02/17/2013 5:44 PM ET
'K-Mart' group pays big dividends for Brewers
By Adam McCalvy / MLB.com
PHOENIX -- Brewers special assistant Dick Groch is the man who scouted and signed Derek Jeter, a first-round Draft pick of the Yankees in 1992. But he can also appreciate a good bargain.
So Groch, entering his 11th season in Milwaukee's pro scouting department, was particularly intrigued to watch what he dubbed the "K-Mart group" throw bullpen sessions on Sunday. Side by side on a row of mounds were relievers John Axford, Jim Henderson and Brandon Kintzler and starter Mike Fiers -- who combined to cost Milwaukee a whopping $3,500.
Fiers is the group's "bonus baby," Kintzler joked, having received a $2,500 signing bonus as a 22nd-round Draft pick in 2009. Right about the same time, the Brewers purchased Kintzler from the independent St. Paul Saints for $1,000. Axford and Henderson signed after being released by other teams, and didn't cost a dime.
And yet, all four are expected to play meaningful roles in the Majors this season. Axford is the Brewers' closer, Henderson the leading contender for set-up duties and Kintzler has an inside track on another bullpen opening. Fiers is competing for a spot in the starting rotation after breaking into the big leagues last season.
Those are far from the only Major Leaguers to come from humble beginnings, but as Groch pointed out, "What's unique is when you put them all together in the same throwing group."
Speaking of unique, Kintzler had to turn down better money in Hollywood to sign with the Brewers. He was a finalist to play right-hander Tim Hudson in the film Moneyball, but the audition would have caused him to miss a chance to start the '09 American Association All-Star Game.
"I said, this is probably my best chance to get signed," Kintzler said. "I think I want to pitch in the All-Star Game. I don't want to be a movie star."
Escobar hopes comeback trail ends with Crew
PHOENIX -- When he steps on a mound at Maryvale Baseball Park, Kelvim Escobar will launch the latest phase of a comeback five years in the making.
The right-hander, 37 in April, has made all of one appearance in the Major Leagues since 2007, when he won 18 games for the Angels. Felled by a series of shoulder injuries, and unsuccessful in one 2010 comeback bid with the Mets, Escobar is giving it a try again. He is in Brewers camp as a non-roster invitee, bidding for a job in the bullpen.
The way he sees it, simply getting to camp counts as a victory.
"A lot of people tell me in Venezuela, 'You are going to be someone that young athletes that are going through tough times are looking up to because of what you've been through,'" Escobar said. "When the doctors said you wouldn't be able to pitch, or when I said I was going to retire because my shoulder was done. All of the things involved in those three years."
It's been three years since his last big league camp, with the Mets in 2010. Escobar reinjured his shoulder before throwing a regular-season pitch, had the latest in a series of surgeries and grew so frustrated trying to pitch in Venezuela the following winter that he walked away from the game.
For an entire year, Escobar did not touch a baseball. He spent time with his kids. He spent time in the gym.
"I totally forgot about baseball," Escobar said. "I didn't watch a game, nothing."
When he did pick up a baseball, "it felt kind of weird." But after an awkward week, the old muscles began to fire again. Suddenly he was playing catch at 120 feet and felt like himself. A coach -- Oswaldo Peraza -- was key to the process, Escobar said, by preaching patience.
By last November, Escobar was finally ready to pitch. He appeared in six games, including a pair of starts, for Lara in the Venezuelan Winter League. Brewers scouts there, including director of Latin American scouting Manny Batista, filed positive reports that reached Brewers assistant general manager Gord Ash, who had once been Escobar's GM in Toronto, and manager Ron Roenicke, who was an Angels coach during Escobar's years in Anaheim.
There's a personal part of Roenicke particularly eager to see Escobar succeed.
"We're going to take it slow with him and see where we are," Roenicke said.
