The Baseball Equivalent of Dumpster Diving
by Jim Silva
It isn’t so much that the Brewers found hidden gold, which they did, in the person of Eric Thames, but that they are rebuilding with an open mind and staying true to the rebuild. They have put together a competitive team without denting their standing as a top minor league system. Don’t get me wrong, they still have work to do and patience to exhibit before they can say the rebuild is done and the process was a success. However, one place where Milwaukee has creatively put together a competitive group on the field without hurting their future has been the infield where none of their regular starters from 2015 still hold their position and only one starter from the 2016 crew is still sporting a giant M on their cap. And so, I bring you the Brewers in transition, as illustrated by their infield.
When teams attempt to rebuild, if they are not careful they can fall into the trap of change for the sake of change. Author Ellen Glasgow said, “All change is not growth, as all movement is not forward,” and that may best illustrate one of the pitfalls of rebuilding a major league baseball team and most of the history of the Chicago Cubs. The Brewers were a winning team as recently as 2014 when they missed a wild card spot by six games. Their club was reasonably young and they had All-Stars at catcher and center field who were both in their primes. Their rotation was topped by a 25 year old coming off a 17 win season and their top four starters all posted ERA+ over 100 – the fifth starter was one of their best prospects and had just completed a rookie campaign with solid peripherals, if not a good ERA. Unfortunately, the future didn’t materialize as the Brewers hoped it might. The team was in first place as late as August 31st and then stopped scoring runs. Ryan Braun, in his first year back from a suspension for PED use just wasn’t himself and put up a 1.0 WAR season. The pitching actually held on until the end, but it just wasn’t enough to support the sagging offense. The Brewers wisely decided that their best chance was to capitalize on what star power they had to get a jump on rebuilding their team through their farm system. In 2014, the Brewers organization was widely ranked as one of the worst two or three systems in all of baseball, so that meant the core they had on that 82 win team wasn’t going to get any help anytime soon.
The best trade chips were catcher Jonathan Lucroy, their All Star catcher and pitch framer extraordinaire, Carlos Gomez, the All Star center fielder, and members of their bullpen including Will Smith, Tyler Thornburg, and Francisco Rodriguez. The front office in Milwaukee probably ordered a lot of dinners delivered as they traded all those players plus a few more in an attempt to rebuild their minor league system and acquire cheap, useful pieces for their parent club. Mission accomplished for both goals as the Brewers went from nearly dead last in their system rankings to a top five system in just two seasons, while creating a team on the field in Milwaukee capable of winning enough now to at least be in the wild card conversation.
Their catcher, Jonathan LuCroy, was one of the most coveted trade chips that any team possessed so they had to make sure they got something pretty sweet in exchange (which they did in Lew Brinson, Luis Ortiz, and Ryan Cordell). The trade left them without a starting catcher until backup Martin Maldonado stepped up and showed that he could at least hold down the position – that is until he was also traded. The Brewers jettisoned their top two catchers and brought in three young catchers to see who could handle the job. Spring training saw Manny Pina, Jett Bandy, and Andrew Susac competing for the starting spot or a share of some kind of platoon. When you choose to cash in your star catcher, this is a pretty good way to cover the position since catchers take a beating over the course of the season. Three solid catchers to cover 162 games leaves you with the position adequately covered and resources freed up to use elsewhere. When all three catchers hit well in the spring, the Brewers were faced with one of those good problems. Susac, a former top prospect for the Giants who was blocked by some guy named Buster, got hurt first so Bandy and Pina got to start off splitting the job at the major league level with Bandy and his power bat receiving the lion’s share of the job. Susac is back from the DL and playing at triple-A, while Pina is hitting the snot out of the ball and playing good defense in a backup role to Bandy, who is batting around .280 and has four homers. The Brewers might find themselves in the position of having extra catching to trade if Susac can push up from triple-A and challenge Bandy or Pina – nice problem to have. Bandy has a strong arm and hits for power but doesn’t have a history of high batting averages or on-base percentages, while Pina has turned himself into a good defender who gets on base a lot. Susac has had a hard time staying healthy the last couple seasons but profiled as a catcher who could hit and hold his own behind the plate. The Brewers appear set at catcher for now and they did it on the cheap.
