When Milwaukee Brewers general manager Doug Melvin turned over three infield spots this offseason, two of the new guys got a lot of attention -- largely because of the man they are replacing.
After Prince Fielder signed a 214 million free-agent contract with Detroit, the Brewers were left with holes at first base and in the cleanup spot, and much speculation centered on whether first baseman Mat Gamel and cleanup-hitting third baseman Aramis Ramirez could make up for the production lost to the Tigers.
But while Gamel and Ramirez are both having solid springs, the other new Brewers starting infielder, shortstop Alex Gonzalez, has been even more impressive in Cactus League play with almost no one paying attention. Gonzalez, a 35-year-old signed to a one-year contract, is hitting .385 (10-for-26) with a home run and six RBI after batting .241 with 15 home runs and 56 RBI last season with the Atlanta Braves.
But the man Gonzalez is replacing, Yuniesky Betancourt -- who had 13 home runs and 68 RBI before signing with the Royals in the offseason -- could hit, too, even if he was a bit of a free swinger. When the Brewers signed Gonzalez, they expected the biggest upgrade would be in the field, and -- after a rough first few games -- that has been playing out in Arizona.
"In our first couple of games, our fielding was pretty hard, and balls were getting through the infield pretty quick," manager Ron Roenicke said. "After those first couple games, we're excited at what we see. Great hands, great arm, knows how to play.
"When you're seeing the other dugout and you see him for years -- and you see him for different teams and you like him -- you don't really get to see him. We're seeing what people say about him."
As the Braves' full-time starter last season, Gonzalez committed 12 errors; Betancourt committed 21 with the Brewers and didn't have the same range.
For his part, Gonzalez is happy to be with Milwaukee and to be experiencing his first spring training in Arizona after training in the Grapefruit League before every season since his major league career began with the Florida Marlins in 1998.
"It feels good," Gonzalez said Sunday. "I'm glad to be here, and to be in Arizona after 13 years. I'm glad to be wearing the uniform, and this is the place I want to be, on a winning team."
Gonzalez was part of a Braves team last season that had a commanding lead in the NL wild-card race in late August but lost 21 of its last 32 games and missed the playoffs. Milwaukee, meanwhile, won 96 games and the NL Central division title.
"It was kind of hard for us, man," Gonzalez said. "We were up nine, 10 games and we don't make the playoffs, but that's baseball. This year, with Milwaukee, we have a great team. You know we're going to be in competition."
And Gonzalez expects he'll contribute more than strong defense to help the Brewers get even better.
"I know I can hit," he said. "I know I can do some damage. ... I want to do it all, man."
Highs for Loe: The Brewers middle-relief corps took a couple hits with the offseason departures of LaTroy Hawkins and Takashi Saito, but right-hander Kameron Loe is back and will reprise the jack-of-all trades role he has filled the past two seasons.
"He's been really good," Roenicke said of Loe, who has a 1.69 ERA with four strikeouts and zero walks in 5-13 spring innings over five spring appearances. "All of his outings (have been) really good. Still has got the great sinker, and he threw some nice curveballs this last outing.
"He's going to be in that same role that we had used him in last year, where he's pretty flexible. If we want two innings from him, we'll get two innings. If we need him to come into an inning to get a starter out of trouble, we'll bring him into an inning -- whether it's the sixth inning or the seventh inning -- or, hopefully not, but it could be the fifth inning. He's able to do all those, those things to help shut down that team and hold them, so we get a chance or so we can catch up. Or, we could be winning a game and I just need to get out of it, to shut it down."
Loe finds comfort knowing he and the Brewers' other middle relievers can turn the ball over to what might be the best eighth-ninth-inning combination in the majors in setup man Francisco Rodriguez and closer John Axford.
"You can't find a better group," he said Sunday. "Ax-man's awesome. And K-Rod, too."
And how does Loe stay ready knowing that he won't have the fixed role of the bigger names at the back end of the bullpen?
"I have a routine," said Loe, who slipped from a 2.78 ERA in 53 games during 2010 to a 3.50 ERA in 72 games during 2011. "Just try to do the same thing every single day as much as you can. I have some visualization stuff that I do, some meditation, some video work, and, you know, I laugh with the guys. You gotta keep it loose and have a good time doing it."
Interviews courtesy of the Milwaukee Brewers.