MILWAUKEE — They can't come right out and say it with six weeks left in the season, but the Milwaukee Brewers are playing for the future.
That was obvious the day they traded ace Zack Greinke to the Los Angeles Angels and it became crystal clear when they brought up minor-league shortstop Jean Segura, the key returnee in the Greinke deal, two weeks ago. Like it or not, the rest of this lost season is all about auditioning young players for next year and beyond.
Most of the players trying to prove they can be a piece of a playoff puzzle in Milwaukee next season are pitchers: Young starters Marco Estrada, Mike Fiers, Mark Rogers, Tyler Thornburg and, very soon, minor-leaguer Wily Peralta, plus relievers Jim Henderson and, yes, former closer John Axford. Any or all of them could secure a spot in general manager Doug Melvin's plan for 2013 by closing out the season well.
But no audition is more critical than the one the Brewers are staging at shortstop. In Sunday's 8-0 loss to Philadelphia, Segura made his 12th start at short, quite possibly the only position in the everyday lineup that hasn't been locked up for next season.
So far, the results have been mixed. Segura has answered one big question by showing he can handle shortstop defensively. However, he hasn't yet figured out major-league pitching to the point where the Brewers can commit to him for next season.
"(He's) 22 years old, he's in the big leagues and he's doing a good job for us, which is pretty impressive," Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said. "Defensively, he's been very good. He's heads-up out there. He pays attention to where he should be playing defensively. He pays attention to different pitches that are thrown and how to move with them. Offensively, I see him getting better. He uses all fields. I know we haven't seen it yet, but he's got some pop. He runs the bases well. He can steal bases. He can bunt. He does a lot of things that allow us, I think, to look at him and say, 'This guy's got a chance to be a good major leaguer.' "
The Brewers need one of those at shortstop next season if they hope to get back to the playoffs. They started this season with 35-year-old Alex Gonzalez at short but he lasted only 24 games before suffering a season-ending knee injury. They could conceivably re-sign Gonzalez for one year and let Segura get more seasoning in the minors, though Gonzalez would be a major risk as an older player coming off major knee surgery.
With the organization bereft of shortstop talent since the Brewers traded lanky, smooth-fielding Alcides Escobar to Kansas City as part of the Greinke deal in 2010, there aren't a lot of options. So if Segura isn't ready and Gonzalez is considered too risky, the Brewers probably will have to look for a shortstop in free agency.
"Certainly it's an advantage for us to have (Segura) playing every day to see what we're going to do next year," Roenicke said. "It certainly helps Doug on his decisions and what he's going to do as far as: Do we have to go free agency? Do we look at Alex Gonzales again? Or do we look at Segura (like) he's ready to do this?"
Defensively, Segura appears ready right now. After the trade went down, some scouts raised doubts about his long-term prospects at shortstop because he has a short, squatty body. That caused some to project him as a second baseman in the majors.
However, Roenicke thinks Segura, who is more quick than slick, can be a big-league shortstop.
"He's got the arm strength, certainly enough, to do it," Roenicke said. "He's got the quickness to do it. I think when you look at some of the shortstops, you see this fluid, lanky-type body that is a prototypical shortstop and I think that's why people say that maybe he's not (a shortstop) long-term. But tool-wise and head-wise, from what I see, he should be able to do it."
If there are concerns about Segura, it is at the plate, where he drives the ball to all fields but is a free-swinger. He hit .313 in six minor league seasons but is hitting only .225 with no extra-base hits in 40 at-bats for Milwaukee.
Although he doesn't strike out a lot, Segure doesn't draw many walks, either. His only walk with Milwaukee was intentional.
"Because of the way he drives the ball the other way and in the gaps, I think he's going to be an extra-base-hit kind of guy, which, for me, that's more important than just the home runs," Roenicke said. "If you hit home runs and your batting average is down (or) you have that guy on third and less than two outs and you don't put it in play, those kinds of things, they bother me. The guy I want is that guy that will go the other way and will drive the ball in the gaps with people on base. I think that type of power, for me, plays better than the home run-strikeout power."
Segura could possibly fit that description. Then again, that's what the rest of this lost season is all about.