- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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MARYVALE, Ariz. -- Randy Wolf did some preliminary bonding with Zack Greinke, the newest member of the Milwaukee Brewers' rotation, at the team's winter Fan Fest in Milwaukee. When the new teammates weren't discussing the Wisconsin housing scene or the frigid January weather, the conversation shifted to baseball. And when pitchers who take pride in their all-around games shoot the breeze, they invariably like to brag about their hitting.
This kind of talk invites smirks from position players, who consider it the baseball equivalent of balding, middle-aged insurance salesmen debating which guy is better at picking up chicks. The whole routine seems quaint and sort of amusing until you realize the pitchers are dead serious.
"Zack was definitely excited about hitting,'' Wolf said. "I gave him a hard time right away. I said, 'Hey man, this pitching staff can hit. We have a lot of hits and a high batting average, and I don't want you bringing us down.' He said he likes to hit homers.''
Greinke's bat nearly died of attrition in six seasons with Kansas City, where he hit .167 in 24 at-bats. But Greinke did go deep against Arizona's Russ Ortiz in interleague play in 2005, and he relished the experience enough to file it away for future reference. If Greinke makes 33 or so starts this season, he could log somewhere north of 80 plate appearances (minus sacrifice bunt attempts) and get an opportunity to resurrect his trot.
The Brewers are attracting a lot of attention as a darkhorse postseason candidate, and the revamped rotation is a big reason why. Greinke, the 2009 American League Cy Young Award recipient, and Shaun Marcum, a 13-game winner in Toronto, join Yovani Gallardo, Wolf and Chris Narveson in a group that should be a marked improvement over a Milwaukee rotation that ranked 15th in the National League with a 4.65 ERA last season.
If the five starters have a common bond, it's a devotion to the complementary aspects of the game. Fielding. Holding baserunners. Bunting. And, of course, swinging a bat. The Brewers have assembled a group of pitchers who place great stock in tending to the little things. It worked for Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz for all those years in Atlanta, so why not here?
"Of course, you have to do the job on the mound,'' Wolf said. "But if you can hit and bunt, I know it will win at least one game for you during the course of the season. And if every pitcher gets at least one win because they can hit, that's five wins right there. That's the difference between winning the division and not winning the division.''
Greinke, who has declared himself off limits to national media outlets until his first Cactus League start this spring, declined to comment for this story. But his fellow starters waxed effusive about the offensive potential of the 2011 Brewers staff. And their credentials suggest it's more than just an exercise in smoke-blowing.
Wolf, a respectable .189 career hitter, ranked first among MLB pitchers with 11 runs scored last season and second to Dan Haren with 19 hits. Narveson, who earned a scholarship to Wake Forest as a pitcher-outfielder/first baseman before signing with St. Louis out of high school, was equally good at the plate in 2010, hitting .327 in 49 at-bats.
Marcum pitched and played shortstop for a Missouri State University team that included two other future big leaguers -- Phillies slugger Ryan Howard and Oakland reliever Brad Ziegler. He's looking forward to playing a more active defensive role in the National League, because there'll be so many more bunts to handle. He even squeezed in a little work before camp to shake the cobwebs off his swing.
"I swung at some mini-plastic golf balls just to see if I could hit them with a stick for a little hand-eye coordination,'' Marcum said. "But I wasn't going to take a chance at getting hurt swinging a bat before spring training even started.''
It's different when you're facing a team and there are 8½ nine hitters and not just eight hitters.
"-- Brewers pitcher Randy Wolf
As former Kansas City general manager Allard Baird liked to say, Greinke "hit the genetic lottery.'' Greinke was a tennis wiz as a youth, and reportedly contemplated a run at the PGA Tour when he stepped away from baseball because of a social anxiety disorder several years ago. At Apopka High School in Florida, Greinke played shortstop and first base when he wasn't on the mound. He hit 31 homers and batted .444 or better in each of his four high school seasons.
"He's not just a good athlete, he's a great athlete,'' said Brewers manager Ron Roenicke, who watched Greinke pitch in Kansas City for several years as a coach with the Los Angeles Angels. "I've seen the way he fields his position, and it's impressive. When it's a bunt situation, he'll throw a pitch and he knows where the ball is going. He's there a lot quicker than other people are.''
That brings us to Gallardo, the Milwaukee staff's resident masher. Since 2007, he ranks third to Carlos Zambrano and Micah Owings among major league pitchers with eight home runs. Gallardo's victims include Brett Myers, Edinson Volquez, Mat Latos and Randy Johnson. In April 2009, Gallardo hit a three-run bomb at AT&T Park to become the first pitcher ever to go deep off the Big Unit. Last year, Gallardo slugged .508, hit four homers and won his first Silver Slugger award.
"You would never know he was a pitcher up there,'' Narveson said. "His bat speed is ridiculous.''
Even Milwaukee's minor leaguers are versatile. Mark Rogers, the Brewers' first-round pick in 2004 and a candidate to crack the staff at some point this year, was a three-sport star at Mount Ararat High in Maine. Rogers received scholarship offers in three sports -- baseball at the University of Miami, soccer at Duke and ice hockey at Dartmouth -- before signing with Milwaukee for a $2.2 million bonus as the fifth overall pick in the draft.
The incumbent Milwaukee pitchers attribute much of their success at the plate to Brewers bullpen catcher Marcus Hanel, who's responsible for throwing them batting practice each day. Hanel throws a heavy ball that prepares them for the rigors of facing the real thing.
"He has such big hands that when he throws it, he either cuts it or sinks it,'' Narveson said. "A lot of times it's like what you see in a game, where the ball is going away from you. It's not the type of BP where you think, 'I can hit it as far as I want every time.' You have to really focus on what he's doing, so you really work on your swing.''
The Brewers are light years removed from five years ago, when Ben Sheets and Doug Davis posed a threat only to themselves with a bat in their hands. In 2006, Sheets and Davis combined to go 4-for-98 at the plate. You've heard of hitters so imposing they make fans postpone trips to the concession stand? Sheets and Davis were so hideous, they prompted a stampede to the bratwurst booth.
"We were awful,'' general manager Doug Melvin said of that 2006 Milwaukee staff.
Melvin knows it's a fringe benefit when his pitchers can drive in a run with two out. At the very least, he wants them to bunt proficiently. The Dodgers' 2010 pitching staff hit a feeble .085 (24-for-285) as a group, but also produced 53 sacrifices. Even pitchers who bail and flail can keep themselves in the game for an extra inning or two if they're able to move baserunners. Over the long haul that helps ease the workload on a bullpen.
And pitchers who can field their position and hold runners close do themselves a tremendous favor. As ESPN stats maven Mark Simon pointed out in a recent story, Greinke and Marcum are extremely capable in that department.
Soon enough, the Milwaukee pitchers will be asked to back their smack talk with a little cash investment. When Wolf pitched for the Dodgers in 2009, he set up a pool for the starting pitchers that awarded points based on various outcomes at the plate. A pitcher collected a whopping 10 points with a home run. If he muffed a sacrifice bunt, he lost 5 points. Singles, doubles, RBI hits and other outcomes fell somewhere between on the scale. The participants all threw a little money into a pot, and at the end of the month, the pitcher with the most points took home the prize.
"It's different when you're facing a team and there are 8½ nine hitters and not just eight hitters,'' Wolf said. "You think, 'Hey this guy can swing the bat -- they might hit-and-run with him -- so you can't just throw a cookie in there.' It kind of brings a new element to the game.''
A major league pitching staff with five starters who can all hit? Talk about progress. Next thing you know, a woman will be throwing batting practice.
2hTony Lee, Special to ESPN.com