PHOENIX -- Twenty years since he played his first professional game just up the road from Milwaukee, Gregg Zaun's career is coming full circle.
First, the veteran catcher and Brewers newcomer needs to quickly learn an unfamiliar staff. But when the team heads north for its April 5 season opener, Zaun will be returning to where it began for him. He was Baltimore's 17th-round pick in the 1989 Draft, and when he reported for duty the following season it was to Wausau, Wis., home of a Class A Orioles affiliate called the Timbers. The team's first game was in Appleton, Wis., just 100 miles north of Milwaukee.
"What I remember most is that it was about 14 degrees, or at least it felt like it," Zaun said. "There were no dugout heaters in A-ball in those days, so we had a bunch of guys huddled on the bench underneath Army blankets. I was just happy to be there."
He'll be cozier at heated, domed Miller Park, where the Brewers are counting on Zaun to replace dependable free-agent departure Jason Kendall. Kendall caught 285 games for Milwaukee over the past two seasons, but his asking price was too high and general manager Doug Melvin preferred to funnel most of his resources into pitching.
With prospects Angel Salome and Jonathan Lucroy still working their way to the big leagues, Melvin turned to the free-agent market and found the switch-hitting Zaun, who should provide a tad more offense at the relatively reasonable price of $1.9 million. Zaun's deal also includes a club option for 2011, but as Brewers pitchers and catchers reported for duty this week, he had more pressing matters on his mind.
Like, learning the names of the pitchers he'll be handling all season.
"You can only catch so many guys, so my eyes are always moving and my head is on a swivel," Zaun said. "I'm trying to have as many conversations with people as I can, and I usually get right to the point.
"One of the first questions I always ask is, 'What can't you do?' I've found that a lot of guys have a really clear picture of what they can not do and a distorted picture of what they can. So I've found that you get a much better answer by asking the, 'can't.' They're usually pretty clear about that.
"Sometimes, they can't name anything at all that they can't do. Then I know that something's not quite right."
Truth be told, Zaun already has an idea of what many of the pitchers on Milwaukee's camp roster can do well. After signing with the Brewers on Dec. 4, he was put in contact with Brewers video coordinator Joe Crawford, who sent Zaun video of the pitchers' best outings. Zaun wanted to see what Yovani Gallardo & Co. could do well; the not-so-well would become clear along the way.
Most games at catcher in a season since 1901 for a player in age 39 season or older
Source: BaseballReference.com. Age 39 season is defined as being 39 years old by June 30 of that year.
At the same time, Melvin and manager Ken Macha should get a clearer idea of how Zaun will fit into the playing rotation. After all, this is a guy who will turn 39 on the day the Brewers play their eighth game of the season (April 14) and who has started more than 100 games only once in 15 big league seasons (2005, with Toronto). Over that time, Zaun has caught 7,991 innings. Compare that to Kendall, who in one fewer season has logged 16,460 innings.
Zaun said Macha had already given him a "very clear" idea of how this will work, but deflected the question to the manager. Macha wouldn't spell it out, saying there was too much time between now and the start of the season to start making predictions.
"I've looked back at what his history is and how many games he has played," Macha said. "To think that a guy who hasn't played that many games in the past few years and then think he's all of a sudden going to play 130, I don't think that's happening.
"We have several candidates [for the backup catcher job] and like I've said with the pitching, all of these guys are going to be looked at."
That race to be Zaun's backup, according to Macha, is Milwaukee's most heated Spring Training position battle. Melvin, meanwhile, surmised that the catching position could produce a breakout player like Casey McGehee last season.
Three players have the benefit of a 40-man roster spot: waiver claim George Kottaras and prospects Lucroy and Salome. Former Marlins backup Matt Treanor is also in camp as a non-roster invitee competing for the job and has an "out" date in his contract that would allow him to elect free agency if he's not on the roster by a certain date in late March. Treanor declined to specify that date.
"It's wide open," Melvin said.
Said Kottaras, who has played 48 games with the Red Sox over the past two years: "You never know how it's going to end. All you can do is come in here and be ready."
If Kottaras or Treanor make the cut, it would leave Brewers officials with a tricky situation. Salome played at Triple-A last season and is still considered a strong prospect, but Lucroy, who was at Double-A Huntsville and then appeared in the Arizona Fall League, may have moved up to be Milwaukee's most promising Minor League catcher. How would the Brewers handle their 2010 assignments?
"We know we may get faced with that but we haven't addressed that yet," Melvin said. "[Assistant general manager Gord Ash] has brought that up and it's something we'll have to think through. We have time."
It would be "tough," Melvin said, to send both to Triple-A Nashville because there is no designated hitter there. Ash said club will "look for creative ways to deal with it."
Asked about the topic of playing time, Zaun said. "I've been through such a whirlwind over the past few years that it doesn't even matter. I'll adjust on the fly to whatever they want me to do."
Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.