By Jim Owczarski Sports Editor Published Apr 30, 2014 at 1:07 PM Photography: David Bernacchi

In the second installment of's three-part series of building the league's best Milwaukee Brewers, we take a look at the mental effect the organization's development model has had on some of its players. The Brewers have been cycling prospects through its roster on a yearly basis for the better part of the last decade, but everyday jobs aren’t easy to come by.

So, young players like Scooter Gennett, Logan Schafer and Tyler Thornburg have had to shuttle between Milwaukee and the minor leagues and be forced to learn how to become major leaguers while performing in a different role than they’ve been accustomed to. It’s not an easy task.

Building the Brewers Part 1: Financial flexibility the key

Jean Segura arrived in Milwaukee, officially, on Aug. 6, 2012, and was tossed to the wolves at Miller Park. Batting eighth that day against Bronson Arroyo and the Cincinnati Reds, the 22-year-old went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts.

From the moment he arrived in Milwaukee, Segura became the Brewers’ everyday shortstop. He appeared in 44 of the Brewers’ final 54 games of 2012 and hit .264. That small sample size showed promise, which played out over 146 games in an All-Star way last year.

It is how it’s supposed to work in a perfect world of scout, acquire and develop – the world the Milwaukee Brewers must operate in.

It’s worked, too, over the last seven-plus seasons.

While Segura was the first such position player to make the jump to an everyday spot like that since catcher Jonathan Lucroy in mid-June of 2010, it's a model the Brewers have been working off of for nearly a decade.

Players who were allowed to grow in the major leagues included J.J. Hardy (2005), Rickie Weeks and Prince Fielder (2006), Ryan Braun, Corey Hart and Yovani Gallardo (2007).

Constant injury accelerated the Brewers' development model the last two seasons however. As a result, president of baseball operations/general manager Doug Melvin and his staff have begun the process anew with Segura, Khris Davis, Scooter Gennett, Wily Peralta, Marco Estrada, Logan Schafer, Tyler Thornburg and a host of others.

The Brewers don’t hesitate to call it the silver lining of two disappointing seasons.

"That’s always a challenge – how do we know a young player is going to perform at the big league level?," Melvin said. "That part of player development and scouting standpoint was a positive."

"Absolutely," added Brewers vice president/assistant general manager Gord Ash. "Usually you look at these players in spring training or September, and longtime scouts will tell you it’s the worst two times to evaluate player. The level of competition isn’t conducive to a fair evaluation. So any time you can get players meaningful development time during the regular season as we were able to do last year, quite frankly out of necessity, then you’re able to better able to evaluate these players and what they can and can’t do."

Along with their draft-and-develop formula, the team has looked outside the organization for young talent. Carlos Gomez was a high-upside acquisition for Hardy in 2009. Segura filled a need at shortstop.

This winter Norichika Aoki was traded for 24-year-old lefty Will Smith, and then Braun was moved to right field so Davis could be given a shot to prove himself every day.

"It doesn’t happen all that often," Ash said of a young player assuming the everyday role with a small sample size to project from. "It can, at times, but again out of necessity (with Segura) – we didn’t have a shortstop. We needed him to play no matter what. But he obviously took advantage of that opportunity.

"A lot of time it’s not just the physical talent. It’s ‘what is the player’s mindset?’ Is he a confident individual? Is he going to be able to deal with adversity if he fails? That’s a big part of this, too."

Often, it’s the most important part of development. Usually, it’s a silent process a player must taken upon himself.

The mental effects of development

Tyler Thornburg spoke softly, but poignantly.

It was late September 2013, and he admitted he was upset about spending the beginning of the year in Triple A. At 24, he felt sorry for himself. The result was a self-imposed stunting of his development, which got back on track when he finished the year as one of the Brewers most consistent starters.

A hard, but necessary, lesson was learned. Thornburg needed it, too, after the the signing of Matt Garza meant he went from competing for a spot in the rotation to trying to make the team.

"If anything, it just gave me a little bit more reason to not worry about that kind of stuff so much," Thornburg said. "Especially learned from that last year. In spring, the same kind of situation was coming up and it kind of looked like it would end up close to the same way, so, I think if it had worked out differently I don’t think I would’ve dwelled on that so much. Thankfully it worked out this way and hopefully things keep rolling."

The result has been an impressive start to 2014 that has quickly made Thornburg and early, and often, request from the bullpen.

"Compared to when I saw him the first time he was in the big leagues, he’s different," Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said of the right-hander.

Logan Schafer hopes the same can be said about him.

Last year was Schafer’s first full season in the majors, but something wasn’t quite right. A career .294 hitter in the minors as an everyday player, he struggled with coming off the bench.

Afforded time to reflect in the winter, he was struck by something.

