The Middle of the Brewers (Infield)

The Brewers just made a pretty interesting trade so it seems like a good time to talk about the implications for their lineup, and some of the questions they will need to answer in 2020. Milwaukee sent Trent Grisham and pitcher Zach Davies to the Padres for middle infielder Luis Urias and pitcher Eric Lauer. We won’t talk about the pitchers in this post – what is interesting is how this impacts the Brewers lineup and middle infield next year. Before the 2019 season began it looked like Orlando Arcia and Keston Hiura were the keystone combo for Brewers teams of the foreseeable future. This trade puts that combo into question so let’s take a look, eh?

Keston Hiura was the Brewers first round pick in 2017 – 9th overall – based on his tremendous bat. His elbow in his throwing arm was a mess and there were questions as to whether he would be able to do anything but DH, otherwise he would have been a top 3 pick instead of going 9th to Milwaukee. But Hiura avoided surgery, zipped through the minors, and made his major league debut in 2019 and hit a lot while not really disproving the doubters who said he should only DH. A natural outfielder, Hiura is fairly new to second base and it shows. Still, Hiura made it clear that he was ready to hit major league pitching and should be starting somewhere. After slashing .329/.407/.681 at triple-A San Antonio (155 wRC+), he slashed .303/.368/.570 in Milwaukee (139 wRC+). Hiura crushed 38 homers split evenly between triple-A and the majors, so his power has clearly arrived. Looking back at his half season in the majors, there were two areas of concern in regard to his hitting. First, he struck out 30.7% of the time, almost 8% above league average, so big-league pitchers were able to find some holes in his swing. Hiura walks enough that he should still get on base if his K rate stays that high, but it is something to keep an eye on. Second, the 23 year old former UC Irvine Anteater had an unsustainably high BABIP (.402) indicating a likely drop in his batting average in seasons to come. He has carried a high BABIP most of his career (but not THIS high) and he hits the ball really hard so that accounts for part of the high BABIP – still he was at least a bit lucky. Even if his average comes down some, he will be an excellent hitter with power who hits for a good average and walks enough.

Hiura has only played second base as a professional even though he was an outfielder in college. There are those who doubt that Hiura can handle the position defensively. Neither DRS (-4) nor UZR/150 (-18.9) – two commonly used defensive metrics – liked him at second. Inside Edge Fielding breaks chances into six categories of difficulty with the three easiest being “routine”, “likely”, and “even” respectively. Granted, the numbers are based on a very small sample size, but on balls rated as “likely” to be turned into outs, he managed to succeed only 50% of the time and on balls rated as “even”, he succeeded 66.7% of the time. His arm isn’t a big concern at second base but if it is as bad as advertised what it might do is limit him to three positions: second base, first base – a position he has never played, and DH, which brings us back to the Brewers last move.

Luis Urias is a 22 year old above average defensive second baseman who has hit everywhere he has played – except the Majors (in 302 plate appearances). In the minors he has looked liked a prototypical leadoff hitter with his .308/.397/.433 career slash line who would help defensively at second and not hurt the team at short. He even added some pop at triple-A in 2019 banging 19 homers in half a season, but the questions still remain about his ability to hit major league pitching as indicated by his career slash line of .221/.318/.331. The Brewers think they know the answer to that question, and Urias is only 22, so it isn’t like he is finished baking. I have written this about Urias before and I will write it again – Urias has starter potential. But, where to play him on the Brewers?

If Hiura is locked into the second base spot it would seem that the Brewers plan on playing Urias at shortstop, which would mean the their defensively gifted but offensively disappointing starter from the last three and a half seasons, Orlando Arcia, becomes a bench glove with some pop. At 25, Arcia might be the victim of a high bar he set for himself as a 23 year old in 2017 when he hit .273 with 15 home runs to go with his excellent glove work. The glove work hasn’t gone away, but his bat has not developed as expected. His 86 wRC+ in 2017 was his peak with last year’s 61 being more the rule than the exception. Arcia still exhibits power and gets hot on occasion but his offense really drags down his WAR which has only seen the positive side of the line once in 2017 when it was 1.4. With 1676 plate appearances in the majors it isn’t like the Brewers haven’t given him a chance, but it is hard to give up on someone with Arcia’s tools. The Urias trade indicates that the Brewers are about to do just that – at least as their starting shortstop.

To review, the Urias deal leaves the Brewers with two starting second basemen and two shortstops (in 3 players), one of whom can’t hit enough to carry his excellent glove (Arcia), one who is a fringy shortstop and a good second baseman who hasn’t hit enough in the bigs to start anywhere (Urias), and one player who is probably best suited to DH where he’d be great at it (Hiura). If the deal works out and Urias breaks out with the bat, then the Brewers have an offense-first middle infield that will probably only hurt them a little with the gloves. Additionally, if the universal DH hits the National League in the next year or two then they are set at DH and second with a glove first shortstop if all breaks well. It’s a lot to juggle for the Brewers but Urias is definitely worth the gamble and Hiura’s bat looks elite already so it isn’t a horrible problem to have.

The A’s Have Options At Second But Their Most Intriguing Prospects At The Position Don’t. What To Do?

