PHOENIX -- Simple question: Does Ben Hendrickson, who has been stalled in "prospect" purgatory for three years, feel like this is the year he finally cracks the Brewers roster and stays long enough to unpack his suitcase?
Hendrickson pauses a moment, then shrugs his shoulders.
"I really don't know," he said. "It's a matter of whether they want me to throw out of the 'pen. They've already got their starters and their setup guys, their closer, their lefty. There's only, maybe, one spot open.
"I'm keeping an open mind. If I can't make it here, hopefully I can go help another team out."
Hendrickson, drafted by the Brewers in 1999, and once considered Milwaukee's top pitching prospect, is out of Minor League options. That means the Brewers must keep him on the big-league roster or pass him through waivers to get him to the Minors. If they try the latter, it's possible another team would pluck him away from the only organization he has known.
Some players in Hendrickson's position stress about their uncertain future, and the fact that they are not only auditioning for their team but the other 29 as well. Hendrickson seems to be doing the opposite.
"It kind of makes me relax a little more," Hendrickson said. "I know that I can go out and have a good spring, and if I don't make the team, I mean, hopefully somebody takes a chance on me."
Now 26, Hendrickson is trying to shake the tag of a "Four-A player," a guy who dominates Minor League hitters but can't make the jump. For his career, he is 54-48 with a 3.41 ERA in the Minors but 1-10 with a 7.41 ERA in 14 mostly forgettable appearances in a Brewers uniform.
He has been on the cusp of the Major Leagues since 2004, when Hendrickson went 11-3 with a league-best 2.02 ERA for the team's former top affiliate in Indianapolis. He got his first taste of the big leagues and went 1-8 with a 6.22 ERA in 10 games. Coaches attributed his struggles to youth and inexperience, and expected that Hendrickson would be more comfortable the following year.
Didn't happen. He went 6-12 in a full season at Triple-A Nashville in 2005, then 9-8 last season with a more respectable 3.36 ERA. But Hendrickson again struggled with Milwaukee, going 0-2 with a 12.00 ERA, and this time he took his woes back to Nashville.
"I was mentally fried," he said. "I didn't have my head in it the whole second part of the season. That's all my fault. I don't blame anybody but myself."
His Brewers stint lasted less than three weeks. Called up just as Ben Sheets and Tomo Ohka went down with shoulder injuries, Hendrickson relieved Sheets on May 2 against Houston and worked 5 2/3 relief innings without surrendering an earned run. But then he was tagged for 16 earned runs over his next three starts, including a May 20 start against Minnesota in which he was charged with six runs without recording an out.
Just like that, it was back to the Minors.
"It just blew by," Hendrickson said. "It was over before I knew it."
He did not recover. His last 12-15 starts were "just awful," Hendrickson said. He posted a 5.63 ERA over his final 10 outings.
"If I could have taken a vacation then, I would have," Hendrickson said. "It kept building and building. I tried everything; going to the gym and not going to the gym. Running more. Throwing extra sides between my starts. I started thinking about everything. My mind was totally gone.
"Finally, I just said, 'I can't do it.' I was mentally drained."
Teammates could tell.
"I remember when I was at Double-A earlier in the year, you'd look at stats and see him just dominating," said outfielder Drew Anderson. "When I got up [to Nashville], he just wasn't the same guy. He looked like things were a little off.
"He's got nothing to lose now. People probably have the same perception of him that they had of Dana [Eveland, who was traded during the offseason]. They think he's great at Triple-A and struggles in the big leagues. Ben just needs to get his confidence back. He's definitely got the talent."
Triple-A manager Frank Kremblas saw a different player than the one who pitched in the first half.
"I'm sure the [demotion] had something to do with it," Kremblas said. "You question yourself a little bit. And when you're mentally tired, it's difficult to be mentally tough."
So Hendrickson took the offseason truly off. He considered winter ball but passed, and instead he worked out near his Minneapolis home with Triple-A Nashville athletic trainer Jeff Paxson and Paxson's wife, Yanya. Both are certified trainers.
"He just hit the reset button," Paxson said.
Kremblas thinks Hendrickson still has a chance to have a fine Major League career. Brewers manager Ned Yost said Hendrickson still has some work to do, and confirmed that if Hendrickson makes the cut it will have to be as a long reliever.
"He does look a little better," Yost said. "He has better command of his breaking ball than he has had in the past. That has always been a good pitch for him.
"Somebody has to wow me. Why not him?"
Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.