PHOENIX -- Casey McGehee says he prefers to play with a chip on his shoulder. That was a good thing on a late October day in 2008, when a high-ranking member of Chicago's baseball operation called to say he'd been placed on waivers. McGehee would rather not name the name, but he remembers the message. "He told me they looked at me as a 'four-A' player, a 'tweener' guy," McGehee said. "I respect their opinion. That's fine if they felt that way, but I felt differently and I was going to prove it. It was a wake-up call for me."
Two-and-a-half years later, the Cubs castoff has a home with Milwaukee. The Brewers claimed McGehee off the waiver wire after 25 other teams declined, and he won an Opening Day roster spot the following spring. By late May, McGehee was a starting third baseman and on the way to a fifth-place finish in National League Rookie of the Year balloting. In 2010, he led the Brewers with 104 RBIs. How's this for a waiver-wire pickup? Since July 1, 2009, only two third basemen have more RBIs than McGehee's 149 -- the Yankees' Alex Rodriguez and the Rays' Evan Longoria. Only five have more home runs than McGehee's 34 -- former D-backs third baseman Mark Reynolds, Rodriguez, Ryan Zimmerman of the Nationals, Longoria and the Cubs' Aramis Ramirez, a player very much tied to McGehee. It was Ramirez who blocked McGehee's path to Chicago and led the Cubs to risk losing McGehee on the waiver wire. That loss has proven Milwaukee's gain, and McGehee finally doesn't have to fight for his roster spot.
"I love those stories," Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said. "I wasn't that kind of story, but every spring, I was trying to make a team. [Bench coach] Jerry Narron and I were talking about that -- we didn't have much fun in Spring Training because we were always on the bubble. It's not a comfortable feeling."
When the Cubs promoted him to the Majors in September 2008, McGehee was 25 -- no old geezer. But considering he was never considered one of Chicago's top prospects and now he's topping 100 RBIs in the Major Leagues, there is something to the notion of McGehee as a late bloomer.
Or was it just a matter of opportunity? In Chicago, McGehee was blocked by Ramirez, and though he dabbled at catcher and second base, that was unlikely to change.
"There was definitely a part of me that knew, in my heart, that I could help that team win," McGehee said. "But I didn't get too upset, because what were they going to do? Ramirez was making the All-Star team, had just signed a huge extension, was a pretty young guy hitting in the middle of their order. They're not going to just have a young kid like me come up and play third base.
"So, I understood it. But it was still a little frustrating to know that I could have the best Spring Training of my life and still have no chance to make the team."
With Milwaukee, things were different.
A collaborative effort brought him to the Brewers. The ultimate call on waiver claims, of course, belongs to general manager Doug Melvin, who polled his staff about McGehee when the name appeared on waivers. The Brewers' scouting reports on McGehee didn't rave about his raw tools, but Milwaukee officials liked the fact he was coming off his best season and that he could play a number of positions. They had to weigh whether McGehee compared favorably to who was then projected as the 25th man on the roster, versatile Vinny Rottino.
Zack Minasian, now the team's director of pro scouting, endorsed making a claim. So did director of video scouting and baseball research Karl Mueller, who had seen McGehee as part of his duties gathering video on opponents, and Brewers pro scout Ben McLure.
"We liked him for his versatility, which people will laugh about now because he doesn't play anywhere other than third base," Minasian said. "At the time, in the Minor Leagues, he caught. We thought he could serve possibly as a backup catcher, but more so as a third-string catcher who can move other places around the field."
Once they saw him in person, Minasian saw comparisons to big leaguer Ty Wigginton. Melvin brought up Casey Blake, who was 29 when he finally got regular playing time in the Majors. Club officials were very impressed with McGehee's baseball smarts and maturity.
McGehee got hot in Cactus League games and edged veteran Mike Lamb for a spot on the Opening Day roster. He took over at third base when Bill Hall struggled to start the '09 season.
There is something, McGehee said, to the notion that he's a late bloomer. He made adjustments during the summer of 2008 with his Triple-A hitting coach, Von Joshua, and carried the changes into winter ball. The tweaks led to the crouched batting stance that McGehee uses today.
"We worked on my stance, my swing, my approach," he said. "So I don't know -- is that considered a late bloomer? Maybe I figured out some things about myself. Maybe I learned more about hitting and that helped me.
"The stance made a difference, and the approach was a big adjustment, too. It took me a while to learn how to pull the ball. I had to learn that you didn't have to go the other way all the time, that you can use some of the power I had instead of punching the ball to right field."
The changes really took hold after he joined the Brewers. In the Mexican Winter League, McGehee could try things in a game atmosphere.
When he reported to Maryvale Baseball Park, Brewers hitting coach Dale Sveum gave McGehee some space.
"I don't know if he could sense that I was changing some things or what, but he let me work within what I was already doing instead of making more wholesale changes and reinventing things again," McGehee said.
"All of those things lined up together and it worked out."
It makes you wonder whether the Cubs would like to pull him back.
"I don't have any hard feelings about [the Cubs]," he said. "A lot of great things happened for me over there. At the same time, it is nice to be able to play against the team that, for lack of a better term, let you go. You have that chip on your shoulder and you get to play against the guys you were competing with and were your teammates. That's pretty nice."
Position analysis• Manager
• First base
• Second base
• Third base