No major league player will be under more scrutiny this year than the Milwaukee Brewers' Ryan Braun.
After accepting a season-ending, 65-game suspension in 2013 for performance-enhancing drug use in connection with the Biogenesis investigation and finally admitting to doing so after a year and a half of denials, Braun will be under the microscope to see how he reacts, on and off the field.
If the early days of exhibition season are any indication, Braun will handle himself just fine on the field. In his first four Cactus League games, he went 6-for-7 with a pair of home runs and reached safely in eight of nine plate appearances.
"He's just one of those gifted guys that can sit out a long time, and he doesn't need a lot of at-bats in spring training, and he can hit," said Brewers manager Ron Roenicke.
The person who seemed least impressed with Braun's quick start was Braun. In fact, he attached little meaning to it, other than being pleased with taking some good swings.
"Whether I'm 0-for-7 or 7-for-7, it makes no difference," said Braun. "You can't take them with you during the season.
"I think that's the goal for everybody -- just to try to start to get comfortable at the plate. See the ball well, hope to hit some balls on the barrel (of the bat)."
Before being suspended last season, Braun struggled with a lingering right thumb injury that made it difficult to grip the bat properly. He and the trainers have experimented with various forms of padding but Braun does not like the way it changes the feel of the bat and plans to go without that aid.
As for how the thumb feels this spring, Braun said, "Not bad. It's OK. I still get ice or treatment or do what I can to try to protect it a little bit."
--RHP Francisco Rodriguez arrived in camp a couple weeks late after a delay in getting his work visa in Venezuela. The veteran reliever said he had plenty of time to get ready for the season because he does not need that many innings in exhibition play to sharpen up.
--RHP Johnny Hellweg, who had a rough major league debut in 2013 (6.75 ERA in eight outings), was even worse in his first outing of exhibition season. Pitching the ninth inning against Oakland with a one-run lead, Hellweg failed to retire any of the three batters he faced, including a walk-off, two-run homer by Luke Montz.
--RHP Wily Peralta, who has a history of slow starts in both the minors and majors, is focusing on getting ready as early as possible this spring. Peralta pitched five scoreless innings in his first two outings and was pleased with his progress. "I want to eliminate the slow start," he said.
--2B Rickie Weeks, trying to fight off 2B Scooter Gennett and keep his starting job, was off to a strong start at the plate in exhibition play after making some adjustments in his stance, including raising his hands a bit. "Just keeping everything smooth, really," said Weeks, who batted only .209 last season before a hamstring injury ended his year in early August. "You keep everything smooth, everything kind of falls in place."
--Former Brewers players Craig Counsell and Darryl Hamilton will fill in on radio broadcasts this season as Hall of Famer Bob Uecker cuts back on some of his road travel. Counsell is a special assistant to GM Doug Melvin who also serves as an infield instructor in spring training.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I hate losing games like this. It just drives me crazy." -- Brewers manager Ron Roenicke, after Milwaukee surrendered two runs in the eighth inning and three in the ninth to blow a 4-1 lead and lose in exhibition play to Oakland, 6-4 on Thursday.
RHP Kyle Lohse
RHP Matt Garza
RHP Yovani Gallardo
RHP Wily Peralta
RHP Marco Estrada
The Brewers added a veteran nobody expected with their late-winter signing of Garza to a four-year deal. Now, they will try to keep him healthy -- something that has been an issue for Garza in recent years. Gallardo also is a key after slipping in both stuff and performance last season. The addition of Garza moved those at the bottom of the rotation down a peg. Where that leaves someone such as Tyler Thornburg remains to be seen. Thornburg was very impressive in seven starts last year and Roenicke said he still would get a look in spring camp.
RHP Jim Henderson (closer)
RHP Francisco Rodriguez
RHP Brandon Kintzler
LHP Tom Gorzelanny
LHP Will Smith
RHP Alfredo Figaro
RHP Rob Wooten
Rodriguez was signed just before camp opened to provide a backup to Henderson as closer. Henderson converted 28 of 32 save chances in 2013 but that was his first year in the role and should he get injured or flame out, Rodriguez will get yet another chance to close. Gorzelanny had offseason shoulder surgery and hopes to be ready by Opening Day but if that does not happen, another spot in the bullpen will open. And there are many other candidates, including hard-throwing right-hander Michael Blazek, and there is the chance that someone who does not make the rotation would be shunted to the bullpen as well.
1. 2B Scooter Gennett
2. SS Jean Segura
3. RF Ryan Braun
4. 3B Aramis Ramirez
5. C Jonathan Lucroy
6. CF Carlos Gomez
7. LF Khris Davis
8. 1B Mark Reynolds
When previous RF Norichika Aoki was traded to Kansas City over the winter, the Brewers lost an obvious candidate to lead off. Assuming Gennett moves ahead of Weeks at second base, he could emerge as the leadoff hitter though he draws few walks (a problem with much of the lineup). The bottom of the batting order will depend on who emerges as the No. 1 first baseman. Overbay is also in the mix and would provide a left-handed bat for a predominantly right-handed lineup. If the bottom three are some mix of Gomez, Davis and Reynolds, that will provide a lot of pop in those spots.
TOP ROOKIES: The Brewers took a flier in the Rule 5 draft on Wang, who pitched last year in rookie ball. It would be a huge jump to the majors but the Brewers think Wang has the stuff to do it. The big gamble is that Rule 5 picks must be kept in the majors all year or offered back to their former club. Right-hander Johnny Hellweg flopped (1-4, 6.75) in an eight-game trial last season but has a great arm. If he can just harness his pitches -- and big "if" considering his past -- Hellweg could force his way into the rotation and be a force. Or perhaps is future in the majors is as a closer, assuming he can throw strikes. RHP Jimmy Nelson does not have issues throwing strikes and is a bulldog type who has a chance to be a regular starter in the majors. Nelson began the 2013 season at Double-A Huntsville, going 5-4 with a 2.74 ERA in 12 starts, before moving up to Triple-A Nashville and posting a 5-6 record and 3.67 ERA in 15 starts. Nelson was allowed to get his feet wet in the major in September, allowing just two hits and one run in 10 innings (0.90)
--LHP Tom Gorzelanny (left shoulder surgery in December 2013) was not ready to participate in regular throwing drills at the outset of camp. His goal is to get ready by Opening Day, which could prove to be an aggressive schedule.
--CF Carlos Gomez (right elbow surgery in October 2013) had a minor clean-out procedure. He might take it easy with his throwing in the early stages of camp but otherwise is expected to be OK.
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