PHOENIX — Yovani Gallardo was 18 years old the first time he walked into the clubhouse at Maryvale Baseball Park, a kid fresh out of high school and the Milwaukee Brewers’ second-round pick in the 2004 MLB draft.
In the nearly 14 years since that first visit, Gallardo became one of the most successful homegrown pitching prospects in franchise history. He set team records with five postseason starts, five consecutive Opening Day starts and became the franchise’s all-time leader with 1,226 strikeouts.
But while Gallardo will again be wearing his familiar No. 49 — an homage to Brewers legend and fellow Mexican native Teddy Higuera — he’s no longer a top prospect or anchor of the rotation. He’s a 31-year-old veteran — he turns 32 next week — hoping to bounce back from two disappointing seasons and earn his way onto the roster on a minor league contract.
“I owe a lot to this organization, this club,” Gallardo said. “Obviously, the past couple of years haven’t gone my way. I’m not happy about that or satisfied. I still think I can go out and compete at a high level.”
Gallardo went 89-64 with a 3.69 ERA in 214 career appearances for the Brewers from 2007 to ’14, all but three of them starts. But entering the final year of his contract, general manager Doug Melvin traded Gallardo to Texas for four players, including current closer Corey Knebel.
Gallardo had a solid year for the Rangers in 2015, going 13-11 with a 3.42 ERA, then hit the free agent market that winter.
He received a three-year offer from the Orioles but when a physical examination of his shoulder raised red flags, the sides renegotiated for two years and an option after Baltimore had already opened its spring camp.
“That messed up my whole free agency, my whole year, to be honest,” Gallardo said of the injury. “Starting camp a week late, trying to hurry and get ready for the season ... then I ended up on the (disabled list) for two months.”
He lasted just a year in Baltimore. After posting a career-worst 5.82 ERA with just 85 strikeouts in 118 innings, Baltimore shipped him to Seattle for Seth Smith prior to the 2017 season.
Things got worse from there, and Gallardo was demoted to the bullpen in June. He pitched well enough in the role, even recording his first career save, that the Mariners gave him another chance when injuries ravaged their rotation.
He again struggled and finished in the bullpen.
When Seattle declined his option for 2018, Gallardo went over options with his agent, who mentioned the Brewers as a potential fit.
“Once he brought that up, I told him I would love to (return),” Gallardo said. “Then, sure enough, we got into contact, had a few conversations and it ended up working out.”
When the sides reached agreement, pitching coach Derek Johnson got to work, pouring over video of Gallardo’s outings.
“They gave me some things to look at,” Johnson said. “Yovani means a lot to the Milwaukee Brewers. He’s coming back home, so for me it’s important to create a good environment for him and try to make him feel as comfortable as I can and see if we can do something to get him back on track.”
Johnson found plenty of ground to build on with Gallardo, whose velocity rebounded last year after dropping in each of the two previous seasons.
His fastball clocked in at an average of 92.6 mph — his best mark since 2011, when it registered at 93.5. His slider, curveball and, on the rare occasion he used it, his changeup all saw spikes in speed, too, adding more reason for optimism.
“The good part, for him, is he’s got really good command,” Johnson said. “A guy with good command can do different things with a baseball. Now it’s just a matter of putting that together against hitters.”
Unlike years past, when Gallardo was all but assured of a spot in the rotation and he could use spring to gradually build himself up for Opening Day, he needs to hit the ground running.
He said he didn’t change his offseason preparation, but acknowledged he will have to work quickly to make a good impression.
“I have to be ready from the first outing, go out and compete,” Gallardo said. “It’s definitely a different mindset, but I’m excited.”
Playing later on the West Coast last season afforded Gallardo the opportunity to keep tabs on the Brewers and their surprising pursuit of a postseason berth.
Now, not only does he have a chance at turning his career around, he also has a chance to join a team that has begun turning its future around, too.
“It’s certainly a big camp for him,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “He’s got something to prove and a lot of motivation to get going.”