"I’m sitting there and I’m realizing why can I not be happy right now?" he said. "I spent all last year in the big leagues on a great team, we didn’t have the success we wanted – we had a lot of injuries and things go wrong, things we can’t control – but why couldn’t I have fun? Why couldn’t I enjoy it and be a part of it instead of adding stress to myself?"

Some of it had to do with his new role, adjusting to it, and his production (a .211 average in 134) within it. He struggled to find a comfort level and later realized his problems came from diminished confidence, and a lack of focus.

It was strange for him. After all, he was a player who worked from being a 31st round draft pick out of high school in 2006 to a third round selection by the Brewers two years later. After moving quickly through the farm system, he lost all but seven games of 2010 to injury, only to make his major league debut in 2011.

Schafer needed to remind himself of that.

"Last year I had forgotten how good I was for a while," he admitted. "I’m a good ballplayer. I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t. At times I let myself believe … I had beaten myself before I even got in there. I won’t let that happen this year. I haven’t yet and I will continue to make sure that I stay confident and know that I deserve to be in the batter’s box or out in the outfield or wherever I am that day. And I’ll be working my butt off to stay that way."

He also worked on maintaining his mental edge during games he wasn’t playing in, which was another new experience. Advice and tips can come from veterans or coaches, but a player largely has to figure out what works for him on his own.

"That’s the thing," said Gennett, who came up initially in 2013 in a platoon role with Rickie Weeks – one he is back in again this year.

"When I first came up it was just how to do remain ready throughout the whole game? That’s something you learn and you learn pretty quick because if you’re not ready or if you don’t feel confident before you get in the game then you’re probably not going to do too good. For me and for a lot of the guys it’s just staying ready throughout the whole game and if you get called to pinch hit or go in and play defense or whatever, double switches, you’re ready and you’re prepared and confident mentally and stretched out and stuff physically."

Thornburg and Gennett, fortunately, figured it out once they came back to Milwaukee.

It took a little longer for Schafer to understand he needed to narrow his self-evaluation.

"You have to look at the moments, the situations that you succeed in," Schafer said. "You can’t really harp on you get put in against a back end bullpen arm that’s pretty good – and I like that challenge – and if I ground out or something, I’ve got to erase it. There’s nothing I can do about it. If I’m looking in the past it’s only going to be negative things I try and harp on. I’m really focused on the present and just trying to be where I am today and enjoy and be better today than I was yesterday."

Gennett decided knocking days off the calendar worked best for him.

"It’s almost like putting yourself between time; when you don’t play you just make it seem like it wasn’t there, to try to at least have that confidence of I got the feel right and everything’s right," Gennett said. "It’s not an excuse for me if I do bad when I’m not in every day, but at the same time it’s still something that I have to work to get comfortable doing."

The learning curve can be steep for players who are forced to continue their development at a level where their career trajectory can be determined by a short amount of playing time.

"A lot of this game is mental," Thornburg said. "And anytime you can build confidence going into the season or throughout the season is always huge, result-wise for you."

Schafer realized that, and the result was an impressive spring that had Roenicke looking for ways to get him early at-bats (Schafer is currently on the disabled list with a hamstring injury). Schafer said it’s a goal of his, and the rest of his teammates on the bench, to make Roenicke’s lineup as hard a fill as possible.

"I kind of let some if it tear me down a little bit last year and this year I’m a lot better for it because I’m taking the approach like I’m starting every day and when I’m not, I’m still happy and I can’t wait to get in there when I do," Schafer said. "It’s just a matter of trying to keep your confidence and keep yourself sharp and in shape to go out and do a job when you’re called on.

"If you’re open to change and open to self-evaluation and stuff, it’ll be easier to find your way to success. It’s a never ending process in this game. This game is so difficult and so hard but it’s also so fun and challenging at the same time. That’s what makes it fun. If you look at it as it’s a game and it’s fun and it’s challenging, I want to rise to the occasion, more times than not you’ll be successful. That’s what I’m trying to do this year."

Developing on the fly

How times have changed in Milwaukee.

When a core group of young draft picks matured into a playoff team in 2008, and expectations ballooned along with their production, the Brewers transitioned from building toward the future to competing on a year-in, year-out basis.

Their model would be different from competitors in larger markets, however: while centered around the infusion of young talent, that talent would have to develop in a less traditional way.

"You go back to the first round of success in 2008, all of the best players – most of the best players – were young guys," Ash said. "You had Fielder and Hart and Braun and Rickie Weeks and those kind of guys all making close to the minimum salary, which allowed you to spend money on a (CC) Sabathia and get yourself over the hump. Now you look at our team and we have enough lower salaried players that play key roles that you can go out and sign a Garza and a (Francisco Rodriguez) and give yourself depth and experience without risking quality of play.

"You have to have a plan, but clearly the heart of our club is always going to come from player development and scouting."

