PHOENIX — Top Brewers pitching prospect Ethan Small grew up a Cardinals fan in west Tennessee and did what most teenage Cardinals fans did around 2011. He wore an Albert Pujols jersey. So when Small found himself teammates with the legendary slugger in the Dominican Republic this winter, he tried to play it cool.
Small’s time in the Dominican Winter League — he logged 20 innings over five starts for an Escogido team that included Pujols, Fernando Rodney, Pedro Strop and new Brewers teammates Mike Brosseau and Brett Sullivan at various points of the season — bore fruit beyond getting to rub elbows with a boyhood hero. It helped Small reclaim innings lost to a left finger injury in the middle of his regular season with Triple-A Nashville in 2021, a setback that denied him any chance at a late-season callup to Milwaukee.
Now Small is back on schedule.
“I think the time in the D.R. was huge for him,” said Brewers Minor League pitching coordinator Cam Castro. “A lot of people tell you that if you can pitch down there, you can pitch anywhere. I think he’s at a point right now where he’s getting ready to tackle the season in the best shape we’ve seen him, and that’s really exciting.”
“I pretty much told everybody I would go do it at least once,” Small said of his experience in winter ball. “It’s cool to be around the culture, kind of see what those guys go through. … The passion of those games is wild. You’ve got people in the stands banging those drums. That was the part I thought was the coolest.”
It was a notably more subdued experience on Wednesday in Phoenix, where Small was among a handful of pitchers who threw a bullpen session under cover on a cold and rainy Day 1 of the Brewers’ early Minor League camp. Small is in a group of starting pitchers whom the organization thought could benefit from an early start.
“I’ve been out here since Feb. 1, just trying to get my body a little more ready than I’ve been in the past, and it’s going pretty good so far,” Small said. “I feel ready, a lot more so than I have the past two Spring Trainings.”
Small described “figuring things out” in 2021 and said much of that was getting comfortable with his slider, a pitch added to his arsenal after the Brewers drafted him 28th overall in 2019 out of Mississippi State. During side work early last year with Jim Henderson — then the Brewers’ Triple-A pitching coach, now their Major League bullpen coach — Small came upon one particularly promising grip, and the early results were fantastic. He had a 1.96 ERA, a .184 opponents’ batting average and 67 strikeouts in 41 1/3 innings over his first eight starts for Double-A Biloxi before earning a promotion to Triple-A Nashville.
But over time, Small began to feel discomfort in his left middle finger. It culminated in a difficult situation on July 11, when Small felt like he could barely grip the baseball.
Trouble was, that was also the day of the SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game in Denver. Small, representing the Brewers, was the lone pitcher left on the National League roster by the ninth inning, so he took the mound despite the discomfort and recorded the final two outs of an 8-3 win over the American League.
“It did not feel good the whole time,” Small said. “But the funny thing about that was I didn’t really have a choice because I was the last guy in the bullpen. You can’t just walk off the mound. So I just finished it out and then told them.”
He rehabbed the injury and returned to Nashville at the end of August to finish out the season, then continued to pitch in the Dominican Republic at the Brewers’ suggestion. The slider, Small said, has come a long way, from a “show me” pitch that rarely induced swings to a legitimate part of his repertoire.
“Now it feels like a weapon,” he said.
Said Castro: “Some guys go through this gradual process of knowing who they are. He seems like he’s there.”
Small is well-positioned to make the leap to the Majors in 2022. The Brewers during manager Craig Counsell’s tenure have not been shy about handing leverage work to prospects after midseason callups, starting with Brandon Woodruff in 2017, then Corbin Burnes and Freddy Peralta in ’18 and Aaron Ashby in ’21. Small heard rumblings early last season that he could be considered for a callup, then had to refocus with an eye to ’22.
“It’s made me work harder, for sure,” Small said. “Hopefully that will happen for me. I’m going to try every day to make it happen.”