Escobar would earn a $1.1 million base salary in the Majors with $1.1 million more available in performance incentives. He would get $100,000 each for 40 and 45 appearances, $150,000 for 50, 55, 60 and 65 games, plus $100,000 each for 60, 90 and 120 consecutive days on the big league roster. Among Escobar's award bonuses is $100,000 for winning Comeback Player of the Year. He was pitching at 91-94 mph and touching 96 mph in Venezuela, but Roenicke was just as eager to see the rest of his arsenal.
"His offspeed pitches are as good as anybody I've ever seen in the game," Roenicke said. "I would go as far as saying his offspeed pitches are the best I've ever seen."
Escobar is expected to work out with the team for the first time on Monday, and will throw his first bullpen session in the coming days.
"Now I have to be smart and patient, keep working hard and take care of my shoulder," Escobar said. "I'm going to be able to pitch again and help this team."
Aramis eager to earn title of 'Mr. April'
PHOENIX -- Brewers third baseman Aramis Ramirez is brainstorming with his manager on ways to beat his annual early-season slump.
"I would have like five MVPs in my house right now if I ever got off to a good start," Ramirez said, probably only half-joking.
Indeed, Ramirez's worst monthly batting average (.257) and on-base percentage (.328) are in April and his worst slugging percentage (.450) is in May. Compare that to August, when Ramirez has hit .305/.367/.547.
He thought that signing a free-agent contract with the Brewers last offseason would help, since he'd be playing half of his early-season games at climate-controlled Miller Park instead of chilly Wrigley Field. But Ramirez instead followed the same pattern, hitting .214 with two home runs in April last season before rallying to hit .300 with 27 home runs, 105 RBIs and an NL-best 50 doubles.
"I talked to [manager Ron Roenicke] yesterday, and talked to him a couple of times in the offseason, and we want to try to do something different this spring to see if it works out," Ramirez said. "I don't know what it's going to be yet. I don't know if it's going to be play more games, play less games. Take more [batting practice] down here? I don't know. Just do something different and see if I can get off to a great start."
Right now, Ramirez and Roenicke are each brainstorming ideas. They'll talk again before games begin to set a plan.
Roenicke said the early start of Cactus League games, a product of the World Baseball Classic, could benefit Ramirez if he opts to play more this spring. He also noted that Ramirez reported to camp a bit lighter this year.
"He's tired of not starting off well and he wants to try to do something about it," Roenicke said.
Gamel sits after aggravating repaired knee
PHOENIX -- Brewers first baseman Mat Gamel was held out of baseball activities on Sunday, a day after he aggravated his surgically-repaired right knee in the team's first full-squad workout. Manager Ron Roenicke hoped it would only be a one-day absence.
Gamel, coming off surgery last season for a torn ACL, is penciled in as the team's Opening Day first baseman while Corey Hart recovers from his own knee surgery.
"It's unexpected just because [Gamel has] gone through this period of time where he really hasn't had any issues with it," Roenicke said. "But probably not unexpected because it is different once you get on the field and now you're doing different exercises with agilities, with fundamentals. You're doing different things on the knee that you're not doing in a controlled environment."
Roenicke said Gamel first felt something in his knee while stretching, then felt it again while swinging the bat. Gamel conferred with a member of the club's athletic training staff and was taken back to the clubhouse for examination.
Does it qualify as a red flag?
"No, not now," Roenicke said. "I mean, if it happens a few times as we're going along, yeah."
Should Gamel experience more trouble with the knee, the Brewers may have to find someone else to mind first base while Hart also recovers. Options in camp include Alex Gonzalez, Taylor Green, nonroster invitee Bobby Crosby and prospect Hunter Morris.
Morris, 24, has yet to take a swing above Triple-A, but Roenicke did not rule him out.
"It would be pushing him, but say he comes out in Spring Training and he just goes off?" Roenicke said. "I don't know. He had some kind of year in Double-A, and that's where [shortstop Jean] Segura came from."
The Brewers brought in another first baseman, 2009 Draft pick Sean Halton, to cover Gamel's absence in Sunday's drills. Halton could remain for a few days.