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Frosty Microbrews: Ready for games that count

April 6, 2016

Timber Rattlers starting pitcher Jon Perrin, scheduled to start Wisconsin's home opener on Saturday afternoon, reported to minor league spring training early in February. Nearly eight weeks later, he's one of 28 players who made the trip to Neuroscience Group Field on Monday and are excited for the games that count to finally start on Thursday.

"I'm just ready to get going: It's been a long time since I've been on the mound in a real game. That's the most exciting part for me," Perrin said.

Perrin is one of eleven players from the 2015 team returning to Wisconsin to open the 2016 campaign. That list also includes 2014 second round pick Monte Harrison, who is ready to take the field again for the first time since being sidelined with an ankle injury last July. He said he's back at 100%, but is "really going to have to take care of my body and do a good job with it."

"It was very difficult, but I learned a lot from the injury about my body and things, and just watching the game," Harrison said. "It's going to sound weird, but I'm kind of glad it happened to me just so the game can slow down and I wouldn't think about things. It's a blessing that it happened to me."

Harrison made 42 of his 46 appearances with Wisconsin in 2015 in center field, and he'll be out there again when the Timber Rattlers open the season in Beloit on Thursday night. When asked, he expressed a strong preference to continue playing that position going forward.

"I want to play center field. I'm an athlete and that's where athletes play," Harrison said.

There were concerns following the injury that Harrison's broken ankle might cost him some of his speed and agility, but Timber Rattlers manager Matt Erickson said Harrison has looked "very good" this spring.

"Physically he looks like he hasn't lost a step," Erickson said. "I know he had some questions early, as anybody would coming off a major leg injury, questioning what he can handle and what he can't. He'll be a guy we'll watch early, to make sure that he's getting the time to maybe get a few extra days off. And that's good, because we broke camp with five outfielders and there's seven kids on our roster that can play the outfield. So we'll be covered there, no problem.

Like Harrison, 2014 first round pick Jake Gatewood is back with Wisconsin to open the 2016 season. Unlike Harrison, though, Gatewood is moving to a new position: After playing all of his 147 professional games at shortstop over the last two seasons, this year he's making a move to third base. It's a transition that started last fall during his time in Instructional League in Arizona, and Erickson praised Gatewood's early work in his new role.

"He took to it very well," Erickson said. "He's a tall, rangy kid but his feet really work in terms of going front to back. Third base is a position where you've really got to go front to back more so than having a lot of range laterally. And he's done a nice job on the slow rollers, drop steps, his footwork is good, he's giving really good feeds to second base, he looks comfortable there at the position."

Gatewood's move to third base fills a need within the organization, as several of the Brewers' top minor leaguers play the shortstop position, but significantly fewer have experience at third base.

"It wasn't a move because I couldn't play there (at short), which is something they told me in spring," Gatewood said. "It's more of a move because we didn't have a lot of third basemen, so my body type and the way I hit fits as a third baseman."

Both Harrison and Gatewood were just 19 years old when they made their Midwest League debuts at this time a year ago, and both players struggled out of the gate in a league where the average player was between 21 and 22.

"Those are two guys that came up here and were thrown into the fire as very young men last year," Erickson said. "Maybe a little bit above their competitive balance, so to speak, in terms of starting their professional careers. But both had very good spring trainings this year and we look to both of them to lead our ballclub this year."

Meanwhile, Gatewood and Harrison will be joined on the Opening Day roster by another top prospect getting his first opportunity to play full season professional baseball. Isan Diaz, who the Brewers acquired over the winter in the trade sending Jean Segura and Tyler Wagner to the Arizona Diamondbacks, won't turn 20 until the end of May but is already developing an impressive resume: He hit .360 with a .436 on-base percentage and .640 slugging percentage en route to being named the Pioneer League's Most Valuable Player in 2015. Gatewood's move to third base opens the door for Diaz to start at shortstop in his first regular season game for his new organization.

"Yeah, great trade, it looks like. Another talented kid," Erickson said. "(Brewers general manager) David (Stearns) talks about getting those young, controllable players and this looks like another one from Arizona. He's got an uncanny knack to find the barrel consistently."

After experiencing a good deal of success in his first professional season, Diaz said he's planning to keep things the same to help carry momentum over into his new organization and a new league.

"I'm just going to continue to stay with the same routine, obviously the Brewers organization does some things a little bit differently, but still adjusting, still making good adjustments with the team and trying to stick with the same routine and mentality I had last year," Diaz said.

For these players and many like them across the organization, the Brewers' rebuilding effort creates a clear opportunity.

"That was addressed in spring training with all of our minor league players at every level," Erickson said. "The Brewers are in a situation where they're trying to find people, and there's going to be a lot of young kids that are going to get opportunities in the next few years. Hopefully we can prepare as many of those kids as possible to not only get that opportunity but perform well to stick in the big leagues and be a big part of the joint development of the team."

That focus on player development was one of the reasons Diaz said he's excited to be a part of the Brewers organization.

"Here they show a lot of attention to the young guys. You get more one-on-one time with a lot of the coaching staff and we get better day by day with them," Diaz said. "We use them to the best of our ability and try to get better."

At the same time, all of these players recognize that their development is a process and will take time.

"Obviously with all the new guys it's pretty exciting to play with everyone. But also, they said to trust the process and understand that you're not going to be a big leaguer in two or three days, it's going to take years," Gatewood said.

Nonetheless, the talent level on this team is significant, and Erickson stressed his coaching staff's role in helping turn that potential into reality.

"I'm excited about the potential of the team, that's always the dreaded word, potential," Erickson said. "It's our job as a staff and the players in this clubhouse to go out and turn that potential into game skills and ultimately a consistent baseball club that can win some games."

That consistency starts in spring training, and Erickson praised his team's efforts down the stretch in Arizona.

"I loved the way we broke camp," Erickson said. "A lot of energy those last few days, it's always kind of a hectic time that last week with people not knowing if they've made the team or not. We have a pretty good group here, very talented, and I like the cohesiveness we've had the last week of spring training. Hopefully we can take that into the start of the season."

Harrison also praised the energy level and atmosphere in the clubhouse.

"It's real good. The vibe right now is just ridiculous. Playing with all those guys in spring training I feel like it's a whole different team from last year," Harrison said.

Now, all that's left is to get out on the field and start the season.

"It's still baseball but it's always exciting to get out there again and play a game that counts after a month and a half of spring training," Perrin said. "You just kind of get to see all the preparation you put in during the offseason come to fruition, finally."