Around the Horn: Outfielders

Durability a bonus for Brewers' outfield regulars

The following is the sixth in a series of weekly stories on examining each Major League club, position by position. Each Wednesday until Spring Training camps open, we'll preview a different position. Today: Outfielders.

MILWAUKEE -- Major League Baseball's most durable outfield is expected back for a second season together, and, for a change, Brewers right fielder Geoff Jenkins should be able to run to his position.

Milwaukee's regular trio of Jenkins, center fielder Brady Clark and left fielder Carlos Lee combined to make 451 starts in 2005. That's 34 more than runners-up Coco Crisp, Grady Sizemore and Casey Blake of Cleveland and 42 more than any other National League trio.

And all three had strong seasons. Jenkins led the Brewers with a .513 slugging percentage and 42 doubles, Lee led with 32 home runs and 114 RBIs and Clark with a .306 average and 94 runs scored.

For Jenkins, it was not always easy.

Brewers assistant general manager Gord Ash confirmed this week that Jenkins suffered a compression fracture of his pelvis in a late-August dive at Minute Maid Park in Houston. Jenkins played on and finished the best second half of any Brewer, leading the team to a strong finish for its first non-losing season in a dozen years.

"It was up to him, on his state of mind at that time," Ash said. "He's a gamer."

After diving in vain for a Jose Vizcaino single Aug. 21 and suffering the compression fracture, Jenkins hobbled his way through the next five games -- hitting safely in four of them -- before sitting on the bench for a few days. Until this week the Brewers termed the injury "back stiffness" and that was technically accurate -- Jenkins was so sore and stiff he shuffled around gingerly for the rest of the season.

"When you hear 'fracture' it sounds like the bone was hanging like a broken branch on a tree," Ash said. "That was certainly not the case here."

Dr. William Raasch examined Jenkins and determined the injury could not be made more serious by playing on. The decision whether to play was left to Jenkins.

"Some guys wouldn't have played," general manager Doug Melvin said. "Obviously, he was in pain."

Jenkins did play, and finished one of the best stretches of his career. After batting .258 before the All-Star break, he hit .332 after it and nearly doubled his power output. Jenkins batted .379 in July, including a career-long 16-game hitting streak, .310 in August and .313 in September.

Despite the injury, he hit seven of his 25 home runs in September, most of any month of the season.

Meanwhile, the Brewers were on a bit of a roll. They went 16-13 over the final month, including 11-6 at Miller Park, just barely good enough for an 81-81 record and the franchise's first non-losing season since 1992.

Did other players take note?

"Definitely," manager Ned Yost said in September. "He sets a great example every day, from the second he walks in the clubhouse to the second he leaves -- in every phase of the game, starting with his preparation and his work ethic. He very easily could be sitting, shutting it down."

Jenkins did not require surgery and is expected to report healthy to Maryvale Baseball Park later this month. He turns 32 in July.

Jenkins, who played his first seven seasons as a left fielder and is the longest-tenured Brewer, moved over to right in 2005 to make room for Lee, who was acquired from the White Sox at the 2004 Winter Meetings. Lee played in all 162 games and made his first All-Star appearance.

"I knew Jenks, being the caliber of outfielder that he was, would be able to make that move pretty easily," Yost said. "The first month of the season, you could see he was a little uncomfortable out there, but as the season wore on, you could see how much more at ease he was and [he] got to where he was every bit as good in right field as he was in left field."

Milwaukee Brewers
Starters: Sheets' health a concern
Bullpen: Bullpen has made strides
Catchers: Miller, Moeller return
Corner IF: Fielder, Koskie are ready
Middle IF: High expectations for duo
Outfielders: Durability a strength
Bench: Raw but versatile

Jenkins is entering the second year of a three-year, $23 million contract that runs through 2007 with a club option for 2008. His outfield cohorts are not so stable; Clark, who agreed to a two-year deal Wednesday to avoid arbitration, has just two years remaining before free agency, and Lee is a free agent after the 2006 season.

The Brewers picked up Lee's option for 2006 at $8.5 million, a single-season club record for an offensive player. Melvin says he plans to broach the idea of an extension during Spring Training; if Lee and agent Adam Katz balk, Lee's name almost certainly will come up as the nonwaiver trade deadline approaches.

"Sure, it's a possibility," Brewers owner Mark Attanasio said earlier this year of inking Lee to an extension. "But there are a lot of moving pieces in that, including what Carlos wants to do.

"We very highly value Carlos Lee as part of our team, and we love having him on the team," Attanasio said. "But it's a two-way street in terms of what he wants to do, and it depends on Doug's overall baseball plan."

Leading the list of contenders for backup outfield spots is Corey Hart, who saw limited action with the Brewers after a call-up last season, and newcomer Gabe Gross, acquired from the Blue Jays.

"[Chris] Magruder did a good enough job for us," Melvin said, referring to the switch-hitter who served as the primary outfield backup in 2005. "But we're hoping we've upgraded in that area."

Gross played football and baseball at Auburn University, where as a true freshman he served as Auburn's starting quarterback for the final seven games of the 1998 season after an injury to starter Ben Leard. Gross' teammates included two-way threat Champ Bailey and kicker Rob Bironas, and he led Auburn to a pair of wins over Louisiana Tech quarterback Tim Rattay and Central Florida's Daunte Culpepper.

While all four of those players ended up in the NFL, Gross chose baseball. The Blue Jays made Gross their first-round pick (15th overall) of the First-Year Player Draft in 2001, Ash's final season with that team. "He's an athlete," Ash said. "He is probably more of a right fielder, but he is capable of playing all three [spots]. He can hit a little bit and he can run. I would imagine he'll be in a battle with Corey and Nelson Cruz. We'll need an extra outfielder or two."

In recent seasons the Brewers have carried at least five outfielders, but they could conceivably go with just four this year depending on how the roster shakes out.

Bill Hall, who was bumped back into a utility role when the Brewers acquired Corey Koskie in a separate trade with Toronto, dabbled in center field last spring and could see action this year. Hart, originally drafted as a first baseman before the Brewers moved him to third base and then the outfield, likely will make the roster but will also see action in both the infield and outfield.

Cruz, acquired from Oakland a year ago, won Milwaukee's Robin Yount Performance Award as the organization's top Minor League player in 2005. He combined to bat .289 with 27 home runs and 81 RBIs at Triple-A Nashville and Double-A Huntsville, and 59 of his 132 hits went for extra bases. Cruz has a tremendous throwing arm best suited for right field, but has enough speed to be considered a future candidate for center.

Ash said the Brewers will also consider Zach Sorensen, a switch-hitter who was plucked off waivers from the Angels but is listed as an infielder on the team's official roster. Sorensen, like Hall, plays second and third base and shortstop but also has seen action in the Minor Leagues as an outfielder.

"There are a lot of ways we could go," Ash said. "This is clearly a case where we'll have to see what we have in Spring Training."

Lee is expected to play for Panama in next month's World Baseball Classic. Hall is on the provisional roster for Team USA.

Adam McCalvy is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.