The Midwest League schedule may have wrapped up in early September, but for dozens of past, present and future members of the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers the season wasn't actually over until they spent a month in the desert.
Many of baseball's top young prospects finish off their seasons with a four-week long stint in Arizona and Florida's Instructional Leagues. For the Milwaukee Brewers, 53 players returned to the organization's minor league spring facility in Phoenix's Maryvale neighborhood to participate. The roster is a "Who's Who" of top prospects and recent additions to the organization, including 17 of the Brewers' top 21 draft picks from 2015.
Those players all come to Phoenix with a single goal: Individual development. It's a point of emphasis for new Brewers general manager David Stearns and it's been impressed on coaching staffs throughout the organization, including Timber Rattlers manager and instructional league coach Matt Erickson.
"He (Stearns) had a quote the other day that individual development is very important to him through the minor leagues. And that's what you get here in instructional league," Erickson said. "You don't have the numbers that you have with spring training. All of our rovers (roving instructors) are here, some really good coaches, and these kids are able to get a lot of attention. And we can pound them with skills and drills and really try to pick one or two things with each individual that they can really concentrate on and get better at, and then take that into the offseason and bring it with them as a feather in their hat for spring training and the next season."
Position players at the Brewers' camp were divided into two groups, the Blue and Gold teams, and pitchers were divided into five groups to pitch every fifth day. Both teams of position players rotated every other day between games against other Instructional League teams and workout days, with everyone coming back together twice each week for "camp days."
"The best part about instructional league is the camp days, in my mind," Erickson said. "On Wednesdays and Saturdays we have nothing but situations and intrasquad games and we just get a bunch of repetitions and the kids really learn. When you can get them in those competitive environments and give them those repetitions it has a better chance to sink in at game speed, and that's really what you're trying to do."
Being able to focus more on development and making adjustments and less on statistics or immediate results can pay significant dividends for many young players. 2014 first round pick and 2015 Timber Rattler Jake Gatewood is one of several developing talents that noticed a difference.
"I think that playing when these stats aren't going on the back of your card definitely relaxes you a little more," Gatewood said. "It's fun to continue to work on new things and not have to worry about my batting average tanking if I try something new or anything like that. So it's nice to not have that pressure."
The emphasis on statistics and wins and losses may not be as significant in instructional ball, but there's still some pressure. With scouts and coaches watching from all over the organization and around baseball, Erickson said players' stock can fluctuate "quite a bit" based on their fall efforts.
"You can see some guys opening coaches' eyes on a daily basis. But there's so much instruction, individual instruction," Erickson said. "You can get lost in the shuffle a bit in spring training. It's much easier to catch the coaches' eye in instructional league than it is in spring training, just because of the numbers you're working with."
Many of those eyes were focused on the many draft picks and new acquisitions experiencing it all for the first time. One of the highest-profile newcomers was outfielder and 2015 first round pick Trent Clark, who was enjoying the opportunity to work with more experienced players.
"It's fun to pick their brains and talk to them about their experiences, and just figure out what they've gone through and how they can help you learn and use it in your career," Clark said. "So it's been fun getting to know guys and future teammates."
Not all of the newcomers are new to professional baseball, however: This fall Clark shared an outfield and a clubhouse with 20-year-old Malik Collymore, who joined the Brewers organization in the July trade that sent reliever Jonathan Broxton to the St. Louis Cardinals. Collymore was finishing up his third professional season, but this was the Ontario native's first time training in Arizona.
"The best part's been getting acclimated to Arizona and being at a new spring training facility," Collymore said. "Now when I go to spring training I know where everything is, I know all the coaches for the most part now. It's just getting my feet wet and getting better."
Clark and Collymore both finished the season with Helena at the Advanced Rookie level, making them candidates to join the Timber Rattlers in 2016. Wisconsin had one of the youngest teams in the Midwest League in 2015, and that trend appears likely to continue next season.
"As we get here this Instructional League it looks like, of the people we have here and the players we have, it seems like we could be pretty young again," Erickson said. "I know the Brewers want to go that route, we want to make that A-ball team as young as we possibly can and throw them into the fire. And if they do need to repeat (the A-ball level), hopefully it's a little better experience for those players."
Final decisions on 2016 rosters, however, are still months away. For now, all these players can do is work on getting better and try to enjoy the ride.
"I think it's been good. We have a good environment here," Gatewood said. "I've enjoyed all the new guys and the guys from all different levels. It's been a lot of fun, and we definitely have a really good environment going on with this team."