As the Milwaukee Brewers report to spring training this week, they're being greeted by a face many Timber Rattlers fans will recognize: For the second consecutive season, longtime Wisconsin manager Matt Erickson is serving as an extra coach in major league camp for a few weeks before moving over to the minor league side in March. He described it as a huge opportunity to ensure consistent communication across all levels of the organization.
"You hear the verbage that is used from the big league staff, how they communicate and talk to the major league players," Erickson said. "If that same message can be trickled down to our minor league players, then there's no confusion throughout our organization as the players move from A-ball to AA, AA to AAA, they know the expectations and it's up to them to execute when they get the opportunity."
When Erickson returns to minor league camp in March, he'll shift his attention to a new season of Timber Rattlers baseball with multiple new faces among his coaches. Erickson, trainer Jeff Paxson and Strength and Conditioning Coach Ben Mendelson are the only members of the 2016 staff returning for another season in the Midwest League.
While Erickson's 2017 pitching coach is new to Wisconsin, he's no stranger to the Brewers organization. Steve Cline, who Erickson refers to as "The Doctor," joins the Timber Rattlers after 21 years coaching at the rookie level with the Pioneer League Ogden Raptors and Arizona Summer League Brewers.
"He's been around the full nine years I've been in the organization and I've asked him numerous questions, both tending to baseball and outside the game of baseball. So I have much respect for him and I'm excited to get to work with him," Erickson said.
Cline has spent the last 16 years in Arizona but does have some experience with the Midwest League: He pitched for Cedar Rapids in 1975 and coached in the league during two stints with the Clinton Giants (now known as the LumberKings), in 1981 and 1982 and again in 1990 and 1991. This, however, will be his first time back in the league in 26 years.
"Last fall, during Instructional League I had a conversation with our Farm Director, Tom Flanagan, and the gist of the conversation was that he asked me if I'd be willing to go," Cline said. "Mr. Flanagan felt that that was what was best for the organization, and so I said, 'sure.' And I understand you guys do a great job there, so I'm looking forward to it."
During his time in Arizona Cline was simultaneously serving in two capacities, coaching the pitchers in the Brewers' extended spring training camp and Arizona Summer League in addition to working with pitchers who had been sent to the Brewers' Phoenix facility to rehab injuries. As such, he'll have experience coaching many players that could be a part of the 2017 Timber Rattlers.
"I'm fortunate enough that I get to see all of the new draft picks, except for the ones that go directly to Helena or even the A-clubs," Cline said. "But then I'll end up seeing those guys most of the time in Instructional League. So I would hope that would give me a leg up, knowing the individuals."
While the Rookie and A-ball levels are not that far apart, Cline said there are some differences in coaching players in Arizona (who are typically in their first professional season) as compared to more experienced players in the Midwest League.
"Usually with the first-year guys out of the draft you do more observation than teaching. There are some things where you do some subtle…I'm not sure if you'd call them changes, but maybe some subtle adjustments," Cline said. "But for the most part, you allow those kids to pitch and show you what they can do. After all, somebody saw something in you. So show me what you can do. "
At the A-ball level, Cline said it's an individual decision on how hands-on to be with his pitchers.
"It just becomes, some guys you can give maybe a little more information than others, and other guys you don't. But again, for me, you allow these guys to go pitch and you try to keep them on the path to their ultimate goals, that's all."
While Cline has been coaching professionally since 1981, the Timber Rattlers' other new coach wasn't even born until 1986. Former Angels and Brewers minor leaguer (and 2006 Cedar Rapids Kernel) Hainley Statia coached alongside Cline with the Arizona Summer League Brewers in 2016 and will join him in the Midwest League in 2017.
"He's an exciting, passionate, young man," Erickson said. "He's starting his coaching career. I got to work with him a little bit in Instructional League and got to know him a little bit there."
Statia is a native of Curacao and a veteran of 962 professional games as a player, but said he's glad he decided to make the transition to coaching before the 2016 season.
"You know what? It was much easier than I thought it would be," Statia said. "I'm having fun. There's a bunch of great coaches that have helped me along the way in my transition and I can't complain. I love it. So it's been really fun. I don't regret it one single bit."
Statia cited Erickson and Cline among a list of coaches that have helped him move from playing to coaching.
"There's been a bunch of them. (Brewers Field Coordinator and Catching Instructor) Charlie Greene, Matt Erickson, (Biloxi coach) Sandy Guerrero, Steve Cline, (former Brewers roving instructor) Jeremy Reed, (Biloxi manager) Mike Guerrero, all those guys that I had when I was a player, now I have them in the same room to talk about the season and players. So it's fun," Statia said.
Like Cline, Statia will also have some familiarity with many of the players coming to Wisconsin in 2017 and is looking forward to using it to his advantage.
"Some of the guys I've worked with already in Arizona last season, so it absolutely gives me an advantage in that I know what they want, what they need to work on, what we gave them to work on in the offseason, did it work out? So that's definitely going to give me an advantage, you know?" Statia said.
After nine years coaching and managing in the minors, Erickson is used to change and is ready to get to know and work with his new staff.
"Obviously every year, communication is huge among your staff," Erickson said. "So they'll know exactly what my expectations are and then we'll set out the daily routines and we'll make adjustments as needed, as you always have to do. But, a lot like the players, we get different players every year and it's a new opportunity, a new challenge, and I'm very confident that our staff this year will be fully equipped to help our young men."