PHOENIX – Lives can change quickly in baseball, especially during spring training for unsigned veteran players looking for an opportunity to keep their big-league careers alive.
Just ask first baseman Luke Voit and outfielder Tyler Naquin, veteran free agents signed to minor league contracts by the Milwaukee Brewers on Feb. 21 and invited to spring training as non-roster additions.
The two immediately reported to the American Family Fields of Phoenix, the Brewers’ Cactus League facility in the Maryvale area of west Phoenix, where they will have about a month to make their case for a spot on the club’s Opening Day roster.
“I knew I was going to be somewhere, just not sure exactly where or what day,” Naquin said. “I basically had everything packed. I was just waiting on where the decision was going to be. It was a quick notice, but I’m used to that.”
Both are 30-something veterans hoping to carve out a niche that will keep them in the big leagues, Voit as a right-handed hitting slugger at first base and designated hitter and Naquin as a corner outfielder who bats from the left side.
Voit has proven power. He led the majors in home runs during the shortened 2020 season, belting 22 for the Yankees. And Naquin could provide the Brewers with some needed veteran leadership as a player who can platoon with one of the team’s young right-handed batting outfield candidates.
“They are both coming in competing to make the team,” said Brewers manager Craig Counsell. “They’re veteran players that have had some big league success that were made available to us. For what they do, there is a path for them to make the Opening Day roster.
“That’s why they’re here. That’s why they chose to sign here and that’s why we wanted them. So, we’ll see how it shakes out.”
At 32, the 6-foot-2, 258-pound Voit has experienced team success during his time in the majors, and the potential for that in the Brewers is a big reason he signed the one-year minor league deal to compete for a roster spot.
“They are ready to win,100 percent,” Voit said. “I had other opportunities elsewhere, but I want to win. I have been a part of winning organizations for most of my career, and I want to continue that.
“We have the pitching staff to be great. I feel I can provide some more thump in the middle lineup.”
Now joining his fourth organization, the 31-year-old Naquin is accustomed to change but is already settling in with the Brewers.
“It’s only been a couple days so far, but I enjoy spending time with the guys and staff already,” Naquin said. “It’s been a good time. The guys are really welcoming, so it’s an exciting spot to be at. Getting the chance with Milwaukee will be a lot of fun.”
For players like Naquin and Voit, a chance is what it’s all about. And they have followed similar paths to this spring – both drafted out of high school, both decided to play in college and then were drafted again, both have had success but also have been derailed by injuries along the way.
Voit grew up in the baseball hotbed of St. Louis, where he played at Lafayette High as a first and third baseman. He was selected in the 32nd round of the 2009 MLB Draft by the Kansas City Royals but opted to play at Missouri State instead.
“It kind of came down to me, I feel like I wasn’t ready,” Voit said. “I was too immature, so I felt if I went to college and figured some stuff out it would help – which I think it did.”
In three seasons and 171 games for the Bears, Voit collected 195 hits, drove in 112 runs and swatted 14 homers while batting .295 and was selected by his hometown Cardinals in the 22nd round of the 2013 MLB Draft.
He made his major league debut in 2017, playing in 62 games for St. Louis.
Naquin, meanwhile, was raised where football is king, the town of Spring, Texas near Houston. He started playing baseball as a 4-year-old and immediately fell in love with the idea of playing in the big leagues.
“Ever since I was really little, I always told myself I wanted to be on TV and play baseball,” Naquin said.
Like Voit, Naquin was drafted out of high school but chose the college route. The Baltimore Orioles selected him in the 33rd round of the 2009 draft, but he signed with Texas A&M where he boosted his value in a big way.
After Naquin compiled 238 hits and 112 RBI while batting .346 for the Aggies, Cleveland selected him with the 12th overall pick of the 2012 draft.
In 2016, Naquin made his big-league debut with Cleveland and enjoyed immediate success. He played in 116 games in his rookie campaign, hitting .296 with 14 home runs and 43 RBI. His five seasons in Cleveland were a roller coaster ride. He experienced success but injuries were a constant theme.
“Having a lot of success early in the big leagues was huge, but then injuries started to hit,” Naquin said. “There were a lot of ups and downs, which come with everything. I would experience the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. It helped me to be able to ride the roller coaster of my career.”
It’s a career that has included stops in Cincinnati with the Reds and New York with the Mets after his time in Cleveland. Now, Naquin is trying to catch on again with an AL team.
Like Naquin, Voit experienced recurring injuries that put him off track after his time with the Cardinals.
A trade that sent him to the New York Yankees on Jul. 28, 2018 kick-started Voit’s big league career. After playing in only eight games and hitting .182 with one home run to start the 2018 season, he played in 39 games.333 with 14 home runs in the Yankees pinstripes.
Voit went on to play three more seasons with the Yankees, mostly at first base, learning what it meant to perform under the pressure of a major media market like New York and to conduct himself as a baseball player.
“It was an awesome experience obviously playing in the bright lights all the time,” Voit said. “It’s an intimidating environment with the fans, the media and even the players because you are playing with guys who have won multiple awards. But I embraced it and enjoyed it. Definitely something that made me into who I am today.”
Injuries near the end of Voit’s tenure in New York ultimately led the Yankees to move him to the San Diego Padres on Mar. 18, 2022. His time in San Diego didn’t last long as he was traded to the Washington Nationals on Aug. 12, 2022 in a deal that revolved around Juan Soto.
At first base, the left-handed hitting 27-year-old Rowdy Tellez is expected to be Milwaukee’s starter. With two other first basemen on the depth chart, including Owen Miller and Keston Hiura, Voit faces stiff competition at the position. His power potential could be his edge.
“I’d love it if Luke hit a ton of home runs,” Counsell said. “That would be great. It’s kind of what he wants to do. It’s what he’s good at. Luke is a very good offensive player.”
Naquin could provide depth to a Brewers outfield that includes 2018 NL MVP, Christian Yelich.
“He is a good corner outfielder,” Counsell said. “Depth is a thing we could have been helped with there – some experience to the outfield where we are young.”
There is a lot riding on this spring for Voit and Naquin as they try to extend their big league careers with Milwaukee. But then, they’re used to the quick turns that come on the wild ride of a major league baseball career.
“The end goal is to win,” Voit said. “This game will bring you down, but it will also bring you up. It’s all about riding that wave and staying positive through it.”