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Talking Spring Training with Brewers Farm Director Tom Flanagan

Mar. 13, 2017
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Photo credit: Scott Paulus/Milwaukee Brewers

We’re now well past the halfway point of spring training, with the Brewers opening the 2017 season at Miller Park just three weeks from today. We’ll pass another milestone of spring this week when minor league spring training games start on Friday, with the organization’s affiliates scheduled to play 55 games over a span of 16 days before breaking camp on April 1.

Recently we spoke to Brewers Farm Director Tom Flanagan about the start of minor league camp, players that may have an edge in the early going and the balance between competition and preparation for a long season.

Minor league games start this week, but you’ve already had players down there for early camp (listed here in two parts) for a month now. How do you go about selecting the guys that come to camp early?

There’s actually two programs, and I don’t want to bore you with all the semantics, but we have kind of a mini camp, and the bulk of it is guys that we feel have a shot to be a starter with a full season club. If they’re going to be a starting pitcher, we bring in primarily starting pitching candidates and catchers to work with those pitchers. That’s one camp.

And then the early camp, a lot of that is position players and relief pitchers that will get a chance to go across the parking lot into the big league games as backups. With our big league camp and the World Baseball Classic this year, some guys will be departing for that and it will reduce the number of big league guys available. So when we have split squads, or just the routine number of spring training games there’s definite need for guys, especially early on in camp to go over there and finish off a game or even start a game. We’ve had guys from minor league camp start games before over there, position player-wise. And then obviously relievers, you always want to have those contingencies. So it’s good for the major league side, they have kind of backups and insurance to make sure they have enough players to get through the games, and it’s great for our guys to get that experience facing a better level of competition and getting that big league experience under their belt.

So getting back to your original question, just selecting those players, it’s really just with an eye on who we think is ready for that. Generally we’ll get some young guys that might be in their first or second season, but also it’s guys that generally are probably in the AA-AAA level that could see time in the big leagues in the near future and they’ve been over there before.

So once minor league games start, how much of an advantage do the guys who were invited to early camps have over guys that haven’t been playing in games?

I would say that they’re a little bit ahead, but our guys do a pretty good job with their offseason program, especially with the pitchers. You know, for relievers it doesn’t take too long to get those guys up to speed. So you don’t want to start them too early where they’re tacking on innings and wear and tear on the arm too early. We like to ramp them up slowly, but generally on the relief pitcher side after a couple of weeks they’re ready to go.

So I think they’re ahead, but for what we have guys doing even if they’re not out here yet with our offseason program, it’s a small advantage. And we also, outside of the guys we formally invite, there’s a lot of guys that just voluntarily come out early on their own. There’s certain entry points where they’re able to come in, get a physical and get on the field as well. We just add them to our program. Sometimes you don’t want to get the numbers too big too early because of the staff constraints we have. We time our staff report dates along with the players so it’s a little bit of a work in progress making sure we have enough staff to get their work in. So they advise us if they’re going to report early or not and we can staff up or down accordingly.

I think it’s an advantage to be out here, but you don’t want to wear guys out. It’s a long season, so we try and map out when we want them to report for a reason. If they want to come out early we can make it work, but we try to stress that we need them to be ready on Opening Day, not on March 1 or March 2.

How much of what’s going on in minor league games is player evaluation, as compared to preparation for the season ahead?

I think we try and very much shy away from evaluation in spring, just because in fairness to the player, we’re giving them a lot of areas that they’re needing to show growth in or areas in their player plan where we want them to be working on things. So similar to Instructional League, it’s tough to have a guy working on some sort of change or adjustment to their game and then they’re fighting for a job or being evaluated on it.

So I think there’s probably two camps: There’s a certain group of players where, in our minds, they’re certainly going to be in the organization and it’s just a matter of what level they fit best at for where they are in the game right now. Then there’s another group of players that are probably in between. There may not be slam dunk opportunities for them to be on a club. You certainly want to let those guys fight it out and win a job in spring. So it’s probably a guy that we’re not working on any dramatic changes to, if that makes sense.

I think there’s an element of evaluation certainly, with some players, but coming out of spring training you don’t want to be fooled by spring training evaluations. These guys for the most part have had pretty long careers in the minor leagues that we can look back on and we kind of have an evaluation coming into camp. So for the most part it’s a time when we want to prep them for the season and not have them worried about being evaluated, per se.

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