Today in Appleton the temperature is in the 30's, light snow has been falling and the winds are gusting upwards of 30 miles per hour. Looking at the conditions it's hard to believe the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers will be playing baseball on Thursday, but today for the first time members of the media got to meet the team and get to know the players we'll be watching this summer.
Wisconsin is still led by manager Matt Erickson, who is entering his fourth year at the helm and his sixth year as a coach. Erickson has a 204-209 record through 413 games with the Timber Rattlers, and needs just 12 more wins to break the franchise record. He said he wasn't aware of the pending milestone, but it "would be nice" for the Appleton native.
Before he can worry about that, though, Erickson has to make a team out of what he said is the youngest group of players he's ever managed. Seven players on the Opening Day roster are under 21 years of age, and 14 are 2013 draft picks in their first full professional season.
"I don't like to think about the challenges, I like to think about what's nice about it," Erickson said. "They're eager. They're eager to learn. There's definitely some ability, but there's going to be some growing pains, there's no doubt about it. Some of these kids played a high school season last year, and didn't play more than 30 games over the course of the spring and summer. So we'll see how they can handle that 140-some games over the course of five months."
A top pick returns
One of the youngest players on Erickson's roster is 2012 first round pick Clint Coulter, who is back for a second season with Wisconsin after splitting the season between the Timber Rattlers and two rookie-level teams in 2013. Coulter put a positive spin his first full professional season, where he was limited to just 70 games.
"It definitely was a great experience last year, had a great time and got my feet wet with the team and the organization," Coulter said. "I'm just really blessed to be here with this staff and this team is going to be a great team to play for."
Coulter opened the 2013 season with Wisconsin before being sent back down to rookie ball later in the year. Being demoted can be hard on a player's psyche, but he appears to have taken it in stride:
"You never want to be demoted, but I didn't take it as a demotion. I was really privileged to be up here," Coulter said. "There's not a lot of high school catchers that get a chance at full-season ball their first year. So I was happy to get a shot at that, and learned a lot and took it as a positive."
Erickson mentioned Coulter and infielder Chris McFarland as two players that have a "maturity factor" in their second season with the Timber Rattlers.
"Both Clint (Coulter) and (Chris) McFarland both had great spring trainings, they swung the bat very well," Erickson said. "They both put some time in during the offseason and are physically impressive. They came in in great shape, and both are excited to lead this team this year."
The biggest adjustment
The youngest player on the Opening Day roster will be first baseman David Denson. The Brewers' 15th round pick in the 2013 draft is getting a shot at full season ball for the first time after hitting .244/.385/.449, and just turned 19 in January. A year ago he was playing high school baseball in California, so this is a pretty big change for him. This is also his first season living away from home, and he said he's "not settled in yet" in a new place in Appleton.
"Being away from home is a challenge but at the same time it's fun," Denson said. "Being able to explore, go around, see new things, it's wonderful. I've never really been in this kind of weather before, so it's new. Being from California it's a shock, but at the same time it's an eye-opener that there's so much out there I could be seeing. It's amazing to me."
The scouting reports on Denson say he has big-time power, and he certainly has a frame to go with it. The Opening Day roster lists him at 6'3" and 254 lbs, making him easily the heaviest member of the Timber Rattlers. He says he hasn't been told what his role will be with this team, though, so for now his only goals are to do the best he can and continue to learn.
"For this season I just want to come out and do the best I can do, get on base a lot, have fun and just go from there," Denson said. "I'm not trying to do too much or overthink it too much, I'm just trying to go out, take every game day-by-day and go from there."
He's also learning a lot from his teammates, on and off the field.
"I look up to my older teammates a lot. A lot of the guys on the team are very humble and you can learn a lot of things from them," Denson said. "I just turned 19, I'm a young guy. I still can take care of business but you always take every day in stride. Every day I'm learning something new, taking something in, and just having fun."
An MVP encore
Although he's only playing in his second professional season, outfielder Michael Ratterree is one of Wisconsin's more experienced players. Ratterree, who the Brewers selected in the tenth round of the 2013 draft, played collegiate ball for Rice before appearing in 65 games for Helena last season and hitting .314/.391/.585 with 12 home runs, winning the Pioneer League MVP Award.
