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.