Center field is a problem area for the Brewers. They don’t currently have a great option on the roster, as Domingo Santana best fits in right field despite getting the majority of the playing time in center down the stretch. They do, though, have minor-league options who are likely to be ready at some point during the 2016 season — or shortly thereafter — so spending in free agency to get a legitimate starter also seems like a questionable use of resources.
This is where Shane Peterson becomes significant. The 27-year-old was essentially a minor-league lifer until last season. After being drafted in 2008, he spent several years in the minor leagues before briefly surfacing in 2013 to get eight plate appearances with the A’s. He then proceeded to spend all of 2014 in Triple-A, and it’s not as if he hit the cover off the ball in the minors, either — if he had, he would have gotten a chance to prove himself earlier. His .804 OPS across all levels of the minors is fine but unspectacular, especially when combined with the fact that he was actually more of a left fielder than a center fielder (nearly 2500 innings in left compared to just over 1700 in center).
Thus, there was no real reason to think that Peterson really deserved a shot in the Major Leagues. To be honest, he it’s arguable that he still doesn’t. In 226 plate appearances, he put up just 0.2 WARP. Extrapolated over a full season (600 PAs), Peterson would have been worth just over half a win, which is within the margin of error of being nothing but replacement level.
However, the Brewers clearly found something they liked, at least a little bit. He made his season debut on June 3 and from that point on got into nearly every game. He played both center field and left field, although most of his center field appearances came prior to Santana’s promotion to The Show.
I would not recommend that a team with any hope of contending for a playoff spot employ Peterson. He’s simply too limited a player; he’s not an elite defensive center fielder (if he were, he would be getting playing time there) which means he shouldn’t be used as a defensive replacement, and he’s not a good enough hitter to be a worthy pinch hitter. However, if the Brewers don’t make any additions to the roster, Peterson will likely receive a significant number of plate appearances in 2016.
Earlier this offseason, David Stearns said that Santana is “probably best suited for a corner.” This quote is likely to manifest in specific changes sooner rather than later, as the organization will want to give Santana the best chance to grow and develop as a player, and that should probably come at his natural position. This, though, would mean moving him out of center field, which he occupied for much of August and September.
Brett Phillips and/or Tyrone Taylor aren’t ready to break spring training with the big-league team, though, although they will — hopefully — be ready at some point in 2016. Until that time, though, the Brewers will have fill center field somehow. And, in the interests of more fully developing their actual prospects (like Santana), Shane Peterson appears to be the in-house answer.
The Brewers would undoubtedly be better off finding someone more qualified to fill the role, but they won’t want to irreparably block the position by signing a free agent to a long-term contract, and it will be hard to find someone worth signing who would be comfortable being just a fill-in. If we take the Brewers’ clear acceptance of the fact that they will not be competing in 2016 to its logical end, it doesn’t really matter who plays center field for the first three months. They won’t be good enough to compete for the playoffs regardless of whether the position is filled by Peterson or someone marginally better.
While that is probably not the approach the Brewers will want to take on the field or the message they will want their young players to absorb, the fact is that it is likely true. I wouldn’t be surprised if they sign someone who is slightly better than Peterson simply because it is such an obvious spot to upgrade, but they won’t be breaking the bank to fill a spot that hopefully won’t need filling in 2017, and the difference between Peterson and whomever they bring in this winter to replace him will basically be virtually nothing.