"He's a guy that's a little more veteran on our team," Erickson said. "There is a lot to his game in all facets. He plays good defense, has a decent arm with good accuracy and he's done some damage with the bat in the past. Hopefully he can lead our team offensively."
Ratterree's 2013 performance earned him a little bit of playing time with the big league team in spring training this season. He appeared in four MLB exhibition games this spring, capped off with a home run in a win over the Royals at Miller Park on Saturday.
"It felt amazing," Ratterree said. "Honestly, when I was running around the bases it felt like a dream. It didn't feel real. But it was just awesome running into the dugout and getting high fives from everybody. It was just an unbelievable experience for me."
"What a great moment for Michael," Erickson said. "It's funny, I was sitting with (hitting coach) Chuckie (Caufield) having dinner down in Arizona and a bunch of text messages came through, and then a video of his at bat."
Ratterree said the big leaguers carry themselves differently during spring training games.
"I think the biggest thing I learned is once they show up to the field it's all about business," Ratterree said. "They're focused. If you go on the minor league side during a spring training game it's guys joking around, not taking everything so seriously, but over there in the spring training game they're focused. They've got a mission."
"The right staff for the team we brought up here."
Wisconsin's young roster will be coached by a staff that's not a lot older than they are. Erickson, who only turns 39 in July, will have a new hitting coach in Chuckie Caufield (30 years old), a new pitching coach in Elvin Nina (38) and a player/coach in outfielder Lance Roenicke, who is 25. All four coaches played in the minors with the Brewers.
Roenicke is the latest addition to that group, as the son of Brewers manager Ron will start a transition from playing to coaching. He's still listed on the roster as a player and can be activated if needed, but his primary focus this season will be on coaching first base, helping players with their baserunning and working with the outfielders. Having Roenicke at first base will allow Caufield to remain in the dugout while Wisconsin is batting, and Erickson said he likes being able to keep his hitting coach there.
Lance Roenicke is 25 and has split the last two seasons between three levels, hitting .243/.283/.335 in 123 games between Helena, Wisconsin and Brevard County. He played in 42 games for Wisconsin's 2012 Midwest League Championship team, but decided the time was right to start the transition from playing to coaching.
"We went over the pros and cons and it was all pros," Roenicke said. "There was no way I was going to be able to pass up this chance. So I'm excited to be here, working with Matty and picking apart his brain and learning as much as I can."
All told, Erickson said his young staff is "the right staff for the team we brought up here this year."
"I think it's going to be very positive," Erickson said. "We have a young team and now we have a young staff with a lot of energy. Chuckie and Elvin and now Lance are all very excited to be up here, they've heard a lot about the environment here in Appleton and how much the community gets involved here and they're excited."
Erickson did admit, though, that Caufield, Nina and Roenicke are all from warmer climates and aren't necessarily looking forward to April weather in Appleton. The current forecast calls for temperatures in the 30's or 40's for each of Wisconsin's first three home games, with snow possible on both Thursday and Friday.
"That's something we have to deal with every year when we come up to Appleton, or the Midwest League in general," Erickson said. "But that's out of our control. We have a beautiful facility and it's nice. The last couple of years the field wasn't ready when we came up here so we're going to get on it today, get acclimated to that wind a little bit, get our kids out in it. And then we have some kids that have never seen snow before and have definitely not played a baseball game in 30 degree weather. So we'll see how they react today."
Last year Wisconsin had to cancel five of their first seven home dates due to rain, cold and snow. It's likely part of the reason they've only announced one scheduled starter, right hander Taylor Williams, for their opening series.
Getting the ball first
Williams, the Brewers' 4th round pick in the 2013 draft, was told a week ago that he'll get the start for Wisconsin on Opening Night. Having grown up in Vancouver, he may be uniquely qualified to play in these conditions. Williams said he hasn't been watching the forecast and isn't worried about the conditions.
"I'm pretty used to the cold," Williams said. "I'm from the northwest and played a little bit of college ball in Ohio, so I don't think the cold weather is going to affect me too much. I think a lot of it comes down to your mental approach to the game. If you let it affect you it's probably going to hurt you. But if you don't let it bother too much and dress appropriately, just focus on what you need to stay focused on, you should be all right."
Williams throws a four-seam fastball, and said command of the pitch is his strongest asset. He also has a changeup, slider and curve.