When the Milwaukee Brewers announced the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers' Opening Day roster for the 2018 season it included seven players returning to the Midwest League for a second year. Returning to the league allows players another shot to succeed in an environment where they are familiar with their surroundings and to test out adjustments they made during the winter.
Two of the Timber Rattlers who returned to the Midwest League to start the 2018 were infielder Gilbert Lara and outfielder Joantgel Segovia, and both players have been among Wisconsin's most productive hitters to open the season. Through the end of April they were first and second on the team in hits with a combined total of 49.
Entering the 2018 season Lara had played a combined 190 games with US-based minor league teams and he had a .230 batting average, .270 on-base percentage and .305 slugging in those games. Over his first 21 games this season he's improved significantly in all three categories, batting .291 with an on-base percentage of .333 and slugging .443. All three numbers are easily the best of his career.
"I feel great. I'm working hard for that moment," Lara said after a four hit game on April 27, his first such game at any level since July of 2015.
"He's been staying within himself, trying to hit the ball to the right side of the field with that approach, instead of trying to pull everything," Timber Rattlers hitting coach Hainley Statia said of Lara. "So that really helps him and hopefully he keeps that going."
Segovia had previously experienced some success at the Rookie levels but had difficulty translating that success to Wisconsin in 2017. He appeared in 111 games for the Timber Rattlers last season and batted .220 with a .262 on-base percentage and .254 slugging. In April of 2018 he posted .315, .415 and .432 marks in the same three categories, improving his OPS (on-base plus slugging) by 331 points.
Segovia also finished the month of April by reaching base safely in 16 consecutive games. He led the team and was among the Midwest League leaders for the month with eight stolen bases.
"His (My) mentality is stronger, he's more confident in himself. He already knew something about the league since he played here last year and he just feels a lot more comfortable and confident in himself," Segovia said through teammate and translator Gabriel Garcia.
Brewers roving instructor Tony Diggs has extensive experience with both Segovia and Lara, having coached them during their time in rookie ball. During his recent time in Appleton he was able to identify one significant difference that could be a factor in Lara and Segovia's success:
"I think the biggest difference that you're seeing is confidence, and that's something that comes through experience," Diggs said. "You experience different ups and downs in baseball and as you make the adjustments to get better then your confidence grows as well, because you're seeing yourself make the adjustments. So confidence is probably the biggest thing."
In addition to their newfound confidence, Lara and Segovia have something else in common: In recent years both have missed significant time due to injuries. Lara fractured his fibula in July of last year and sat out the remainder of the season. Segovia's 2015 season, his first with a stateside affiliate, ended around the same time.
Another recent Timber Rattler, outfielder Monte Harrison, credited some of the lessons learned while he was sidelined due to injury as a factor in his success once he returned. Diggs noted that the experience and perspective gained while watching games from the bench can help a player learn to make adjustments.
"In dealing with injury, which both of them had to deal with, it's one of those things where you have a realization that 'There's nothing I can do right now. So if I can't get on the field to work on my craft, what's the next best thing?' You study it. You study your craft. You're able to watch games, you're able to dissect games, you're able to ask questions and just be able to observe and see the things you may not see if you're actually on the field," Diggs said. "You get a chance to see basically the whole game. And I think once you start to understand the game and understand the situations that are presented in the game, I think you're able to slow things down now. You've seen it, you're able to recognize it, and now you're just executing."
In additions to their increased contributions at the plate, both Segovia and Lara have also been key pieces of the Timber Rattlers' defense. Lara has played shortstop and third base in the early going this season and has been proficient at both positions when it comes to converting ground balls into outs.
"Anything Lara gets to, he's going to complete the play," Diggs said. "He's got a strong arm, accurate. He's one of those guys where you just want to see the ball in his glove because once the ball's in his glove the play is going to be finished."
Lara is less likely to see playing time at short now that fellow shortstop and 2017 sixth round pick Devin Hairston has joined Wisconsin, but he still prefers the days when he gets to play there.
"I like shortstop, but I like to play third base too," Lara said.
Meanwhile, Segovia's defense has undergone something of a transformation. He has started games in left and center field with Wisconsin in 2018 and has attracted attention with a new approach in the field.
"He's (I'm) just being more aggressive, he's staying focused, pitch by pitch, the entire game," Segovia said via Garcia.
Diggs, who also serves as the Brewers' outfield coordinator, also noticed the difference in Segovia's defensive game and attributed the difference to "a couple of things."
"Probably confidence, again, but a little reckless abandon," Diggs said. "I think you have to learn how to be aggressive to learn this game, and when you make aggressive mistakes you learn quicker than when you make passive ones. So just in conversation with him, his goal is to be as aggressive as he can, to make all the plays that he can and when he makes the aggressive mistake, he learns from it."
Lara is still just 20 years old and Segovia is 21, so both players continue to be among the youngest members of the Wisconsin roster and have significant opportunities to turn the lessons they've learned into long, successful professional careers. Segovia cited the opportunity to continue to play at higher levels as one of his goals going forward.
"Keep doing what he's (I'm) doing right now and hopefully he continues to go up in levels," Segovia said via Garcia.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.