Brewers relying on offseason fielding upgrades to pay off

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Whether they did it by design or responded to the market forces at work, the Milwaukee Brewers found an intriguing way to try gaining an edge over their NL Central rivals.

Rather than focusing on an offense that slumbered for much of last season, they added position players better known for fielding prowess. By signing former St. Louis Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong and ex-Boston Red Sox center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr., the Brewers have four former Gold Glove winners on their roster.

“One of the ways we’re going to prevent runs this year is with defense,” manager Craig Counsell said. “We’ve invested in that this year. There is scoring runs and there is preventing runs. We’re going to try to be really good at preventing runs this year.”

Wong was a Gold Glove second baseman each of the last two years. Bradley won a Gold Glove in 2018 and was a finalist in 2014, 2016 and 2019.

They join a lineup already featuring 2014 Gold Glove left fielder Christian Yelich and 2019 Gold Glove center fielder Lorenzo Cain, who played just five games last year before opting out of the 2020 season.

Milwaukee also returns Omar Narvaez, who was regarded as a suspect defensive catcher when the Brewers acquired him but emerged as one of the game’s top pitch framers last season.

“There’s a lot of defensive stalwarts out there – guys who have won Gold Gloves, guys who have the potential to win Gold Gloves,” Bradley said. “And I think that can only benefit our team, the pitchers, and we can kind of feed off that.”

The Brewers’ major weakness last year was offense. Milwaukee ranked 27th among 30 major league teams in runs per game.

But the Brewers didn’t field particularly well, either. Milwaukee was 23rd among all MLB teams in defensive runs saved, according to The Fielding Bible.

“We weren’t a good enough defensive team last year,” president of baseball operations David Stearns said. “Part of that improvement needed to come through some personnel change, and part of it needs to come from players who were here last year having better defensive years. And then part of how the offseason unfolded, the best opportunities for us to improve our team largely revolved around defensive-oriented players.”

Wong has a two-year contract worth $18 million and Bradley agreed to a $24 million, two-year deal that enables him to opt out and become a free agent again at the end of this season.

Wong and Bradley are left-handed hitters who should balance Milwaukee’s lineup. Wong posted an on-base percentage of at least .350 each of the last two years. Although Bradley’s career batting average is just .239, he hit .283 with an .814 OPS last season.

Even so, there’s little doubt both will make their greatest contributions in the field. Wong believes improved defense indirectly can boost the Brewers’ hitting as well.

“When you can hold teams to low numbers during the games, usually it keeps confidence in the clubhouse, keeps the confidence in guys knowing that one swing can give us a lead or tie the game,” Wong said. “We’re never out of it. That’s the beautiful thing about defense.”

Wong represents a defensive upgrade from Keston Hiura, who is moving to first base as the Brewers experiment at the infield corners.

The Brewers believe Hiura’s range will compensate for his relative lack of height and make him a quality first baseman. Orlando Arcia, the Brewers’ starting shortstop since 2017, is working at third base this spring along with Travis Shaw as the Brewers give Luis Urias a chance to compete at shortstop.

Bradley’s addition gives the Brewers a surplus of talent in the outfield.

When Cain opted out last season, the Brewers used Avisail Garcia in center, even though the vast majority of his prior experience had come at right field. Now the Brewers have Cain, Yelich, Bradley and Garcia.

If Cain is slow to recover from a quadriceps injury, the Brewers can replace one Gold Glove winner with another by putting Bradley at center. If the Brewers are at full strength, they can start an all-Gold Glove outfield of Bradley, Cain and Yelich.

“That’s huge,” pitcher Brandon Woodruff said. “As a pitcher, it’s like, `Bring it on.’ Let’s throw to contact and let these guys go do what they’re good at.”

Biden praises Braves’ ‘unstoppable, joyful run’ to 2021 win

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
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WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden said the Atlanta Braves will be “forever known as the upset kings of October” for their improbable 2021 World Series win, as he welcomed the team to the White House for a victory celebration.

Biden called the Braves’ drive an “unstoppable, joyful run.” The team got its White House visit in with just over a week left before the 2022 regular season wraps up and the Major League Baseball playoffs begin again. The Braves trail the New York Mets by 1.5 games in the National League East but have clinched a wildcard spot for the MLB playoffs that begin Oct. 7. Chief Executive Officer Terry McGuirk said he hoped they’d be back to the White House again soon.

In August 2021, the Braves were a mess, playing barely at .500. But then they started winning. And they kept it up, taking the World Series in six games over the Houston Astros.

Biden called their performance of “history’s greatest turnarounds.”

“This team has literally been part of American history for over 150 years,” said Biden. “But none of it came easy … people counting you out. Heck, I know something about being counted out.”

Players lined up on risers behind Biden, grinning and waving to the crowd, but the player most discussed was one who hasn’t been on the team in nearly 50 years and who died last year: Hall of Famer Hank Aaron.

Hammerin’ Hank was the home run king for 33 years, dethroning Babe Ruth with a shot to left field on April 8, 1974. He was one of the most famous players for Atlanta and in baseball history, a clear-eyed chronicler of the hardships thrown his way – from the poverty and segregation of his Alabama youth to the racist threats he faced during his pursuit of one of America’s most hallowed records. He died in January at 86.

“This is team is defined by the courage of Hank Aaron,” Biden said.

McGuirk said Aaron, who held front office positions with the team and was one of Major League Baseball’s few Black executives, was watching over them.

“He’d have been there every step of the way with us if he was here,” McGuirk added.

The president often honors major league and some college sports champions with a White House ceremony, typically a nonpartisan affair in which the commander in chief pays tribute to the champs’ prowess, poses for photos and comes away with a team jersey.

Those visits were highly charged in the previous administration. Many athletes took issue with President Donald Trump’s policies and rhetoric on policing, immigration and more. Trump, for his part, didn’t take kindly to criticism from athletes or their on-field expressions of political opinions.

Under Biden, the tradition appears to be back. He’s hosted the NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks and Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers at the White House. On Monday he joked about first lady Jill Biden’s Philadelphia allegiances.

“Like every Philly fan, she’s convinced she knows more about everything in sports than anybody else,” he said. He added that he couldn’t be too nice to the Atlanta team because it had just beaten the Phillies the previous night in extra innings.

Press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre was later questioned about the team’s name, particularly as other professional sports teams have moved away from names – like the Cleveland Indians, now the Guardians, and the Washington Redskins, now the Commanders – following years of complaints from Native American groups over the images and symbols.

She said it was important for the country to have the conversation. “And Native American and Indigenous voices – they should be at the center of this conversation,” she said.

Biden supported MLB’s decision to pull the 2021 All-Star Game from Atlanta to protest Georgia’s sweeping new voting law, which critics contend is too restrictive.