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Brewers working on depth issue

PHOENIX -- Some years, a major-league manager doesn't have to use his bench that often. Other years, he runs through so many players he starts looking for volunteers before the game is over.

It was a case of the latter in 2013 for the Milwaukee Brewers, whose injury list grew so long that manager Ron Roenicke had to scramble to come up with eight position players at times. And many of the players he used off the bench had little experience in that role at the top level.

"The biggest thing I took from it is I have to be ready every day because I don't know exactly what my role will be, whether I'll be starting that day or be on the bench," said utility infielder Jeff Bianchi, who saw action in 100 games with 26 starts at third base, 17 at shortstop and 11 at second base.

"I've got to be ready to play every day. I might not be starting, but my time might be at 8 o'clock or 8:30. I've got to be ready then."

Most young players who make it to the big leagues were regulars during their time in the minors. If they are then placed in a reserve role, it can feel as foreign as asking your dog to wear pants.

Caleb Gindl knows the feeling. A regular outfielder in the Brewers' farm system, he made only 34 starts in the majors last season, 30 coming in left field when Ryan Braun was either injured or suspended.

Gindl had played more in right field in the minors and committed a couple of errors in left while misplaying other balls. Brewers general manager Doug Melvin said moving players around from position to position can be a necessity at times but not always beneficial.

"We worry so much about versatility at times that players don't get established at one position," Melvin said. "How many players do you see play 100 or more games at the same position anymore?"

To his credit, Gindl didn't blame his miscues on playing out of position.

"No excuses. I'm a good outfielder," he said. "A little bit of that came with nerves. It's something you've got to get comfortable with. For a while there, it was hard for me to get comfortable. Then I'd get comfortable for a bit and have a little hiccup, and I'd get uncomfortable again.

"It's just one of those things. It is different. This is the big leagues. People talk about a little bit of pressure there and there is some pressure. Everything you go through like that makes you mentally tough. You learn how to deal with things. You have to go through that to deal with it and build off it."

Most of the time, Roenicke likes to play with a five-man bench -- two extra outfielders, two extra infielders and a backup catcher. That allows for a 12-man pitching staff with five starters and seven relievers.

What shakes out on the right side of the infield this spring could make that interesting, however. Scooter Gennett and Rickie Weeks, vying for time at second base, play no other position. If they are both kept and the Brewers also keep two first basemen such as veterans Mark Reynolds and Lyle Overbay, it leaves just three other bench roles, one of which would go to backup catcher Martin Maldonado.

It's difficult to imagine a scenario in which Logan Schafer is not the fourth outfielder. Bianchi has a foot in the door as a backup shortstop and third baseman who also is on the 40-man roster.

Another player to watch is utility man Elian Herrera, who can play all three outfield spots as well as every infield position except first base. Herrera was claimed off waivers from the Los Angeles Dodgers over the winter and also is on the 40-man.

"Hopefully, we have five (bench players) and we go with a 12-man pitching staff," Roenicke said. "If you have to go with 13, that really makes it rough in the National League to go down to four (bench players).

"What it comes down to is if you have one utility man left, he has to be able to play shortstop. So that limits maybe some guys as utility men where shortstop really isn't their position. So, it's not always who is your best player. It's how the fit is with your team. If you have two spots, that changes it completely. It opens up other needs."

According to Bianchi, the key to having success as a bench player is to understand your role as quickly as possible and figure out what works best to stay productive.

"I know this year what my role will probably be," he said. "From the mental side, it helps me to prepare better. You have to experience it. That really helps you moving forward.

"Everybody is different. But I think I got into a good routine where I figured out, 'I do like this. I don't like this.' I learned what it took to be ready when they needed me. It was a little trial and error at times but I learned a lot. I grew a lot."

(c)2014 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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