Despite some players (righfully) complaining that it’s too long, spring training serves several purposes. The players who have more or less secured jobs have a lot to do. Starting pitchers build up their pitch counts, hitters regain their timing at the plate, everybody gets to reawaken their muscle memory on defense. Guys throw to build up their arm strength, pitchers or not. They wear spikes to get their feet used to the punishment again. There’s a lot of weightlifting and conditioning under the watchful gaze of the athletic training staff.
In short, these guys put in the work to prepare for the regular season when the games and the statistics count.
But there’s another group of players who comes to camp each year with a decidedly different set of goals. They certainly do need to do all of the same prep work as their established counterparts, but these youngsters have another purpose at spring training. That purpose is to leave an impression.
It’s one thing to have the director of amateur scouting draft you or have the general manager trade a major-league star for you while rebuilding. It’s even a different deal when the coaching staffs at the various minor league affiliates really like you and tout your abilities. Those guys can trumpet you all they want. It doesn’t mean as much as the big league skipper seeing you put in the effort with his own eyes, or to have the bench coach put you through a round of batting practice and come away with a positive review, or — most importantly — to get into a big-league game and really showcase in front of the big-league coaching staff what made those other people excited.
The Milwaukee Brewers currently have a plethora of young, exciting talents in their minor league system. Some of them are on the 40-man roster (Lewis Brinson, Ryan Cordell, Josh Hader, Maverick Phillips) and many aren’t, but they all have the opportunity to turn heads, raise eyebrows, or at the very least confirm reports with their play.
Comparing the MLBPipeline.com Top-30 Brewers Prospects list to the box scores from Cactus League games this spring will show that 11 of their top 16 prospects have appeared on the big league side. One more (2016 first-round draft pick, No. 5 overall, Corey Ray) would have if not for his still rehabbing offseason knee surgery after an injury in the Instructional League. More so than just appearing in games, however, is that these guys are performing.
The offensive statistics are readily available for you online, but they’ve also been playing defense well.
Beyond the raw statistics are the approaches to hitting and the veracity with which these young players attack their time on the big league side of the Maryvale complex. Lucas Erceg, for example, said that he’s constantly dropping hints to the coaches that he’d like to go play in the big league games. Coaches remember that kind of thing, but it’s burned into their minds when the player crushes when they acquiesce to his pestering.
Beyond their play, just being around the MLB veterans is invaluable experience. Seeing how they go about their business, how they get after training and the tedious work, how they keep their bodies healthy. Just take a guy like Ray, who said that despite not playing, he gained so much during his time in the big league clubhouse and in the dugout during games.
The Brewers have done a good job at getting guys with varying levels of pro experience involved as well, to really spread the love around. Brinson, Cordell, Hader, Phillips, Erceg, Mauricio Dubon, Jacob Nottingham, Isan Diaz, Trent Clark, Brandon Woodruff, Jorge López before he left for the World Baseball Classic — the list goes on and on. What all of these players have in common is that they are viewed as potentially-important pieces in GM David Stearns’ consistent pipeline of young and controllable talent coming to Milwaukee.
At the end of the day, what makes the difference is that Manager Craig Counsell has had cause to mention several of these young players by name throughout the spring. That means he’s aware of them; if there comes a time in the next few weeks, months, or years that they have to be called on to help the big league Brewers, Counsell will have a memory of when they worked for him in the 2017 Cactus League. For a young guy trying to make a lasting impression, that kind of recognition is gold.