Every season when the Brewers and their four full season affiliates in Nashville, Huntsville, Brevard County and Wisconsin break Spring Training in early April, there are a group of players who stay behind at the Brewers facility in Maryvale, Arizona.
The Milwaukee Brewers Extended Spring Training roster is made up of players from all across the board. They may fly under the radar, but many are young, exciting prospects, recently drafted, and honing their skills before heading off to short-season ball. Others are more advanced Minor Leaguers who are injured, or recovering from injury. And on occasion, even a Major Leaguer will find their way to Extended Spring Training on their path back to the big leagues.
This group sweats away in the hot Arizona sun, in relative obscurity. You won’t find their box scores online, or have the chance to listen to a broadcast of their games. With crowds in the stands, sometimes, in the single digits; they are looking to climb their way up the Brewers organizational ladder.
While it may initially be disappointing for these players to stay behind in Maryvale and not go straight to full-season ball, this group remains patient, positive and upbeat, and sees it as a challenge that they are ready to face head on.
“It makes you more hungry to improve so that you get the same chance” said infielder Jalen Harris. “I stay focused, and continue to work hard.”
Fellow infielder, Renaldo Jenkins, agreed with that sentiment. “Of course you’re a little disappointed that you didn’t make the team that you wanted to” said Jenkins. “You never want to be left behind. But at the end of the day, you just gotta go out and work hard and play every day.”
There are, however, some advantages to being in Arizona. The players in Extended receive lots of extra instruction that they may not otherwise get. “We do get a lot of coaching and instruction,” said pitcher Danny Keller, “and for me it has helped out a great deal. The best part of extended is it’s a low pressure environment that we can work on our craft and not have to worry about how it’s going to affect our stats.”
“(It’s) great, it allows you some extra time to improve on your skills, and take more batting practice” said Harris. “You get more one on one time with the coaches.”
Pitcher Anthony Banda echoed the feelings of Keller and Harris. “The individual instruction is great” said Banda. “You can throw in the bullpen, and you can stop, and you can be like hey, am I flying open or am I doing this or doing that. It’s just fantastic. Nobody’s rushing you. You can take your time and slow down a little bit and actually perfect what you need to do in order to be a success on the field. So yeah, the coaches, the instruction is fantastic.”
Another benefit to being in Arizona, is that the players can avoid many of the early season weather problems that teams like Wisconsin and Nashville experienced. “(We’re) practicing every day” said Jenkins. “I know for me, if I was in Wisconsin, I probably wouldn’t be playing every day so I’m down here getting at bats.” Harris agreed, saying “The weather is a plus, because you never miss a day of playing.”
While the players might not have much rain or snow to worry about, they do have to deal with the challenge of the Arizona heat. Temperatures can routinely be in the 90’s and even triple digits are not all that rare. “Being in the warm weather is a double-edged sword” said Keller. “The weather isn’t really warm. It’s hot. Although it is nice to not have rain/snow-outs, the heat does start to get to you. But on the other hand, being able to have the same routine does help you develop.”
Development is what it’s all about, especially at the lower levels of the Minor Leagues. But as an added bonus, that development is translating in to wins as well. The Extended Brewers enter play today with a record of 22-10-3. (They don’t play extra innings, so there is the occasional tie.) In a season where wins have been tough to come by for the Brewers and their affiliates, the kids in Maryvale have been making a routine of racking up W’s.
What makes their success even more impressive, is that many of these same players were on the Brewers Arizona League team last summer that finished with a record of 19-37.
“I believe we’ve matured and we’ve gotten to know each other a lot better” said Banda. “We’ve gotten closer, people have gotten better, people actually started listening to the information they were given and we all just basically put it all to work and everything just falls in to place. We’ve jelled a lot together. Team chemistry came together a lot. Just by trusting each other more. On the field and off the field. We’re a team and we’re working as a team. That’s what really brought us together. We work together as a team and take losses and wins as a team.”
The team has about a week of games left in an “unofficial” season that began in mid April. They have their Sundays off, and Camp Days on Thursdays where they will work on fundamental things at the Maryvale complex. The remaining five days they spend playing organized games against other teams in Arizona.
So while it may seem like they aren’t playing a full season, the players do get the benefit of experiencing what it’s like to play on a regular basis. “It’s good that you’re seeing what it’s like to play in a full season every day” said Jenkins. “Not getting the breaks, just playing, learning how to play tired.”
And the organized games are only part of what these players do in Extended Spring Training. During the spring, Minor Leaguers will usually have a workout in the morning, followed by an afternoon game. That routine doesn’t change much in Extended. “It’s basically the exact same thing” Jenkins said. “We get up, I’m up at 5:20 for transportation and we’re on the field practicing at about 7:30. We’ll have a little light workout and we’ll have a 10:30 game.”
Pitcher Will West broke down an average day for him in Extended. “For pitchers in extended the daily work is pretty similar to those at an affiliate” said West. “My routine goes 5:30, Wake up. 5:50, Head to the field. 6:15, Breakfast at the field. 6:40, Hot tub/cold tub. 7:00, Active warm up/stretching in the weight room. 7:30, Team stretch. 8:00, Conditioning. 8:15, Long toss throwing program. 8:30, PFP’s (Pitchers Fielding Practice). 8:45, Team defense. 9:00, Shag BP. 10:30, Game time. (The) schedule changes, but for the most part that’s the pitchers schedule. Starters pitch every 5th day and relievers are always available.”
While the majority of players in Extended Spring Training are young players just starting their careers, there are a few, more experienced players in the mix. Players like Ben McMahan and Max Walla spent time in Extended while rehabbing injuries. Once healthy, they moved up to Brevard County and Wisconsin respectively. Others such as Cody Scarpetta and Tyler Roberts remain in Maryvale while working their way back to full speed.
Even a few Major League players may pass through Maryvale from time to time. “We’ve actually had some good experiences down here” said Jenkins. “I know we’ve (had) Francisco Rodriguez, K-Rod, he’s been out here throwing a couple of innings for us. I got a chance to play against Matt LaPorta with the Indians.”
It’s an experience that helps the young players see what it takes to succeed at a higher level. “It is great, the Brewers are such a good organization for building players” said Harris, “so it is great to learn from our best. The Major (League) guys are knowledgeable and provide good tips”
“The big leaguers that come down here, they’re a class act and show you what it takes to actually get up to the big leagues” added Jenkins, “just by watching them play and how they go about their business.”
The big leagues are the ultimate goal for all players, and the next step for most of the Brewers currently in Extended, will be joining one of Milwaukee’s short-season Rookie League teams when they start play in mid-June.
The Extended Spring Training schedule goes until June 5th, then players get just a few short days to relax, before heading off to join their new teams on June 10th.
Some will head to Helena, Montana and join the Helena Brewers of the Pioneer League. Others will stay in Maryvale and play for the Brewers affiliate in the Arizona Rookie League. Some may even earn a promotion to Class-A Wisconsin.
Wherever that next step takes them, the crowds will get bigger and the lights will get brighter, but the fundamentals and instruction these players receive in Extended will be an important part of their success on the road to Milwaukee.