Maldonado's mind clear after family scare

Maldonado's mind clear after family scare

PHOENIX -- The Brewers' longtime backup catcher is a quiet, private kind of guy, so he prefers to keep the details to himself.

But Martin Maldonado is willing to say that he was occupied during part of last season by a close family member's serious health scare, which inconveniently coincided with Maldonado's stint as the Brewers' starter behind the plate. While Jonathan Lucroy recovered from a broken toe, Maldonado batted .196 as the starter and, puzzlingly, became erratic defensively.

It was something of a mystery at the time. Now it makes some sense.

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"I had a lot clearer mind by the end," Maldonado said. "I was struggling at the beginning, right when Lucroy got hurt. But four or five days before Lucroy came back, me and [manager Craig] Counsell had a good conversation, and I think that helped me."

Chalk it up as another learning experience for a player who has had plenty during a career that has seen him transform from a teenage hothead to a potential pitching prospect to a quiet, steady backup.

Maldonado is entering his fourth full season as the Brewers' backup backstop, a role he's learned to embrace. That was a learning experience in itself, since he saw extensive playing time and performed well in 2012 (.266 average, .729 OPS) while Lucroy was recovering from a broken hand, and entered 2013 expecting to play several times a week.

He spent that entire season in the Majors but logged just 183 at-bats in 67 games. In 2014, when Lucroy led the Majors in doubles and finished fourth in National League MVP balloting, Maldonado played even less -- 111 at-bats in 52 games.

"It was a process," Maldonado said. "I talked to a couple of guys who have done it for years to change my mentality to being a backup."

Those guys included a former Brewer, Henry Blanco, and a fellow Puerto Rican and longtime friend, Jose Molina.

"Those two guys gave me a little bit of knowledge," Maldonado said. "They said you have to have a routine, you have to pay attention to the game when you're not playing.

"You have to do more than when you're playing every day."

Then there's the mental grind of life as a backup. When Lucroy takes a tough 0-for-4, he typically gets an opportunity the next day to recover. When Maldonado does the same, he might not play again for two weeks.

That can wear on a player.

"It gets in your head," Maldonado said.

"I've been playing with Maldy since A ball. That's, like, 2008," said Lucroy. "Maldy is always pushing. Always. He pushes me and makes me better. It's a good relationship."

So good that Lucroy knew all about Maldonado's off-the-field worry last season.

"If that were happening to me, I don't even think I would have gone to the field," Lucroy said. "Seriously. When something like that happens, baseball can be your getaway, but you can't help sometimes but bring something personal into your professional career. It's human nature."

Maldonado has a clearer mind this spring, since his family member now has a clean bill of health. He took a rare break from winter ball and spent the offseason at home in Puerto Rico with his wife, Janelise, who helps him put on an annual charity event tied to Three Kings Day.

For the moment, Maldonado remains the Brewers' backup. But that could change at any moment, since Lucroy is a strong candidate to be traded as part of the team's ongoing rebuilding project. The Rangers, D-backs, Nationals and others have been linked to Lucroy in recent months. The Brewers' top catching prospect, Jacob Nottingham, has yet to play above A ball.

"They haven't told me I would be the guy, so the last thing I want to do is have expectations," Maldonado said. "I would rather focus on my job right now, on what I have to do to contribute to the team.

"When [a trade] happens, if that happens, then we'll see."

Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @AdamMcCalvy, like him on Facebook and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.