On the major league side of spring training camps, preparations for the 2017 MLB season have been underway for quite some time now. Players have been in camp for more than a month and games have been going on for weeks.
Across the parking lot at the Brewers' minor league facility, however, the action is just starting to ramp up. Their first full-squad workout was on Monday and games begin on Friday.
"It's exciting to see how it will shake out over the next couple of weeks and see what guys end up making our team and getting back to Appleton," Timber Rattlers manager Matt Erickson said.
Erickson has been pulling double duty for the early portion of spring training: With Brewers coach Carlos Subero away working with Venezuela in the World Baseball Classic, Erickson and fellow longtime Brewers minor league coach and manager Mike Guerrero have been helping out with early work in major league camp before coming over to the minor league side each day.
On the minor league side, Erickson and the rest of the coaching staffs have a lot of players to manage. There are 207 position players and pitchers attending minor league camp this year, which he said is the most he's ever seen. Of those, over 170 reported to camp early.
"Charlie Greene, our field coordinator, he does an excellent job of organization and putting the schedule together," Erickson said. "And we really use the total facility. There's six full fields and a half field, and obviously we have an eight-pack in our bullpen. So there's stuff going on all over our complex. We get very good use of the territory, for sure."
From Friday the Brewers have just 20 days to assemble rosters and get team out to their various affiliates for minor league Opening Day on April 6. At this point, Erickson said he has a "pretty good idea" of the group he'll be bringing north.
"There's still always a few surprises, whether it's somebody that comes in and performs really well in the last couple weeks of spring training or there's injuries that take place," Erickson said. "But right now I would say that the majority of our roster is predicted, it's just a matter of getting everybody healthy and ready to go, getting your body physically and mentally ready to perform on a daily basis."
Brewers Farm Director Tom Flanagan stressed the importance of spring training as an opportunity for players to prepare for the season and work on making adjustments, and recently told Shepherd Express "we try and very much shy away from evaluation in spring."
"I think there's an element of evaluation certainly, with some players, but coming out of spring training you don't want to be fooled by spring training evaluations," Flanagan said. "These guys for the most part have had pretty long careers in the minor leagues that we can look back on and we kind of have an evaluation coming into camp. So for the most part it's a time when we want to prep them for the season and not have them worried about being evaluated, per se."
Erickson, however, offered a reminder that the evaluation process is always ongoing, on and off the field.
"There's constant evaluation, and it doesn't just start here in spring training. The day that they get drafted, from the opening conversation to the initial handshake to what they've done in their short season the year before… are we going to have some repeaters (players who spend a second season at the same minor league level), depending on age and where their slot was in the draft. You kind of put all of those things together through constant evaluation," Erickson said. "But there's a lot of information that goes into it. Pretty much every Tuesday morning we sit together as a staff and go over our rosters from AAA on down and try to keep track of what we think should happen if we were to break camp that particular day. There's constant evaluation."
With a relatively short window to get players ready for Opening Day, minor league games are played with a somewhat more flexible set of rules to give managers the capacity to extend or limit players' workloads. It's not unusual to see the same hitter lead off every inning, for example, or to see innings extended beyond three outs or called off early to accommodate pitch count goals.
"Spring training is mostly for the pitchers and getting them built up, especially your starting pitchers," Erickson said. "You want them to build up a period of time to where when they break camp they're able to throw multiple innings as stress-free as possible to reduce wear and tear on their arms.
"So when we prepare them in spring training, if we go out there and you want a guy to go two innings, and he gets three outs on four pitches, we'll have him face another hitter or another couple of hitters so we can get the equivalent to a full inning. If somebody's struggling with their command or having delivery issues, we may cut an inning short. We'll simply roll it and it's understood throughout spring training and throughout the different organizations."
With rosters that may change daily and a variety of players to observe and evaluate, playing a game with variable rules would seem like the last thing a minor league manager needs to think about. Erickson, however, downplayed the added challenge.
"It sounds complicated but it really isn't too big of a deal when you're dealing with different organizations. Everybody's pretty much on the same page when it comes to that," Erickson said.
All told, Brewers affiliates will play 55 games over a span of 16 days before breaking camp on April 1. Minor league Opening Day is on Thursday, April 6.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.