Brewers slugger: all raw power with an all-or-little reckless approach.  Looking back at a blog post related to the defunct JS Brewers blog “Bernie’s Crew,” it’s clear that Nelson was looked upon as having raked in the minors, played well in winter ball, and was on the way up, quickly.  He then mashed in spring training 2009, and appeared to have an inside track to stick around in Milwaukee. 

Yet after hitting .354 in Spring Training, Nelson went 0-for-21 to open the 2009 season, albeit mostly in a bench role, and was cut in mid-May.  He chose free agency over an assignment and hasn’t seen the majors since. 

Mostly I refer to Nelson as a cautionary tale.  As Souhan points out, little can be ascertained from Spring Training.  Well, little that can really be known.  As Donald Rumsfeld said years ago, poorly: “There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know.  But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.”

So in tribute to Souhan’s sound advice, I will offer my thoughts on questions about the Brewers before too much Spring Training has occurred, “before we get fooled again.”

Q: Will Scooter Gennett beat out Rickie Weeks for the second base job, or will Weeks get the job because GM Doug Melvin will defer to the weight of his contract?

A: The Brewers don’t want to get nothing for something in 2014, so I suspect they’ll go with a platoon to start the year at second base, easing Gennett into a starring role.  Weeks must reach 600 plate appearances in 2014 for his $11.5MM option for 2015 to vest, and I have no illusions that the Brewers will block that from happening, whether through decreased playing time or a trade.  Weeks, and his contract, deserve recognition, but the Brewers know his salary is a sunk cost for 2014 and they won’t adversely affect Gennett’s career when it looks like he may be ready for the major leagues.

Q: What will become of the careers of young pitchers like Tyler Thornburg, Johnny Hellweg and Jimmy Nelson now that Matt Garza was added to the rotation?

A: It’s all about depth.  The Triple-A Nashville Sounds rotation in 2014 should be a great resource for the Brewers.  They will undoubtedly need those pitchers, probably sooner than they’d like, during the upcoming season.  The Brewers also have other pitchers like Hiram Burgos, Will Smith and Alfredo Figaro who could make spot starts.  Don’t worry about the younger guys, they will get their chances eventually but right now it’s a good thing that the team isn’t relying on their potential to become production to start 2014.

Q: What about the disaster waiting to happen at first base?

A: Certainly, with a payroll as high as it’s ever been, fans would prefer to have more of a long-term answer at first base.  Everyone says the Brewers have a Prince Fielder-sized hole at first base, but the truth is that Corey Hart filled in there just fine in 2012.  It was only in 2013 that the Brewers truly had a yawning gap of incompetence at first base.  At least for 2014 the team has assembled a group of four guys who can play first base, and in addition they aren’t shortstops.  Mark Reynolds, Lyle Overbay, Juan Francisco and Hunter Morris are not a sexy bunch, but they can probably approximate average production and power at first base for this season.  If things go horribly wrong, they could switch players out, make a trade or reach down to Nashville for Morris or perhaps Sean Halton.

Q: After losing 88 games in 2013, can the Brewers really contend?

A: It will be a difficult slog of a season, to be sure.  If they don’t contend, it should still be a helluva show.  Count me among those who think the Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates could regress, and that the other NL clubs will beat each other up quite a bit.  The St. Louis Cardinals are the ultimate target, and the Brewers would be wise to avoid going 5-14 against the Cardinals again, for starters.  If they can prevent getting trounced on a regular basis by the Reds, Pirates and Cardinals, they’ll have a chance to do some damage.  It may not be contention, but it should be pretty entertaining, and as long as they go down swinging (like Sonny Liston?), I’ll be happy.   

Q: Who could surprise in camp and make the club?

A: Early reports suggest Wei-Chung Wang, the Rule 5 pick who must make the club or be offered back to the Pirates (unless a trade is agreed upon), could be a surprise bullpen addition for the 2014 Crew.  I don’t think a lot of people are saying Will Smith, acquired via trade with the Kansas City Royals for Nori Aoki, is a lock to make the team, but I wouldn’t be shocked if he makes it as a lefty out of the pen and possible spot starter to open the 2014 campaign.  Tom Gorzelanny is coming back from injury and may not be ready, and NL Central veteran Zach Duke could probably be stashed in the minors until later on.

Q: Is the world ready to move on from Ryan Braun’s malfeasances?

A: The world will not forget Braun’s lies or forgive what he’s done (whatever that actually was).  They will boo him mercilessly in other cities, which may be something traveling Brewers fans will find distasteful when in road parks.  If there are baseball gods, ideally Braun has sought their advice and aid in repentance for his actions and is willing to do whatever can be done to repair things.  The Brewers desperately need him to come back and play good ball.  If he comes back and stinks it up for the home fans, then he will really begin to hear it, and it won’t be pretty.      

Q: Who are the Brewers’ most important players at the moment?

A: Catcher Jonathan Lucroy is absolutely essential to bring the pitching staff together and keep things orchestrated.  His clutch bat is a glue stick that brings the rest of the lineup together nicely.  Aramis Ramirez has a lot of his plate for 2014, and the Brewers are counting on him to come back and put up the big numbers again.  On the pitching side, Yovani Gallardo needs to step it up and try to be as consistent as a Kyle Lohse.  What Garza will bring to the team remains to be seen, but Gallardo needs to rebound after a disappointing 2013.  Hopefully the starting staff will gel and feed off each other’s success like with the 2011 rotation.  Finally, Braun, Braun, and more Braun will be important.

Q: What’s the grand design for the Brewers?

A: I think the Brewers are going for it; they’re “all in” once again without explicitly saying so.  They have a record-high payroll, some key players who may not be around much longer (Ramirez, Weeks, Lohse, Gallardo) and the talent to at least make a Wild Card slot for the postseason.  Before the Garza addition I would have said they’re as mad as a hatter but now I think they can play with the big boys if they show they can pitch and play some defense, which is still a big question.  The bats have to get back on track too, but the Brewers have the firepower to be a force.  Hopefully they will stick around in the race long enough to aim that firepower at other teams and not self-destruct in the opening couple of months. 

Q: Is Spring Training really meaningless?

A: No.  It’s not devoid of meaning; it just shouldn’t accumulate extraordinary or even pedestrian meaning due the context in which it occurs.  Stars can be made in Spring Training and broken within weeks in the regular season, as we’ve seen with Brad Nelson and others.  Teams often play guys in Spring Training games who have no chance of making the Opening Day roster.  There are so many variables at play that the stats pretend to be something significant, but usually aren’t.  Guys are working on various, sometimes invisible, aspects of their games and not necessarily giving 100 percent.  In addition, players can get hot as the sun and then come falling back to earth.  I won’t blame anyone for getting geeked out over Spring Training performances, but they simply can’t be trusted.