PHOENIX — When the Milwaukee Brewers opened spring training a year ago, the team was set for the most part.
The regular lineup had no openings. The five spots in the starting rotation were filled. The relief corps returned virtually intact from the previous season.
“Last year, the only questions were who the extra men were going to be,” recalled manager Ron Roenicke. “It’s going to be different this spring.”
Indeed, what a difference a year makes.
When the Brewers opened their 2013 spring camp with their first official workout on Wednesday at Maryvale Baseball Park, the list of questions was extensive.
Which pitchers will fill what figures to be a relatively inexperienced starting rotation?
Does soon-to-be 23-year-old Jean Segura have what it takes to be an everyday shortstop in the major leagues?
Given an unexpected chance to return to first base while Corey Hart recovers from knee surgery, will Mat Gamel rise to the occasion?
How will a rebuilt relief corps come together, and who will fill the last opening or two?
Who will do the bulk of the catching while Jonathan Lucroy and Martin Maldonado are off playing in the World Baseball Classic?
Who will claim the important spots on the bench?
“There are more variables,” said Roenicke. “There will be more work on our end to figure things out and see what we have.
“We’ll have some guys gone during the Classic and we’ll have to see who is best to fill in. It’ll probably all work out, but there will have to be more effort on our part to figure things out.”
With 15 players from the organization committed to playing in the WBC, including Ryan Braun, the Brewers will have to scramble to fill positions in exhibition play during that tournament. Accordingly, they’ve invited 20 non-roster players to camp, the highest number in many years.
“We need some extra bodies,” said Roenicke. “We have a lot of guys participating in (the WBC) this year. The advantage is that somebody will step up and make our team that we weren’t counting on.
“It gives us the luxury of looking at some guys that maybe coming into spring training we weren’t planning on being on our roster. There will be some openings. It’s kind of exciting to see who is going to step up.”
The major focus of camp will be the starting rotation. The Brewers have decided to fill openings internally from a group of homegrown pitchers including Mike Fiers, Wily Peralta and Mark Rogers, all of whom were impressive in their own way when given opportunities last season.
Last spring, the starting rotation was set before the first workout with Yovani Gallardo, Zack Greinke, Shaun Marcum, Randy Wolf and Chris Narveson. After only two starts, Narveson was lost with a shoulder injury that required surgery; Greinke was traded to the Los Angeles Angels in late July, a deal that netted Segura and two pitching prospects; Wolf was released in late August and Marcum was allowed to leave via free agency after missing two months of the season with an ailing elbow.
Gallardo is back to claim the top spot in the rotation, and Marco Estrada, who filled in capably when others were injured last season, has another job all but locked up. Narveson, healthy and cleared to participate in all drills, will try to prove that he should break camp in the starting rotation once again.
“It’s a nice thing going into spring training knowing there’s going to be competition for some jobs,” said Roenicke. “We’ll see who’s going to step up and do it.
“It these young pitchers pitch the way we think they can, it’ll make it easier this year as well as the coming years. We all know to compete you have to have good starting pitching. You can’t go out and buy it on the free-agent market every year.”
Beyond Fiers, Peralta and Rogers, Roenicke and his staff are anxious to get looks at other pitchers from the system expected to contribute at some point, including Tyler Thornburg, Hiram Burgos, Jimmy Nelson and Taylor Jungmann.
There are some pitchers from the organization expected to enter the bullpen picture, also, including hard-throwing Johnny Hellweg, one of the prospects acquired in the Greinke trade. Hellweg has been a starting pitcher in recent years but was switched to relief in the Arizona Fall League and adapted so nicely the decision was made to keep him in that role.
The 6-foot-9 right-hander has experienced command issues (232 walks in 325 minor-league innings), and the thinking in moving back to the bullpen was that Hellweg could concentrate on his power stuff in short bursts and not worry so much about his secondary pitches. The Brewers aren’t looking for a replacement for closer John Axford, but it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that Hellweg could make the bullpen in spring training as a setup man.
“Right now they want to use me out of the pen, so that’s what I’m going to prepare for,” said Hellweg, a 16th round draft pick in 2008 out of Florida Community College. “If they want me to go back to starting, I’m ready to jump back into it.
“Starting boosted my career in the right direction. It made relieving easier. I’m going to take it from there and do what they need me to do. I’m going to go into camp to try to make the team. That’s my goal. I’ll prepare like I would for any situation and hope for the best.”
Club executives are playing it low-key but would not be surprised if Hellweg impresses enough to make the club in the spring. And with so many non-roster players in camp, another surprise or two is not out of the question.
“Somebody is going to make the team that we weren’t expecting,” said Roenicke. “You can almost count on it.”