During the coldest part of the winter, it can sometimes be challenging to remember that baseball is just around the corner. We're less than ten days away from pitchers and catchers reporting to the Brewers' spring training complex in Phoenix, Arizona, however, and "Brewers On Deck" offered fans a reminder that the 2016 season is rapidly approaching.
More than 11,000 fans attended the event at the Wisconsin Center in Milwaukee to take part in the festivities and meet dozens of past, present and likely future members of the Milwaukee Brewers. Tyler Thornburg was one of many former Timber Rattlers in attendance, appearing at the event for the fifth time.
"Each year is a little bit different, especially this one because we have so many new guys and new faces," Thornburg said. "I think it's pretty cool for the fans to see all these new guys, and hopefully guys they'll be seeing for years to come."
First time visitors
One of the new faces in the crowd was 2012 Timber Rattlers pitcher Jacob Barnes, a recent addition to the Brewers' 40-man roster. Barnes' stock is rising within the organization after he split time between a starting and bullpen role with the AA Biloxi Shuckers in 2015 and made eight scoreless relief appearances in the Arizona Fall League.
"It's been a big year for me," Barnes said. "I came to spring training feeling good and looking forward to the year and it ended up being a good one. Then I went to the Fall League and performed really well, so I couldn't be more excited about how that went."
One of Barnes' teammates in Biloxi was 2013 Timber Rattlers pitcher Jorge Lopez, who parlayed a strong season with the Shuckers into a September callup to the majors and made two starts for Milwaukee down the stretch.
"I feel like I've been blessed. I feel really good," Lopez said. "I had a good experience in AA, with (2015 Biloxi manager and new Brewers coach Carlos) Subero, pitching coach (Chris Hook) and everybody. We've got a really good team over there. Everybody played hard and everything. I felt really good, and ready to be in the big leagues right now."
On Deck provided fans with a unique opportunity to get to meet and interact with these players. When the doors opened, for example, the first wave of fans streaming into the Wisconsin Center found Barnes playing air hockey with attendees in one of the event's many interactive areas.
"I'm excited about it, excited to meet everybody. It's fun," Barnes said. "I like interacting with fans, getting to play games with them and stuff like that."
Taking the next step
A year ago reliever and 2012 Timber Rattler David Goforth was in a similar situation to Barnes, attempting to carry the momentum from a strong Arizona Fall League showing into an opportunity to pitch in the big leagues for the first time. Goforth made his major league debut in May of 2015 and pitched in 20 games for the Brewers, posting a 4.01 ERA and recording 24 strikeouts in 24 2/3 innings. He appeared at On Deck despite the fact that he was battling a cold, and said he's learned "so much" over the last year.
"I think the biggest thing that I took away from being up in the big leagues this last year is just the fact that I can pitch there," Goforth said. "I think that's the biggest thing: a lot of young guys look at the big leagues and are like, 'Man, those guys are really good.' And they are. They are really good, but at the same time the stuff that you're doing and the stuff that got you there is also good, and it's also good enough to compete at the big league level and get those hitters out."
The Brewers' array of offseason moves, including a trade sending incumbent closer Francisco Rodriguez to Detroit, could create chances for Goforth and many of the organization's other young players to advance into new roles.
"It definitely creates an opportunity, but that's not really something I think about," Goforth said. "We're watching and seeing the moves and everything that's going on with the Brewers right now, and it definitely creates opportunities and guys like me and the younger guys should definitely take advantage of that, come into spring training ready to compete for a job and see what happens from there."
Goforth also said, however, that he's not feeling any pressure to replace his former teammates' production.
"I don't think there's ever really been any pressure on me, I don't put it on myself," Goforth said. "And definitely, a guy like K-rod (Francisco Rodriguez), you're not going to come in and fill his shoes. He's the single-season saves leader in the big leagues, he's the guy. You're not going to come in and necessarily fill his shoes."
Neither Barnes nor Lopez know if the Brewers' recent wave of transactions have created an opportunity for them, but both have spent the offseason getting ready to make a strong impression this spring.
"I'll just go to big league camp and hopefully perform well. After that point it's up to them - they don't really tell you too much after that," Barnes said. "But you've just got to compete for a job, and hopefully eventually I get one."
"I'm just keeping working hard, getting ready for spring training and trying to make that team," Lopez said.
From rookie to mentor
In addition to new roles on the field, the Brewers' rebuilding process has led to some younger players having to accept new roles off the field. Thornburg noted that his relative youth occasionally leads other young players with less experience to come to him with questions.
"There were a lot of guys up on our team in September and there's a lot of stuff that as a rookie, guys coming up have to learn," Thornburg said. "Not only what to do on the field, properly, but off the field. It's such a different game in the minor leagues. So yeah, some guys feel a little bit more comfortable asking a younger guy with a little more experience than going to a guy like Braunie (Ryan Braun) or Luc (Jonathan Lucroy) or someone like that."
Goforth also commented that there have been "a few guys asking questions here and there."
"It's kind of crazy because last year I'm picking brains of people and trying to figure out the ropes and figure out what's going on. But definitely, with the influx of all the younger guys, I'm sure there are guys that will be asking questions and stuff," Goforth said. "It's good to help those guys out, and I'm still a young guy trying to ask questions and figure out what's going on too. But it's nice to talk to those guys, though."
Former teammates and others that have reached the big leagues are often a resource for players like Barnes, who are still trying to reach that level for the first time.
"You definitely, whenever they come back or you see them in spring training or wherever it is, you kind of ask them how it is, on and off the field because it's different on both sides of it. And you just kind of see what to expect when you get there and how you need to do things up there," Barnes said.
With the volume of players turning over in recent months, many of the Brewers' top prospects are likely going to get their first taste of the big leagues around the same time. As such, their experience might be different from players like Thornburg, who debuted as part of a veteran team in 2012.
"When I was coming up it was so scary because the closest guy in age to me was like, three years apart," Thornburg said. "They'd all been in the big leagues for a bit: We had Aramis Ramirez, Rickie Weeks, Zack Greinke and Randy Wolf, guys like that. Even in the bullpen we had K-rod and (John) Axford and so I didn't really have any young guys to kind of bond with. I was kind of one of those rookies that they gave me a hard time and didn't really have anyone else to put that pressure on. But all these guys coming up together, it's a unique experience and should be really awesome for them."