To do that, Roenicke has 10 coaches at his disposal. It’s not the number that matters (most teams in the National League have 10 coaches on its official roster, some have more or less) – it’s what they’re doing on a daily basis.

"These guys are here early. They do a lot of computer work. They do a lot of research," Ash said. "They work closely with some of the guys here in the front office in terms of some of the trends and so on that they can exploit. But then they go into working mode, and Ron puts an emphasis on a lot of one-on-one instruction. He may not be the type of guy that says ‘OK all you guys have to be here early tomorrow to do something’ but what is more productive, to identify the player that needs the work and focus on him? We have a very, very hard working staff and they do a tremendous job with a lot of the behind the scenes detail. Hitting wise, a lot of it goes on in the tunnels. Nobody even sees that."

For the Brewers coaches, it’s about individual and skill-specific attention. Mike Guerrero, who managed the organization’s Class AAA affiliate last year, joined the coaching staff and works with the infielders. John Shelby and Ed Sedar work with outfielders. Roenicke and Sedar work on baserunning. Jerry Narron and Marcus Hanel work on the catching. Rick Kranitz and Lee Tunnel work with the pitching staff. Garth Iorg works on defensive positioning and Johnny Narron is the hitting coach.

The attention is needed, as more than half of the Brewers current 40-man roster first began playing affiliated baseball nine years ago. While that may seem like long enough to improve – consider that many were teenagers signed out of a foreign country or drafted out of high school, or college players transitioning into professional ball.

"We want to make them, get them more consistent on this level," said Guerrero. "You work on specific things, a specific area that will make them more successful at this level. You have more specific coaches to develop your guys."

As he spoke, Guerrero brought his thumb and forefinger together to emphasize just how fine the instruction has become for the staff.

"Now you can be more hands on with each individual player, especially the younger guys," he continued. "As long as they can refine those areas they’re going to compete a lot more and they’re going to get better out on the field."

Of late, this additional time is needed because the Brewers need young bench players and relievers to continue to refine their skills.

"The game is more complex than what we think," Guerrero said. "Sometimes guys come to the big leagues early or a little sooner or sometimes they need more seasoning, but if the guy goes to the big leagues and he’s not finalized in his development, in all the areas, we do the work out here because we have enough staff to develop that area. And his specific area, we teach individual player."

At the end of 2013 Melvin and Roenicke were asked if there would be any changes to the coaching staff following slumps and uneven pitching performances. From the beginning, the pair did not feel any subtractions were necessary because, while a season is ultimately judged on wins and losses, the Brewers know there is a long game to win, too.

"I think it is important that all facets of the organization be on the same page in terms of understanding that this is not going to be a situation where everybody has a lot of seniority and you’re going to continue the player development process," Ash said.

"So we do some extra things here that might not normally take place. For instance, I’m not sure the Yankees are doing some of the drills we’re doing before games because we need to, because there are players that haven’t finished their development process. Coaches going on one-on-one sessions and emphasizing fundamentals and those kind of things are more important for us than they are for some of the more veteran-laden clubs."

So far, the combination is working.

The Brewers begin play on April 30 with a major-league best 20-7 record with a roster that features nine position players and seven pitchers under the age of 30. The development continues, daily.

Hiccups in the process remain, but the results remain encouraging.

"We’re all having a good time," Schafer said. "Yeah, man, how can you not have fun? We’re in a big league clubhouse and we’re winning games, we’re playing great baseball, we’re doing the little things right and we’re coming together as a team. It’s really hard to not be happy right now. We’re all doing really well and we’re all enjoying it and it’s transferring over to some wins. Hopefully we just keep that going because it’s been great."

Jim Owczarski is an award-winning sports journalist and comes to Milwaukee by way of the Chicago Sun-Times Media Network.

A three-year Wisconsin resident who has considered Milwaukee a second home for the better part of seven years, he brings to the market experience covering nearly all major and college sports.

To this point in his career, he has been awarded six national Associated Press Sports Editors awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, breaking news and projects. He is also a four-time nominee for the prestigious Peter J. Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, presented by the Chicago Headline Club, and is a two-time winner for Best Sports Story. He has also won numerous other Illinois Press Association, Illinois Associated Press and Northern Illinois Newspaper Association awards.

Jim's career started in earnest as a North Central College (Naperville, Ill.) senior in 2002 when he received a Richter Fellowship to cover the Chicago White Sox in spring training. He was hired by the Naperville Sun in 2003 and moved on to the Aurora Beacon News in 2007 before joining

In that time, he has covered the events, news and personalities that make up the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, NCAA football, baseball and men's and women's basketball as well as boxing, mixed martial arts and various U.S. Olympic teams.

Golf aficionados who venture into Illinois have also read Jim in GOLF Chicago Magazine as well as the Chicago District Golfer and Illinois Golfer magazines.