Notes: Vargas making play for rotation
Multi-talented Rottino tries out catching; Iribarren in a groove
MESA, Ariz. -- A team could do a lot worse for a fifth starter option than Claudio Vargas, and if the Milwaukee right-hander can continue to build on the improvement he made last year, the Brewers' projected fifth starter could soon be No. 5 with a bullet.
Vargas has above-average stuff, with a fastball that has been clocked at up to 97 mph, a good curveball and an adequate sinker. He also throws a changeup.
The 28-year-old Dominican used that arsenal last year to establish new career highs in wins (12), innings (167 2/3), strikeouts (123) and starts (30), including 17 quality starts. He also set career-best figures in walks per nine innings (2.37) and strikeouts-to-walks ratio (2.37) while averaging more than six strikeouts per nine innings. Batters hit 99 points lower (.274) last season against Vargas than they did in 2005 (.373).
When Vargas has run into problems it's because his fastball can be flat -- he surrendered 27 home runs last season -- and his changeup needs work.
Against the Cubs on Sunday at HoHoKam Park, in his third start of the spring, Vargas gave further indication he could be an effective member of the Brewers rotation. In three innings, he gave up four hits, struck out three and did not walk anyone. The two unearned runs he allowed came as a result of Brewers errors.
"[He] pitched better, looked sharp in the first and second inning. We had some chances to make plays for him and didn't make them, that didn't help matters," Brewers manager Ned Yost said. "He did a really good job limiting the damage to two in the one inning. Balls in the sun kind of gave us trouble today."
Vargas held Cubs starters Alfonso Soriano, Derrek Lee, Aramis Ramirez and Michael Barrett to a combined 1-for-8 with three strikeouts. He fanned Soriano swinging twice on breaking balls up in the zone.
"He's pitching pretty good right now," Yost said. "Our starters are all pretty much proven guys. We're not really looking for much out of them except taking another step forward to getting ready to pitch in the season -- getting more extended, tighten up their command a little bit, sharpen up their breaking pitches, nothing out of the ordinary, really."
Another job for Rottino: Vinny Rottino has been very busy since camp opened. The 26-year-old Racine, Wisc., native and University of Wisconsin-La Crosse product entered Sunday's game leading the team in at-bats while dividing his time between third base and first base. Rottino can also play the outfield and was a Pacific Coast League All-Star last season.
On Sunday, Yost inserted Rottino in the game in the seventh inning at catcher.
"There's not a position on that field that Vinny can't play," Yost said.
Rottino, who hit .314 with seven homers, 42 RBIs and 12 stolen bases in 117 games for Triple-A Nashville last season, was called up to Milwaukee in September and hit .214 in nine games. He played three games at third base, two in left field and one at catcher.
"Catcher is my favorite [position], it was good to get back out there," said Rottino, who has been working with Brewers catching instructor Charlie Greene. "But to me, it really doesn't matter where they put me. I'll play wherever they want me to play."
That versatility is one of the strengths that is keeping Rottino on Yost's radar this spring.
"Everybody in that locker room's got a shot [to make the team]," Yost said. "Right now, what helps Vinny more than anything else is his durability. To Vinny's credit, he's played a lot [because of] slight injuries at third base [and] slight injuries at first base, so Vinny's been playing every day at one of those two positions. We're going to see what he's capable of doing [at catcher] and take it day by day."
Iribarren impressing: Second baseman Hernan Iribarren hit his second homer, a solo shot off Cubs right-hander Sean Gallagher, in the seventh inning.
The hit was Iribarren's eighth hit in 20 at-bats, boosting his batting average to .400, and also giving him 10 RBIs, the second-most on the team behind Johnny Estrada's 12. The 22-year-old out of Venezuela also made a fine defensive play on a ball hit by Matt Murton.
"I leaned over and told [Brewers general manager] Doug [Melvin] that I think he is probably the most improved player from last year for me. He has made huge strides," Yost said. "He's really had a nice spring offensively and defensively. He's really surprised me. Last year coming in, he was a kid we heard a lot about, and he was OK. This year, he's been very very good."
Braun pinch-hits: Ryan Braun pinch-hit in the fifth inning Sunday but hasn't been cleared to play in a full game because of the sore elbow that has sidelined the third baseman the past week. Braun's injury is not serious, but the Brewers are taking every precaution.
"Braun's feeling better, threw some today and took batting practice," Yost said. "He's still probably a couple of days -- three, four games away from getting back in games."
The Brewers are considering Braun, their first-round pick (fifth overall) of the 2005 First-Year Player Draft, at third base, though the 23-year-old has never played higher than Double-A Huntsville, where he hit .303 with 15 homers and 40 RBIs in 59 games last year.
With Braun missing a week and Corey Koskie sidelined indefinitely because of post-concussion syndrome, either Craig Counsell or Tony Graffanino will likely handle third base duties. Counsell started at third against the Cubs Sunday while Graffanino was in the starting lineup at second base.
Last call: Dennis Sarfate, one of the candidates for a bullpen spot, pitched a scoreless inning against the Cubs, but he did walk the first batter he faced and then gave up a double to Lee. "He showed good stuff," Yost said. "We talked a little bit afterwards. He's pressing a little bit, he's not really pitching, he's just standing out there throwing. Runners at second and third with one out, [he] struck somebody out, against Murton he really pitched for the first time in the inning -- threw him two high fastballs and then threw him a fastball in, so that was a great sign. Dennis had really great stuff today." As for the double by Lee, Yost said: "In defense of him, the next ball was hit very good. Derrek Lee hit a high fastball with two strikes right on the nose, it should have been caught, but it wasn't. Billy [Hall] was right on it but just lost it in the sun in the last second." ... Another bullpen candidate, Grant Balfour, also pitched a scoreless inning, but walked two batters. "You see signs of both of them [Sarfate and Balfour] pressing a little bit," Yost said. ... Estrada did not start for only the third time in 12 games. Estrada, acquired from Arizona during the offseason, is catching a lot to get familiar with the Milwaukee staff, but he's already very acquainted with Vargas' tendencies, having caught the right-hander last year when the two were teammates at Arizona. JD Closser was behind the plate to start the game. ... Yost said the next round of roster moves will come sometime next week.
On deck: The Brewers will play two games against the Texas Rangers at Maryvale Baseball Park on Monday. Right-hander Dave Bush will make his third start in the noon CT "B" game against Rangers right-hander Kevin Millwood. In the "A" game, at 3:05 p.m. CT, Brewers right-hander Carlos Villanueva, 2-0, faces Texas right-hander Kameron Loe.
Jim Molony is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.