PHOENIX – The mood in the Milwaukee Brewers clubhouse Thursday morning was easily defined: ecstatic.
WIth the first normal spring training upon us since 2019, fresh and familiar faces entered the clubhouse at American Family Fields of Phoenix with one thing on their minds.
“We’re just happy to be back playing baseball,” Brewers pitcher Wade Miley, 36, said. “Getting to be around the boys again, speaking for those people, we missed this, we missed the camaraderie. Just getting back into going again (is awesome).”
Milwaukee placed second in the National League Central division last season behind the St. Louis Cardinals, posting 86 wins. However, expectations are high, as the front office is hoping for a playoff run.
“We’re planning to be very competitive this season. I feel really good about the vibes we have going in, and then I feel good about our team right now,” General Manager Matt Arnold said. “I think our goal is to get back to the playoffs and advance deep into the playoffs.”
The Brewers last made the postseason in 2021, falling in the divisional series to the Atlanta Braves, 3-1. Hopes are high this season with the return of 2021 NL Cy Young award winner Corbin Burnes, 28, and catcher William Contreras, 26, who was acquired in a three-team trade with the Oakland Athletics and Braves last season.
“We’re just getting started,” manager Craig Counsell said. “We’ve added a player that has accomplished a lot already at a really young age (Contreras) and that’s super exciting. I think when you add athletes and players like that, you’re really excited about what more they can do. Sky’s the limit with him and he’s got a really bright future, and he thinks he can do even more.”
Arnold said that he met Contreras the other day as he was one of the first in the building and that reports on Contreras are “outstanding,” believing that he will be nothing short of a positive influence in the clubhouse.
Contreras, a 2022 All-Star with the Braves, is one of the new additions to the Brew Crew, as veteran outfielder Jesse Winker was acquired from the Mariners in December in exchange for second baseman Kolten Wong. Winker, 29, underwent two surgeries this offseason, one to repair his meniscus in his knee and the other to replace a disc in his back.
Winker has been out at the American Family Fields of Phoenix for over a month, working toward gaining strength he was cleared to resume baseball activities.
“He had surgeries this winter, and for any player who had a tough season, injuries last year, then having surgery, (it’s tough),” Counsell said. “I think getting healthy is your first priority and so Jesse’s worked really hard at that. He’s doing great, he’s been very disciplined this month out of camp with us and he’s put himself in a really good spot. He has probably put himself a little ahead of where he thought he was going to be and credit to all of his hard work.”
Winker continues to make progress and as a member of the Cincinnati Reds, he was one of the Brewers biggest threats. Winker has a career 1.032 OPS at the American Family Field in Milwaukee, and Counsell said he will be used primarily as a designated hitter to begin the season before being moved back to the outfield.
Although offseason moves have been made to secure the likes of Winker and Contreras, Burnes went into an arbitration hearing with the team Wednesday afternoon and lost after filing for a $10.75 million contract and being left with a $10.01 million contract for the 2023 season.
Burnes looked ready to participate in workouts Thursday, but the looming feeling of disrespect was on his mind. He felt as though his true value in the organization was lacking and believed that a solution should hqf been reached without having a hearing.
While Burnes participated in throwing sessions Thursday, Counsell said that “people like Corbin are leaders and a lot of it is by example, a lot of it by how hard they work, how disciplined they are. That in itself is leadership. That’s what great starting pitchers do really well.”
Burnes felt as though the way things have transpired the last few weeks has hurt his relationship with the team, but he has expressed his love for the organization with hopes he can stay in the long term.
It’s uncertain how the relationship between the two will mend, with one year of arbitration remaining for the starter. One thing remains certain though: Burnes’ presence in the clubhouse is surely needed for a potential playoff run.
“More than anything, we’re trying to move them (pitchers and catchers) forward,” Counsell said. “You kind of try to cement some things that may have been worked on in the offseason, kind of cement goals and that goes on a little bit and then there’s obviously team messaging that we’ll have to work on to get ready for the next step. We’ve put ourselves in a position to make the playoffs for years, but players are a little bit different and every year is a little bit different.”
Spring training games begin Feb. 25 against the Los Angeles Dodgers and the feeling of being together in one place for the first time in four years is a relief after being hit with the MLB lockout in 2022 and COVID-19 restrictions since 2020.
“It’s been great to have everyone together. I think that’s the biggest thing is we missed being together,” Arnold said. “So I think whether it’s our front office, the players, everyone just having a round and being around each other, having those vibes, that we’ve missed for a while is a really good feeling.”