PHOENIX — Milwaukee Brewers manager Craig Counsell used 123 lineup combinations last season and with the way his roster is shaping up this spring, he might top that number in 2018.
But there was one spot on the lineup card that required little if any thought last season: Travis Shaw, batting fourth and playing third base.
“Travis is going to play a ton this season,” Counsell said, offering one of the few certainties in terms of his lineup and playing time for the upcoming season.
It’s a welcome change from a year ago, when Shaw, 27, arrived in Phoenix hoping to make a positive impression on the Brewers, who acquired him from Boston after a poor second half in 2016 made him expendable to the Red Sox.
The 6-foot-4, 230-pound Shaw opened eyes in camp. He hit .351 with five home runs and 14 RBIs in 22 spring games and didn’t let up.
On the field, everything was going right for Shaw, but off it his world was full of uncertainty.
Shaw’s wife, Lindy, was pregnant with the couple’s first child at the time of the trade and not long after, they learned their unborn daughter had a rare heart defect that would require surgery almost immediately after her birth.
Watching Shaw play, though, his troubles weren’t evident at the ballpark.
Shaw didn’t make the news public. Instead, he went about his daily work — with great results. He was hitting .298 with 10 home runs and 42 RBIs when he left the team on June 8 to be with Lindy for Ryann’s birth.
The baby girl underwent surgery twice in her first 48 hours and spent the rest of the season in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) — which is where Shaw spent every moment when he wasn’t at the park or on the road.
They were trying times, for sure, yet Shaw never slipped. He slowed down slightly near the end of the season but finished with 31 home runs, 101 RBIs, a .273 average and an .862 OPS.
Milwaukee finished just a game out of the playoffs. Any disappointment was tempered when the Shaws were able to bring Ryann home from the hospital not long after the season ended. Instead of returning home to Fort Myers, Florida, the Shaws opted to stay in Milwaukee, keeping Ryann close to her medical team at Children’s Hospital and Shaw close to Miller Park, where he spent the winter in the batting cage and working with strength coach Josh Seligman.
“I wore down a little bit toward the end of last season,” Shaw said. “This offseason I put a little more work into strength training, so hopefully that will help and keep me from wearing down at the end of the year.”
When he left for camp this year, Ryann was doing significantly better and Shaw said he is in the best shape of his life. Now, with a year of personal tumult behind him, Shaw wants to take the next step in his professional development — and that means not resting on his laurels.
“This is the first spring that I’ve come in as ‘The Guy’ and everybody knows you’re ‘The Guy,’ ” said Shaw, who hit his third home run of the spring on Thursday. “But I’m not the kind of guy who’s going to let up on the gas; I want to keep hitting in the middle of this order and with all of the good hitters we have, I have to keep producing if I want to keep hitting in the middle of that order.”
Defense has also been a major point of focus for Shaw. He finished fourth among qualifying third baseman in all of baseball last season with a .975 fielding percentage and his nine errors tied him for third-fewest among MLB third baseman.
He knows he can do better, though.
“I want to improve my range at third,” he said. “I think I can take some strides this year.”
If Shaw keeps producing, he should come into a hefty payday. He earned $544,400 last season and this season will be his last before becoming eligible for arbitration.
With no one waiting in the minor leagues to replace him, third base is Shaw’s job for the foreseeable future and he’s open to a contract extension that would keep him around for years to come as the Brewers’ nucleus continues to develop.
“The rest of us are all pretty much under control for at least the next three years so this could be the start of something special,” Shaw said. “Everybody in there is excited and we expect to go a little bit further than we did last year (86-76, second in NL Cental).”