"If this doesn't get you excited, I don't know what does," Timber Rattlers center fielder Cutter Dykstra said during batting practice. "We were walking through the tunnel and all of us had our bags, and it's a pretty long walk. One of the guys said, 'Get to the big leagues, and you won't be carrying your bag through here anymore.'"
Baseball history says that only a handful of the players will make the jump from A-ball all the way to the Majors. But the Timber Rattlers are stocked with players with a very good chance, including seven of the Brewers' 30 best Minor Leaguers, as rated by Baseball America.
It makes Wisconsin one of the youngest, most prospect-rich teams in the league. That's no coincidence.
"We wanted to put our best foot forward," Brewers assistant general manager Gord Ash said.
The Brewers are in the first season of a four-year player-development deal with the Timber Rattlers, who play about 100 miles north of Miller Park at Fox Cities Stadium. Before the Brewers came to Appleton, Wisc., the team had been a Seattle Mariners affiliate since 1993.
Among the Wisconsin hitters to watch are 2008 first-round Draft pick Brett Lawrie and second-rounder Dykstra. The pitchers include Wily Peralta and Cody Adams, both of whom pitched in the Border Battle, plus 2008 supplemental first-round pick Evan Fredrickson and big right-hander Cody Scarpetta. The lone Rattler on Milwaukee's 40-man roster and Wisconsin's Opening Day starter, Scarpetta matched his professional best by striking out 10 batters in a win on Wednesday over Peoria. Brewers officials considered altering his schedule so he could pitch at Miller Park on Friday, but instead kept him on his regular routine.
"This is just night and day to what we're used to playing with," Scarpetta said, looking around Miller Park. "It's a good thing for our team and our organization."
The new partnership was on display to about 20,000 fans on Friday, who paid $10 per ticket or $15 for one ticket to the Border Battle and another for a game in Appleton. Rattlers players dressed in the visitors' clubhouse -- the home digs were off-limits because the Brewers return on Monday -- and Peoria players used an auxiliary locker room.
The concept of the Border Battle was first introduced in 2003, when the Brewers-affiliated Beloit Snappers, featuring Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks and Manny Parra, faced the Timber Rattlers in front of more than 15,000 fans. The event was staged again in '04 with the same two teams, but then went on hiatus beginning in '05, when the Brewers moved their "low" Class A affiliate to Charleston, W.Va.
"I've been here before, but it's still a thrill," said Lawrie, who visited after he signed with the Brewers last summer. "This is where I want to be, and where I want to be quickly."
With the plethora of prospects, many with less than a year of professional experience, the Timber Rattlers' season will likely focus more on developing players than securing victories. But Brewers officials felt it important to stock the team with players on the way up instead of trying to pile up wins with older free-agent pickups who have little chance of progressing to the Majors.
"There was only one move we made there with winning in mind," Ash said. "And that was signing a veteran back-of-the-bullpen guy."
That would be Jim Henderson, a 27-year-old who has pitched as high as Triple-A. He was looking for work after the Cubs released him late in Spring Training. He is more than three years older than any other player on the team, and Brewers officials figured it was important to have someone with experience in the closer's role.
Milwaukee's affiliates are 2-0 in previous Border Battles. Parra led the Snappers to a 4-2 win over Wisconsin in 2003 in front of 14,447 fans who paid $5 each, and left-hander Dana Eveland, who now pitches for the A's, worked seven scoreless innings in a 5-0 Snappers win in '04.
The idea is to reinstate the Border Battle as an annual event, Ash said. Nichols was all for that idea, and so was Timber Rattlers manager Jeff Isom.
"This is an opportunity of a lifetime for myself and the club here," said Isom, a former pitcher who played three Minor League seasons but never advanced above Class A. "We might have five or six guys [make it to the Majors], and that's it. For those guys it might be no big deal, but for the other guys who don't make it, this is something that they'll remember."