PHOENIX – With the odds stacked against him, Gus Varland pitched his way onto the Milwaukee Brewers roster.
Varland, a Rule 5 draft pick from the Los Angeles Dodgers in the off-season, was informed he made the Brewers on Sunday, following a spring training in which he showed a big-league arsenal, immense potential and, perhaps most importantly, the ability to help the team in the present.
— Milwaukee Brewers (@Brewers) March 27, 2023
"It was a complete shock," Varland said. "I went numb all over my body. I didn’t really know how to react. It was an unbelievable experience."
Varland, 26, entered camp on the outside looking in. He had never pitched above Double-A, and even there had just a 5.97 earned run average over the past two seasons. The Brewers had a crowded bullpen picture entering the spring with many pitchers with plenty of big-league experience vying for a roster spot. As a Rule 5 pick, if Varland made the team out of camp he would have to remain on the active roster all season, giving the Brewers less roster flexibility while contending for a playoff spot.
In short, Varland had to give the Brewers every reason to keep him.
"The first conversation with Gus was like, 'Gus, this is how it's gonna work. You have a tough spring. You have to try to make the team. We're also going to give you things that we think can help you be better. You've got to figure out how to take that in and still put your best foot forward,'" Brewers manager Craig Counsell said Monday. "And that's hard to do. That's really hard to do. And Gus really managed that very well."
He did just that.
Adjustments helped Varland earn his way onto Brewers roster
Varland struck out 17 of the 35 batters he faced in Cactus League play while walking only one, flashing a fastball that reached 97 mph and a wipeout slider, which is his best pitch. The righthander did allow four runs in 8⅔ innings, all of which came on home runs, but those mattered far less than the explosive repertoire he displayed overall. No Brewers pitcher – including Corbin Burnes and Brandon Woodruff – has more strikeouts this spring.
Varland struggled for much of the last two seasons in the Dodgers organization. After he had an ERA a tick under 9.00 through his first seven starts in 2022, he was moved to a reliever. On Monday, Varland reflected on the time, in the midst of those struggles that forced him to a bullpen role, that he sat in an empty stadium with pitching coach Ryan Dennick and wondered aloud where his career was headed.
"I remember we sat in the stands like, ‘What are we going to do?’" Varland said. "If you would’ve told me then I would’ve been in the big leagues next year in spring, I wouldn’t believe you at all. It’s unbelievable how fast it can move and how things can change so quickly."
An arm-slot adjustment as Varland made the transition to relief helped save his career. It also put him on the radar for the Brewers to select him in December when Los Angeles didn’t protect him on its 40-man roster.
"So much (crap) in the last two years," an emotion Varland said after he was informed he made the team. "So many sleepless nights. I cannot believe this opportunity arose. I’m just so grateful."
Another mechanical adjustment with help of Brewers pitching coach Chris Hook in recent weeks helped make Varland more unhittable this spring.
"He's gotten better since he's been here. And that's a credit to Gus and a credit to Chris and (bullpen coach) Jim (Henderson) on how they he's progressed and taken in the teaching they have given him," Counsell said.
Now Varland needs to show he can stick around for the entire season
Making the big-league roster is just one step for a Rule 5 pick, however. The other challenge is remaining with the team throughout the season. Because Varland cannot be optioned by the Brewers – there is no other course of action if he is not injured other than to keep him on the active roster, otherwise he must be offered back to the Dodgers – he has to perform, especially considering Milwaukee’s aspirations this season.
The Brewers, though, wouldn’t have added him to the roster if they didn’t believe he had the ability to do so.
And considering what Varland showed this spring, he certainly has the arm to stick around.
"Our circumstances, you have to perform," Counsell said. "We probably had less margin for him, for sure, in spring training. I've told Gus that's (continuing) going into the season, and that's not just Gus. I think that's for a number of players, relievers specifically. That's where we're at. He had a very good camp. He's missing bats as good as anybody in this camp."
Varland gets to join his younger brother Louie, a pitcher in the Minnesota Twins organization, as a big-leaguer. The two were college teammates at Concordia-St. Paul and training partners in the off-season. When Louie, who's a year younger than Gus, made his MLB debut at Yankee Stadium last year, Gus successfully pleaded with the Dodgers to let him fly out to watch it in person.
"Especially him being on the Twins, too, there’s a little border battle there and I've got some family in Milwaukee," Gus said. "That call was awesome. We talked about it growing up all the time and in college. When he called me for his debut that was one of the coolest calls ever, so I was really happy to call him this time."
The most emotional call for Varland, though, was with his parents, Wade and Kim. He would call them after every outing in the minor leagues, both when things were going well early on and, most recently, not so much. They were both in the same room when Gus called this time, so they put him on speaker for the chat.
"I was like, ‘Hey,'" Varland said. "What are you guys doing on the 30th?’"
Our subscribers make this reporting possible. Please consider supporting local journalism by subscribing to the Journal Sentinel at jsonline.com/deal.
DOWNLOAD THE APP: Get the latest news, sports and more
This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Brewers Rule 5 pick Gus Varland makes the opening day roster