Spring came early for the Milwaukee Brewers in 2018, with Cactus League games getting underway on February 23. Given the early start, many MLB teams took things a little slow getting their veteran and regular players ready for game action. That left the door open for a significant number of former Timber Rattlers to make appearances in major league games, and they've taken advantage of the opportunity.
2017 Timber Rattler Keston Hiura was the only non-rehabbing member of last year's Wisconsin club to receive a full invite to major league spring training this season and he appeared in six of the Brewers' first eight games, collecting six hits and driving in four runs in the first week of action. He's far from the only recent Rattler to play in a Cactus League game, however, as a fair number of them have been brought over for a day or more from minor league camp to help fill out rosters.
Seven former Timber Rattlers who have yet to make major league debuts were among the pitchers that appeared in a game for the Brewers in their first week of spring training games: 2011-12 Rattler Nick Ramirez, 2014 Rattler Tristan Archer, 2015 Rattlers Josh Uhen and Angel Ventura, 2016 Rattlers Corbin Burnes and Quintin Torres-Costa and 2017 Rattler Daniel Brown have all gotten the ball at least once in a Cactus League game. This season marks the first such occurrence for Uhen, Ventura, Burnes, Torres-Costa and Brown.
In addition to Hiura, on the position player side the Brewers have used eleven other position players that have played for the Rattlers but have yet to appear in an MLB regular season game: Catchers Dustin Houle and Mitch Ghelfi, infielders Jake Gatewood, Blake Allemand, Luis Aviles and Lucas Erceg and outfielders Weston Wilson, Johnny Davis, Tyrone Taylor, Trent Grisham and Troy Stokes, Jr.
Among the group listed above, Hiura, Allemand and Stokes are the only three that had never played in an MLB spring training game before this season. Stokes described the experience as "pretty fun."
"This is my first year going over there, so I was a little anxious just going over at all. So it's been pretty fun, just going with the shots. The first game I wasn't really nervous, I've been around big leaguers and stuff like that before. It was pretty cool, getting to go over there for a bit," Stokes said.
Stokes said the first thing he and his teammates in minor league camp do each morning is go check and see if they're on the list to go over to big league camp for that day's game.
"The schedule's up for like the next four days, so we've got an idea of what we're doing practice-wise. So every day they don't announce who's going over to the games, you just go look at the board, and they'll have the guys listed that are going over, or your name will be in a different color that's going over to the big league side," Stokes said. "So you know as soon as you get to the field."
When Stokes was included on that list for the first time he said some of his teammates had some fun at his expense.
"My first game going over there, there were guys saying some stuff like, 'don't do this, don't do that,' joking sort of stuff," Stokes said. "But a lot of guys now that are in early camp are older guys, I would say, there are some newer guys, but not many. Everyone roots for you, saying, 'good luck, hope you get a hit,' stuff like that."
Stokes did get a hit in his first game, going 1-for-1 with a triple and a walk in the Brewers' 6-5 win over the Giants on February 23. He's appeared in four more games since, becoming a bit of a regular in the Brewers' dugout. After spending several seasons in minor league camp with many of the same teammates, he said being in with the big leaguers is a little different.
"I know a lot of the guys over there, but I don't know everybody, especially some of the new guys we just got. Or even, this week was the first time I got to talk to (Craig) Counsell. So that was pretty cool," Stokes said. "It's definitely different, but the conversations you have in the clubhouse and stuff, that's all the same."
Stokes described himself as "not too much of an outgoing person," so his opportunities to get to know players in big league camp depend a bit on when he gets the opportunity to come over.
"It's kind of weird sometimes," Stokes said. "Today (Tuesday) I had time to talk to some guys, I met Keon (Broxton) for the first time today. I've said 'hey' to (Lorenzo) Cain and (Christian) Yelich but I haven't really met them or talked to them. It all depends on what time you get over there. If you go over there in time to eat and talk to them, then yeah, but sometimes you get over there and it's game time and you don't want to interrupt their preparations for the game and stuff."
Once the game starts, the waiting game begins for Stokes and many of the others that will take the field after the starters leave for the day. He described the experience as not all that unlike what he went through in AA in 2017, the first minor league level where pitchers sometimes hit and double switches become a regular part of the strategy.
"The biggest thing for me is being loose. You don't want to go in and be not stretched and stuff. So that's probably the hardest thing. Stretching yourself out and everything and being ready. Mentally I'm always ready to go," Stokes said.
After waiting around for hours to get one at bat or a few innings in the field in front of major league coaches and fans, it would be understandable for a player coming over from minor league camp to be swinging out of their shoes or attempting to make a highlight reel play. Stokes, however, stressed the importance of sticking with what works in those situations.
"I feel like you've just got to go with your strides. I know what I can do, everybody knows what I can do. I'm not trying to go in the box and try to hit the furthest home run I've ever hit in my life," Stokes said. "If you try to do that you've got the wrong approach. You just have to do what you know you can do. You're either going to get your pitch or you're not going to get your pitch. It's the same game."
If this offseason had gone another way Stokes might have been playing in MLB games this spring alongside longtime teammates Monte Harrison, Isan Diaz and Jordan Yamamoto, who all joined the Marlins organization in the Yelich trade. Stokes said he's still keeping in touch with all three players and following their results with their new team.
"I talk to Monte pretty much every day. Isan, at least a couple of times a week. Those are guys I was drafted with, so I'm pretty close to them," Stokes said. "I talk to Yammy (Yamamoto) every now and then. I was really close with Monte, so I talk to him a lot."
After multiple seasons in the same clubhouse with those players, Stokes described the first spring without them as "kind of weird."
"It was like the first time a big time trade like that happened. This year I'm probably going to play against those guys. Sometime down the road I'm going to play against them, of course. You've got to know it's all a business. I'm rooting for them. And I know all those guys are in a really good situation over there," Stokes said.
Given his big year between High-A Carolina and AA Biloxi in 2017, Stokes entered the spring fully aware of the fact that he's reaching a point in his career where an MLB callup is a possibility. He acknowledged that he thinks about that and it's his goal, but he also knows it's out of his hands.
"My goal this year is to make it to the big leagues. That's my goal, but I'm not just focused on that. I'm just focused on myself right now," Stokes said.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.