The Brewers entered the offseason with two gaping holes, in center field and at third base, and a couple of minor ones, notably first base and second base. Thus far this offseason, they have addressed three of those spots—first base, second base, and third base—although obviously to varying degrees.
By bringing in Will Middlebrooks, Jonathan Villar, and Garin Cecchini, the Brewers have at least created competition among ostensible big leaguers. They will be giving opportunities and at bats (at least in spring training) to players who, if all goes well, could be a part of the big-league club for the next several years. This is undoubtedly a huge step forward from the positional depth chart as the winter began, when Yadiel Rivera and Elian Herrera looked to be the frontrunners for the job.
First base was addressed most recently with the addition of Chris Carter. He is undoubtedly a flawed player, but he is moderately productive as well; just one season ago, Carter was worth 2.6 WARP. While he is probably best suited to be a DH at this point of his career, he can still hit—he has posted a TAv above .280 in three of the past four seasons—and the Brewers will be looking for offensive production from anywhere they can get it. Again, as with Middlebrooks and Cecchini above, Carter is a player who—with a bit of luck—can be a part of a bright future in Milwaukee, or at least be moved for someone who could be a part of it.
One of the first moves of David Stearns’ offseason was bringing in Jonathan Villar, and that acquisition will likely help to settle second base. Scooter Gennett got most of the playing time there in 2015, but he was absolutely brutal (below replacement level). Given that he is basically nothing more than an empty-average platoon bat at this point, his position was one that clearly could have been upgraded, and bringing in Villar has done just that. Villar gives the Brewers extra flexibility; by adding an additional middle infielder who can handle shortstop defensively, the on-field staff can sort out the relationship and interplay between incumbent Jean Segura and top prospect Orlando Arcia.
I am, of course, not suggesting that each of those three positions has been solved. No one who was brought in is a good bet to even be in the big leagues in 2018, let alone a valuable contributor to the Brewers. However, they all provide options at positions of weakness, and at least one could very well finally have everything go right.
Center field, though, has still not been addressed. I wrote about the third base and center field issues in November, when I identified those two positions as the ones most clearly in need of an upgrade. I did, however, advise leaving center field available, with minor-league outfielder Brett Phillips (and, to a lesser extent, Tyrone Taylor) knocking on the door and needing playing time. And through this point in the offseason, Stearns has done nothing to alter the team’s outlook in center field.
The question, though, is whether that pattern will hold. And while I stand by my recommendation from the beginning of the winter that the Brewers simply stay put, Stearns’ recent activity leads me to believe he does not subscribe to that philosophy. He has spent the offseason gathering depth and creating options at his weakest positions, so I would not be surprised to see him do the same in center field. I do not know what form this addition would take, but I also did not anticipate the Cecchini or Carter acquisitions.
However, I do not expect Stearns to sign anyone who would fundamentally block Phillips or Taylor. It is worth noting that none of his third base or first base signings would truly block an elite prospect either, should such a player be acquired in a trade, so I would think he would follow a similar route in center. If all goes right in Phillips’ development, he should be ready to make his big-league debut in 2016; therefore, anything other than a short-term stopgap option would seem to be a waste.
I recognize that the ultimate conclusion of this thought process is not definitive, but I believe that is the basic point of Stearns’ offseason. He has spent the past couple months addressing weaknesses by signing players with some moderate level of upside, but he has not committed to any long-term contracts that might hinder the club’s future flexibility. I expect a similar approach to be taken with regards to center field—if a viable option presents itself, Stearns appears to be the type of person to take advantage of the opportunity. However, he has not overextended himself simply for the sake of a few extra wins in what is ultimately going to be a lost season.