There's still some snow on the field and renovation construction hasn't quite wrapped up at Fox Cities Stadium, but the 2013 Wisconsin Timber Rattlers are home from spring training and ready to open their season in Peoria on Thursday.
This team represents an interesting challenge for third-year manager Matt Erickson, who is tasked with trying to repeat as Midwest League champions despite having just seven players back from last year's team.
"Obviously what we did last year was great and I'm very proud of what that group was able to accomplish, but one of the unique things about A-ball is that you have a new experience each and every year," Erickson said. "We have brand new players this year, a brand new batch of kids and we'll go out and try to duplicate what we did last year."
One of his relatively few returning players is 2012 31st round pick Brent Suter, who will open the season in the Timber Rattlers starting rotation. He said it'll take time to make the adjustment to his new set of teammates, but he's confident it'll work out.
"It'll be a little tougher playing without them, but once we come together as a team everything'll be all right," Suter said.
Suter is one of the few players who can really see the differences at Time Warner Cable Field since the offseason renovations have started.
"Unreal," Suter said when asked about the changes. "It was great last year but this is really top notch."
Erickson, an Appleton native, is quite happy with the way baseball in the city has moved up from the old days at Goodland Field to the new renovated facility.
"It's outstanding," Erickson said. "We've tried to give them (the players) some expectations and when we pulled up yesterday and got a bit of a tour last night, I don't think the players have even seen everything that's going on as we're trying to get acclimated inside the clubhouse. They've put quite an investment into this place and most of it is to the benefit of our players."
Another returning 2012 Timber Rattler is outfielder Mitch Haniger, the #38 overall pick in last year's draft. Haniger made his pro debut with Wisconsin last season but appeared in just 14 games before a knee injury ended his season. He's healthy now, no longer wearing a brace on the knee and he said he feels "stronger than ever."
"It took me a while to finally get back into things, but by Christmas I was feeling good," Haniger said.
Obviously losing a year of development time has set Haniger's career back a bit, but he said he's not feeling any pressure to make up for lost time.
"I'm just trying to do well every game and make my team better," Haniger said. "I'm not worrying about anything I can't control."
If Haniger had remained healthy last year, there's a strong possibility he'd be opening the 2013 season higher up the ladder in the Brewer organization. Even with his health concerns, Erickson acknowledged that Haniger may be ready for the next level.
"I think some people are questioning the decision to bring him back here instead of sending him to High-A," Erickson said. "He did everything he could to prove he deserved to go to High-A, but I think it's in Mitch's best interest to come here and I know Doug Melvin wants him to have some success at every level and we're happy to have him."
Haniger isn't the only former first round pick on the roster, though. Teammate Clint Coulter was the #27 overall pick last year and figures to serve as Wisconsin's primary catcher despite being just 19 years old.
"I think the Brewers have committed to keeping me as a catcher, so I've been working on it and seeing great results," Coulter said.
Getting Coulter ready for the grind of catching every day in his first full professional season may be one of the coaching staff's biggest challenges this season.
"Clint is an exciting player, physically he's very impressive but he's just learning how to catch day after day," Erickson said. "We got to catch him nine innings just one time this spring training. We've got a little plan for him to get him acclimated to catching nine innings every day."
As a Washington native, Coulter is one of the few 2013 Timber Rattlers who already knows what to expect from the April weather. He referred to today's weather as "perfect," noting that back home it's "about the same temperature, but much rainier."
Coulter is one of several Timber Rattlers who will be manning key positions in 2013 before their 20th birthday.
"Up the middle we're going to have an 18-year-old catcher, an 18-year-old shortstop, a 19-year-old second baseman and a 19-year-old center fielder. So we've got some definite youth on this ball club," Erickson said.
That 19-year-old center fielder is 2012 second round pick Tyrone Taylor. Taylor hit .387/.434/.667 in 18 games in rookie ball before getting injured a year ago, but is from California and said this is the first time he's ever seen snow on a baseball field.
"I think I'll get used to it," Taylor said. "I've got a lot of cold gear so I'll get through it."
Wisconsin opens play on the road on Thursday, with 2012 fourth round pick Tyler Wagner expected to get the ball in the first game of the season. He found out he was receiving that honor just a few minutes before meeting with reporters on Tuesday.
"Obviously there's some butterflies on Opening Day, but it's like any other start," Wagner said.
Wagner's dad, who just finished driving his car from Phoenix to Appleton, will be able to see his son make his first low-A start. Wagner made 14 appearances and 13 starts for Helena last season, and said he's looking forward to his first chance to play full season ball.
"I think it's a good thing for me," Wagner said. "I'm excited for a full season to develop a routine."
Wagner will be followed in the rotation by 2012 fifth round pick Damien Magnifico, Suter, 2011 second round pick Jorge Lopez and 2012 11th round pick Preston Gainey. Several other pitchers, including 2012 Timber Rattler Eric Semmelhack, will also be groomed to start through the tandem process.
The Timber Rattlers' first home game is scheduled for Monday, April 8, and all fans in attendance will receive a Matt Erickson bobblehead. Erickson said it's the first time he's ever been featured on a bobble.
Between now and then, though, the team is just doing what they can. While they're waiting for the snow to melt off the field today's practice schedule called for stretching in the batting cages, long toss in the parking lot, side sessions in the bullpens (which are ready) and work in the cage.