What a problem to have – stars at all the infield positions, except one. That’s where the A’s are with Chapman, Olson, and Semien locking down the two corners and shortstop to the tune of 17.6 WAR in 2019 even with Olson only playing part of the season due to an injury in Spring Training. It seemed that Oakland had solved second base too when they acquired Jurickson Profar in a three team trade with the Rangers and Rays. He was coming off his best season to date with a 107 wRC+, 2.8 WAR, and was only 25 at the time. It was an exciting move but it just didn’t work out last year. Profar played good defense and still hit 20 homers but his wRC+ dropped to 89 and he finished with a  slash line of .218/.301/.410. The 2019 version of Jurickson Profar disappointed from start to finish.

Heading into 2020 the A’s look to break through the Astros choke hold on the West and earn a postseason series – none of this one and done stuff! So this off-season the A’s will have some tough decisions to make with one of the toughest being who gets the starting spot at second. Profar was very unlucky with a BABIP of .218 where league average was .298. He also retained his improved hard hit rate from 2018 while slightly improving his walk and strikeout rates. And while he mostly played second base for the A’s, he retained his positional flexibility as he has now spent time (at least 38 games) in the outfield and at every infield position but catcher and pitcher. Profar is an excellent candidate for a bounce back season in 2020 if he stays healthy. There is no way he will be as bad as he was in 2019, but that won’t necessarily win him the job because the A’s have other options – two of whom are super talented and out of options, putting their GM in an interesting spot.

One of the other options to play second base, Franklin Barreto, was the top prize in the trade that sent Josh Donaldson to the Blue Jays. He has appeared on A’s top 10 prospect lists but has yet to take a major league job from anyone yet, and he is now out of options. The A’s must keep him on the big league roster, expose him to waivers where he will almost certainly be claimed by another team, or trade him to someone willing to keep him on their big league club. He turns 24 shortly before the season starts and has had over 200 plate appearances in the majors, but in spite of his tools and his minor league resume, he hasn’t hit a lick in Oakland. Barreto can play second, shortstop, and was tried in left and center at triple-A last season so, like Profar, he also has positional flexibility in his tool kit.

The other prospect who is out of options, Jorge Mateo, is a tool kit all by himself with freakish speed – 80 on the 20 to 80 scouting scale – and some pop. The A’s have to fish or cut bait with the young Dominican middle infielder because, at 24, he has no options left. 2019 was Mateo’s second try at triple-A and he showed off his speed and power hitting 14 triples (he has averaged 16 for 3 seasons in a row now), and slashing .289/.330/.504 while playing mostly shortstop, and some second base. Mateo had been tried in center field in 2017 but not since. So the A’s would most likely have to play him at second base or use him as a reserve middle infielder and pinch runner unless they choose to revive the center field experiment at the major league level. Is there more left in the tank? Maybe – he is only 24, and if there is more growth, then the A’s might have a star on their hands. Mateo has yet to sip even a cup of coffee in the majors so, unless he dominates Spring Training, it would be quite a leap of faith to commit to him sticking on the roster – much less starting him at second base for a contending team.

I have mentioned Profar’s positional flexibility and using him basically everywhere as a multi-tool while starting someone else at second might be a possible solution for the A’s logjam at second. There is however already someone in that spot – Chad Pinder. Pinder, who is much cheaper and can’t become a free agent until 2022 also has power but doesn’t walk as often as Profar. Pinder’s career average is about 10 points higher than Profar’s, but projections have them about even there.

And there is still more! Sheldon Neuse only played second base after he was called up to the A’s in 2019 but has played shortstop, 3rd, first, and the outfield in the minors. In 61 plate appearances in Oakland Sheldon slashed .250/.295/.304 after slashing .317/.389/.550 with 27 homers at triple-A. Neuse probably has the most power of all the second base options but realistically would be limited to the corners and second base where he has put up solid numbers in the minors. That still makes him a good multi-tool kind of guy although the A’s would probably only give Neuse the roster spot if they planned on making him the starter at second.

So now that you know the actors how should the story play out? The A’s will likely only have room to keep either Mateo or Barreto. One of them probably gets traded to a non-contending team for less than their value because of their lack of options. Neuse has options left so, unless he fights the starting spot at second away from the other candidates, he will likely return to triple-A. Pinder was in the outfield rotation in 2019 and probably returns as the designated multi-tool, while Profar gets another shot to be the starter where he should be at least an average hitter and better than average second baseman. Pinder is a year older than Profar and probably is done growing whereas Profar still has a bit of star potential left so there’s that to consider along with the roughly $6 million in price difference between the two men.

There is another way this could go with the A’s deciding to trade Profar if someone is banking on Profar’s remaining star potential. He will play as a 27 year old in 2020 and is in his last year of arbitration eligibility after which he will be an unrestricted free agent. He has played all the infield positions plus left field and the metrics have at times looked favorably upon him at every position, so another team might decide that he should be their starting shortstop where a return to league average as a hitter would make him quite valuable. If the A’s traded him away to open up a roster spot for Mateo and Barreto, or Neuse steals the job away, then Oakland’s second base position would be an interesting and potentially tumultuous situation to watch at the start of the 2020 season.