José Ureña officially joins the Brewers, becomes another bullpen option; Hunter Renfroe testing new position

Jose Urena likely will be making extended relief appearances the rest of the 2021 season, rather than starting.
Jose Urena likely will be making extended relief appearances the rest of the 2021 season, rather than starting.

PHOENIX – The day after signing José Ureña to a minor-league contract, the Milwaukee Brewers began the process of potentially fast-tracking the right-hander to be included on the opening day roster.

In a procedural move Wednesday, the Brewers selected the 30-year-old to the 40-man roster. If he's deemed ready to go from a health standpoint, Ureña will pitch a bullpen session already on Thursday.

That would leave about three or four Cactus League games for Ureña to possibly participate in before the Brewers head north for their April 7 opener against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field.

"This is late, and so we've got to evaluate the health, and then we'll go from there," president of baseball operations David Stearns said. "We expect him to impact our major-league team.

"So, if he's healthy and ready to do that, then (he's on the team)."

Ureña will be entering his eighth season in the major leagues. He pitched 26 times for the Detroit Tigers last season, starting 18 games, and finished 4-8 with a 5.81 earned run average.

Neither his WHIP of 1.60 nor his 67 strikeouts in 100⅔ innings was impressive, but Stearns nevertheless sees a path for Ureña to help Milwaukee.

"This is a player that's had success in length roles, mostly as a starting pitcher," Stearns said. "We're excited to bring him in. We think he has the potential to help us predominantly out of the 'pen.

"We view him as a reliever first, likely in a length role to start, but the fact that he has that starting background, it helps, and it provides us an added degree of insurance and was one of the reasons we decided to bring him in."

More: Cy Young Award winner Corbin Burnes will be the opening day starter for the Brewers vs. the Cubs

A native of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, Ureña pitched his first six seasons with the Miami Marlins, making him a two-time teammate now of Christian Yelich.

"I think in an ideal world he's part of our bullpen," manager Craig Counsell said. "There's some ceiling as to what he can become in the bullpen for us. We've just got to kind of evaluate him health-wise here the next couple days."

His best season came in 2017, when he went 14-7 with a 3.82 ERA in 34 appearances (28 starts). Control has an issue for him — he led the majors that year by plunking 14 batters — and his career walk rate is 3.2 per nine innings.

He was also Miami's opening day starter in both 2018 and '19.

When Ureña is going well he combines a heavy sinker with a slider to generate plenty of ground-ball outs; his rate of 53.1% last season was a career high. He also throws a four-seam fastball that averaged 94.2 mph in 2021 and a changeup.

"He'll keep the ball on the ground. He's proven very effective against right-handed hitters," Stearns said. "We'll try to help him and give him avenues for growth and improvement against left-handed hitters and we'll see where it goes.

"This is a really good athlete with a live arm. Battled some injuries throughout his career (shoulder in 2016, herniated disc in 2019, broken forearm in 2020). And so, we'll see where this heads."

Before signing, Ureña had been working out in the Dominican, facing live hitters in impromptu games every Friday.

"I'm just trying to be healthy and see the spot I can fit in," he said. "I will be ready. The way I was preparing myself, it won't take me long. We'll see how I feel."

Renfroe starting at first base

Hunter Renfroe has played just nine regular season major-league innings at first base in his six-year career, but that isn’t keeping the Brewers from experimenting with him at the position in their constant quest to piece together their position player puzzle.

Renfroe made his first start at first base this spring as the Brewers faced San Diego in a road game Wednesday afternoon. In five innings of action, the ball didn't find his way once, giving him an easy day at the office.

Of Renfroe’s 4,439⅔ innings in the field in the majors, all but nine have come in the outfield and just over three-quarters have been in right field. The bulk of Renfroe’s playing time in Milwaukee will still come in right, but his ability to fit at first base, as well, would open up some options for Counsell against left-handed pitching.

“Hunter has done a little bit of it, is open to practicing there and trying it out,” Counsell said. “So there’s scenarios where you can see where it would make sense. It’s just another option and in games depending on what else is going on it makes some sense.”

Renfroe has been working at first during camp and said positioning on outfield cutoffs remains his biggest challenge.

"I feel fine," Renfroe said. "Don’t know exactly where to go on cutoffs, it’s all new a little bit. As far as positioning, it was pretty easy. I look over (to the dugout), if they want to move me, they move me. Ground balls, I'm good with my hands, so that’s not a big deal. Catching the ball, running to first that’s easy, throwing the ball."

Renfroe did play one inning at first in the postseason: the ninth inning of Game 4 of the World Series with Tampa Bay in 2020. That game is better known for former Brewer Brett Phillips' walk-off single in the bottom of the frame.

"They threw me in at first base, a 'hey, go get 'em, kid' kind of deal," Renfroe recalled.

The Brewers already have no shortage of potential players at first. Rowdy Tellez, a lefty, is expecting to get the lion’s share of work, while Keston Hiura and Mike Brosseau offer right-handed complements.

But Renfroe projects as one of their better bats, and the addition of the designated hitter to the National League gives Milwaukee greater flexibility with its lineups. If Renfroe’s defensive acumen at first is deemed to be reliable enough, it could open at-bats in right field for Tyrone Taylor, who currently slots in as the fifth outfielder but posted a .778 OPS and has been the team’s best hitter this spring.

"I played first base a little bit with Tampa," Renfroe said. "When 'Murph' (bench coach Pat Murphy) and them came up to me it was mostly because we’ve got a tough lefty on the mound, Rowdy goes down or needs a break or something, it’s there more than anything. I’m open to it anything to help us win."

Renfroe, meanwhile, has just two hits in 14 at-bats, but there is no concern surrounding how he – nor any other of the team’s hitters in a veteran-laden group – has looked at the plate.

“I feel like our position players are in a really good place,” Counsell said. “I was probably more worried about getting them plate appearances and now I’m just sitting here and I’m not concerned about any of our guys.”

Padres 4, Brewers 2

Freddy Peralta surrendered a two-run home run to San Diego's Manny Machado but walked away from the outing feeling nothing but optimism.

"It was great for me," Peralta said. "I did everything I wanted to do today, get up five times, get out there five times and execute my pitches. It was great for me."

Peralta went four innings total — he reentered the game in the fourth after exiting with two outs the prior frame — allowing the two earned runs on the Machado homer. He struck out five and walked one.

The Brewers, who brought much a heavy load of players over from minor-league camp for the game, have won just once in their last eight games.

Prospects Joe Gray Jr. and Sal Frelick (singled) started, while Joey Wiemer, Zavier Warren and Freddy Zamora also saw action.

Veteran left-hander Rex Brothers saw his first Cactus League action, pitching ⅔ of an inning as he plays catch-up.

"Rex just needs to pitch right now," Counsell said. "You know what he is – he's got a good arm and he's gotten big-league hitters out. So, he's definitely an option as the season goes on here."

Milwaukee managed just six hits on the day with one of those belonging to Keston Hiura, who sent a ringing double to left-center in the second inning.

Hiura is tied with Tyrone Taylor for the team lead with eight hits this spring, and his 1.450 OPS leads the team.

The Brewers (4-6-2) host the Angels tomorrow at American Family Fields of Phoenix, with Eric Lauer squaring off against none other than Shohei Ohtani.

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: José Ureña officially joins Milwaukee Brewers, becomes bullpen option