One measure of organizational creativity in baseball is being willing to look in unusual places for talent. First baseman Eric Thames was lighting up the league in Korea after not quite making it in the majors through his age 25 season. While there is not a history of players from the states going to Korea, coming back, and earning starting jobs here, Thames isn’t the only position player to come to the states from Korea and earn a starting job. Jung Ho Kang put together a 4.0 WAR season for the Pirates in his first season in MLB after leaving Korea. That’s the kind of gamble teams take when they don’t have deep pockets and have to shop for bargains and take chances. The Brewers’ signing of Thames for three years for a total of $15 million with a player option for a fourth year is exactly the kind of gamble the Brewers should be taking and so far it looks like a crazy-great bargain. Reading interviews of Milwaukee’s new first baseman, it seems as though he has become a student of hitting and matured into the kind of player you’d want on your team for as long as you can have him. In Korea, Thames was a power hitter, but also hit for a high average while having some swing and miss in his game, but one who learned to take walks. A convert to zone hitting, Thames has become selective, learning that when he hits “his pitch” he will experience success. He practices the approach in some non-traditional ways and more traditionally studies video. His success in the majors is making it look like he has in fact become a different hitter – one without a plethora of holes in his swing. Thames is currently slashing .315/.435/.693 and is tied for the NL lead with 13 home runs. His wRC+ of 183 is making him look like a star, and even if he slows down a bit, the investment the Brewers made is looking like a huge steal.
Speaking of huge steals, Jonathan Villar piled up huge stolen base numbers last season – 62 swiped bags to lead the league – in his first season with the Brewers after being traded from Houston for Cy Sneed, who is repeating double-A this season (the trade is the real huge steal, so far). It wasn’t clear that Villar would turn out to be a useable, speedy leadoff type when he was fighting for playing time with the Astros, who were and are full up with young prospects. Villar is only 26 and despite his early season struggles, looks like he might be the solution for the Brewers at second base and in the leadoff hole. His 79 walks and a .285 batting average combined to make Villar the leader in on-base percentage for Milwaukee, and 4.0 (ok, 3.9) WAR second basemen don’t grow on trees (or ferment in kegs – you know – the Brewers). Villar came up as a shortstop and was subpar with the glove which might account for why the Astros gave up on him. In addition to his speed Villar has shown surprising power, but at the expense of big strikeout totals – 174 strikeouts in 679 plate appearances last season. This season, the second baseman is leading the league in strikeouts already registering 51 and sporting a .287 BABIP which contrasts to his .373 BABIP of last season. It is unlikely that he will continue to struggle as mightily as he has so far with an on-base percentage under .300 and an OPS of .685. It is also unlikely that he will have the season he had in 2016 which appears to be partly due to some luck (the high BABIP). If he can find his way back to somewhere in the middle, Villar will still have value. To be sure, Villar isn’t a star, but his speed and ability to draw walks, hit for some power and average, and not be a disaster at second should make him the starter as long as his strikeouts don’t destroy his value. If he can repeat what he did last year then the Brewers have a viable starter and good leadoff hitter for the next few years, and that would be an incredibly valuable return on the trade, even if Cy Sneed turns into a major league starter.
