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Tom Oates: Brewers showing a ruthless side in their quest for playoffs

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MILWAUKEE — The Milwaukee Brewers reached Memorial Day with the best record in the National League, but you’d never know it by the way they’re acting.

Despite having 13 wins in their past 17 games, the best bullpen in baseball and an offense finally firing on all cylinders, the Brewers are scratching and clawing like a team fighting for its life. The clubhouse door is whirring like a turnstile as they move players in and out, trying to gain any advantage, no matter how small, wherever they can.

Take Friday, for instance. Instead of celebrating as they found themselves comfortably in first place in the NL Central Division, the Brewers gave their roster a dramatic and unexpected shakeup.

They optioned shortstop Orlando Arcia and pitcher Jorge Lopez to Class AAA Colorado Springs and designated catcher Jett Bandy for assignment. Both Arcia and Bandy were hitting under .200, but the demotion of Arcia was a surprise given that he’s the golden boy of the team’s new wave of talent and might just be the best-fielding shortstop in the game. Still, the Brewers thought he could best regain his batting stroke in the minors and away he went.

To take the place of those three, the Brewers recalled shortstop Eric Sogard from Colorado Springs and pitcher Adrian Houser from Class AA Biloxi and made a trade with the New York Yankees for journeyman catcher Erik Kratz. When they swapped out Houser for veteran pitcher Jacob Barnes two days later, it was the 12th roster move they made during the four-game series against the New York Mets that concluded Sunday.

“The game doesn’t spare anyone,” manager Craig Counsell said when discussing Arcia.

The Brewers aren’t sparing anyone either as they chase the playoff berth that barely eluded them last season. Indeed, if the first third of the season has shown us anything, it is that the Brewers aren’t fooling around this year. They’re not afraid of tweaking their roster even though it has been good enough to land them in first place. A combination of injuries, circumstances and individual performance has had them tweaking it almost daily.

If that is ruffling feathers and bruising egos among the players who are taking the shuttle to and from Colorado Springs on a regular basis, it hasn’t been apparent. What has become obvious is that the Brewers are willing to take that risk. With all the roster juggling, they are quietly and ever so gently showing a ruthless side in their quest for the playoffs.

“It’s something you can’t worry about,” Barnes said after unpacking his gear prior to the Brewers’ entertaining 8-7 victory over the Mets on Sunday. “At the end of the day, whether you agree or not, they’re going to do what they think is best. All you can do is your best to try to perform.”

But struggling players aren’t the only ones who have been moved out. The Brewers have routinely moved players up to the big club to fill temporary needs, particularly in the bullpen and starting rotation. Sometimes, like with Houser, the player’s stay is brief because the team only needs a fresh arm in the rotation or the bullpen for a game or two.

The Brewers have done much of this shuffling by using minor-league options on their players. Players can be optioned three times during their careers, but since they can only burn one option per year, they can be brought up or down almost at will once they’ve been up to the big club for the first time. In particular, the final spot or two in the bullpen has been a revolving door with four or five young pitchers seeing spot duty on demand.

At least the players were warned that this type of roster turnover might happen. Counsell and general manager David Stearns said repeatedly during spring training that the 25-man active roster was only a starting point, that the Brewers consider their 40-man roster talented enough to be in play at all times.

After using 51 players all last season, the Brewers already have used 40 a third of the way through this season.

“I’m not completely shocked by it,” Counsell said. “David says every year and he talks about it in spring training with the guys — we’re going to use over 50 players on our big-league roster this year. They come at different times and for different reasons, but it’s a part of the way we’ve kind of structured things around here and structured the roster. It’s by design, I think, and it gives us depth in places where when the unforeseen happens — which you know is going to happen — then we’re covered.”

The key is getting the players on board with that. For the most part, young players are happy to get any time they can in the major leagues. It is the veterans who often aren’t thrilled by being yo-yoed back and forth from the majors to the minors.

Still, the Brewers players have been accepting of the approach. For the most part, they’ve bought in and all the player movement has worked to the team’s advantage.

“When we need a pitcher, we need a pitcher,” Counsell said. “You need a pitcher to try to win the game the next day or to protect yourself in the game the next day. I don’t think that spares players with options. That’s just the way it works.”

It’s definitely working for the Brewers this season.

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