Villar’s double play partner, Orlando Arcia, was signed shortly after his 16th birthday and is the one Brewer who is a starter on the infield who began his career with the Brewers. Their top prospect, Arcia has struggled to hit in his first 300 or so plate appearances in the majors, and it seems that the organization has rushed him because of his excellent defense at short. Offensively, Arcia has yet to show that he can control the strike zone. In fact his walks to strikeout ratio has dropped every year as a professional to 0.32. When you strike out three times for every walk and you strike out 20% of the time, you need to hit .300 to have a viable on-base percentage and Arcia has been hanging around .220 since he arrived in Milwaukee. Arcia has shown speed and some extra-base power in the minors and occasionally will drive one out, but right now he is an offensive black hole with a great glove. He never hit more than eight home runs in a season in the minors but his minor league career average is .282 and he has swiped 104 bags while slugging .404, so there is clearly some talent there. Since the Brewers aren’t going to make the playoffs in the next year or two, perhaps the front office has decided that he finish developing at the major league level. If Arcia’s bat comes around and he turns into Andrelton Simmons light, then the Brewers are secure at shortstop for a long time, but they can only carry a gloveman like Arcia for so long when he is getting on base at only 27% of the time. I wouldn’t be shocked to see the Brewers send him down and finally teach him to take the occasional pitch in hopes that he can learn to control the strike zone well enough to take advantage of his power and speed.
Travis Shaw came to the Brewers in a last season trade for a reliever after disappointing the Red Sox as their third baseman last season. Small market teams like the Brewers have to scout their opposition well and go after players who are disappointments to other teams but still have ability – guys like Shaw and Villar. If they work out it’s a boon to the small market team, and if they fail then the investment isn’t so great that it crushes the team for years to come. For the Red Sox, Shaw was a backup corner infielder until Pablo Sandoval was lost for the season. It is unclear what the Sox were expecting, but Shaw produced similar value from the year before trading some offense for better defense and was a serviceable third baseman. So far this season, the 27 year old third baseman is hitting for power and a higher batting average. His swing profile looks quite a bit different from his usual pattern. Shaw is swinging at about 5% fewer pitches, around 6% fewer pitches outside of the strike zone, and making contact with approximately 4% more pitches than his career rate. He is also hitting a lot more ground balls which might mean there is some luck in his .283 average, but his BABIP is mundane and in line with his career rates so it is quite possible that this is what he is, and that ain’t bad. The defensive metrics are conflicted about his work so far this season, but he is at worst average, and probably better than that based on his last two campaigns at third base. With a wRC+ of 119 so far, he has been one of the better third basemen in the NL. Even if he slides back to just average, the Brewers have themselves a starting third baseman with some pop and a good glove. One man’s trash…
Rebuilds are only as good as the minor leaguers developing in the organization and the Brewers have some good ones. The top two infield prospects are Isan Diaz, whom they received in the Jean Segura trade and Mauricio Dubon, who came over in the Thornburg for Shaw trade. Diaz is 20 and has hit for power at every stop – 43 homers in the equivalent of two full seasons. He’s currently at high-A Carolina and is a top 50 prospect in all of baseball. He might stick at shortstop or he could end up at second base, but the power appears to be real and if he draws walks like he did last season in full season A ball, his strikeouts won’t destroy his ability to get on base. Dubon has already reached double-A and, at age 22, profiles more as a high average hitter with speed, although he crushed 46 extra-base hits last year split between high-A and double-A. Dubon is a solid enough shortstop but has been tried at several positions, increasing his flexibility and the chances that he finds a spot on the roster in the next season or two. Lucas Erceg, the Brewers 2016 2nd round pick, was a top hundred prospect at third base on some lists before the season started but has struggled at high-A as a 22 year old. Gilbert Lara is another shortstop prospect, and like Erceg, he has struggled this season. Lara (19) is younger than Erceg and in his first year of full season ball. He has yet to hit at all anywhere, has shown no control of the strike zone, and has yet to demonstrate his projected power, so he might fall off prospect lists if he doesn’t find a way to produce this season.
The young Brewers and future Brewers on the infield portend good things for fans in Milwaukee. The team is at a point in their rebuild where they need to see continued development from their youngsters and they must remain patient. Their good start – they currently sit in second place within a game of first – could prove detrimental to their future if management decides they should push some of their chips in to make a run. The team isn’t good enough at this point to make much of a postseason run if they can even get there. If the Brewers can stay the course, catch a few breaks with prospect development – Arcia in particular needs to turn into gold – and have a few more good drafts, they could legitimately contend soon and for a decent stretch. Any divergence from the course could set their development path back, which for a small market team like the Brewers could prove dangerous to their future fortunes.