Put Him In, Coach: Breaking Down the Spring Training Battle for Centerfield

Last week’s trade of Khris Davis to Oakland has sent a ripple effect through Milwaukee’s 2016 outfield depth chart, affecting everybody and every position. Davis was projected to serve as the team’s everyday leftfielder. One of the possible solutions is reportedly for Ryan Braun, who was moved from left field to right two years ago, to shift back over.

The move would make sense on two fronts. First off, there’s the fact that Domingo Santana — the team’s projected starting center fielder prior to the trade — came through the minor leagues as a right fielder, and his arm fits that position far better. On top of that, Ryan Braun is a very good left fielder and a pretty mediocre right fielder.

These two shifts leave the middle of the outfield uncovered, but thanks to a hyper-productive offseason, the Brewers are not hurting for options when it comes to the final starting job. Counting the previously-mentioned Santana, there are a total of five players reporting to camp who could see the lion’s share of playing centerfield. Their games all look different and the paths they all took to get here are just as variable, but in the end, one of them will be Milwaukee’s new starting center fielder.

(Unless otherwise noted, I used the BP Similarity Index — found on each Player Card — for the comparisons.)

Alex Presley – The Longshot Journeyman

How he was acquired: The Brewers signed him to a minor-league deal in December. For him to win the job, he basically has to outplay everybody else by a notable margin this spring. There’s no room for error.

What he did last year: The former Pirates’ left fielder served as organizational depth for the Astros, making a 3-for-12 cameo for the big-league club in July. Over the Triple-A season, he slashed .292/.345/.367 with fifteen stolen bases. Presley’s career is trending in the wrong direction, and he’s not on the side of thirty years old where players usually rebound.

Strengths: Presley is the only player in this discussion with more than 1,000 Major League at-bats to his name. Five years ago, he came within two points of hitting .300 for the year. Uhh, he won’t hit too many home runs, but when he does, his name lends itself to an underrated “Elvis has left the building!” pun. I’m fully aware that I’m reaching like crazy here, thank you.

Weaknesses: Presley’s power and speed are minimal. You could call his contact “plus,” but you wouldn’t really mean it. It’s just that he’s such a hard worker, a nice guy, he’s got no real plus tools, and you wanted to be polite. Defensively, the writing is on the wall. Presley has cost his teams more than ten runs over the years. He can only hit lefties, and most pitchers are righties. One-win Triple-A players past the growth ages don’t all of a sudden turn into serviceable major leaguers. His walk-up music isn’t “Jailhouse Rock.”

Optimistic Major-League Comparison: Presley’s lefty-lambasting ways and featherweight tools are reminiscent of a slower Craig Gentry, or a less dynamic Rajai Davis. With his power/speed contribution probably limited to 10/10 in optimal circumstances, he’s sort of like Chris Denorfia with the opposite platoon split. Look, Presley is thirty years old and just spent a full season blending in at the Triple-A level. If he makes any impact at the major-league level whatsoever, it’ll be a bonus for the team.

Outlook: Once upon a time, Presley stole Pittsburgh’s left-field job once upon a time through a combination of luck, contact hitting, and the overall crumminess of Jose Tabata. Those days are behind him, but Presley is a steady piece of organizational depth who can hold down the fort for a week or two without humiliating the team if desperation strikes.

Shane Peterson – The Discarded Incumbent

How he was acquired: The Brewers plucked Peterson off of waivers from the Cubs in  December of 2014, less than a month after the Cubs claimed him from the Oakland A’s. That year-plus in the organization makes him the most tenured option for the centerfield job by a wide margin.

What he did last year: Peterson’s rookie year wasn’t a disaster. He slashed .259/.324/.353 in 201 at-bats — certainly not exciting numbers, but no worse than replacement level. Defensively it was the same story; he saved approximately one run per month in the field. The whole package was worth a fifth of a win, total. Cue the Monty-Python-style sarcastic cheering. It’s tough to get excited about such a beige ballplayer, but I’ve got a trick: try to remember the dark days of “Alex Sanchez, Starting CF/Leadoff Hitter.” Now, before you reflexively reach for the liquor bottle, think about Peterson again. He’s still not exciting, but don’t you like him a lot more?

Strengths: He has no real weaknesses.

Weaknesses: He has no real strengths.

Optimistic Major- League Comparison: Peterson has a BP Similarity Score of 94 relative to former Red Sox outfielder Daniel Nava. Like Peterson, Nava was a non-prospect who finally made the big leagues at age 27. Like Peterson, Nava was an accomplished minor-league hitter whose skills always said “bench bat” or “role player,” rather than “star.” But the 2013 World Champion Sox team would never have won that hardware without a monster .303/.385/.445 season out of Nava, who collected over 400 at-bats and seamlessly filled short-term vacancies at all three outfield spots, plus first base and designated hitter, as the need arose throughout the year. Between 2013 and 2014, he was worth a total of five wins. That’s more than Ryan Braun’s value over the 2014-15 stretch.

Outlook: Being the incumbent in the race usually gives you an advantage. This time, that’s not the case. Peterson was designated for assignment over the winter and, if all goes according to plan, he’s headed back to Triple-A until necessity arises. It’s easy to look at Peterson’s performance down the stretch of 2015 and lament the fact that he probably didn’t deserve to lose his job, but the reality is, “starting centerfielder” was never really his job in the first place. Peterson was a backup plan forced into placeholder duty and, admirable though his 2015 performance may have been, he’s still nothing more than that. With a successful spring and either a stumble or an injury from one of the other candidates, Peterson could very well find himself back in a Milwaukee uniform. But he’s just as likely to spend his year in Colorado Springs.

Rymer Liriano – The Potential Post-Hype Steal

How he was acquired: On January 28, Milwaukee sent minor-league reliever Trevor Seidelberger to the San Diego Padres in exchange for Liriano. At this point in time, Seidelberger is the definition of a non-entity. He’s a 23-year-old bullpen prospect who struggled in his first exposure to Double-A hitters last year. Liriano, on the other hand, is a two-time former BP Top-100 Prospect who has struggled with injuries and seen the Padres pile a roadblock in front of him on the organizational depth chart over the past several years.

What he did last year: He straight-up owned Triple-A pitching. Liriano’s .383 on-base percentage screams “top of the order,” and his 18-steal, 14-homer combination makes him an ideal new-school two-hitter for the Stearns regime. He was one of the toughest outs in professional baseball, yet the Padres were unable to carve out even a single major-league at-bat for Liriano. When he put up bad numbers in the Dominican Winter League and the Padres signed Alexei Ramirez, he was unceremoniously designated for assignment. In swept the Brewers, eager to pick him up at a steep discount.

Strengths: Liriano’s speed has been considered his most valuable asset since he stole 65 bases at Class-A Fort Wayne in 2011. He’s never projected as a slugger, but he’s always been the type of guy whose quick swing and aggressive approach lead to hard contact and a better than expected power profile. Don’t be fooled by that “aggressive,” though. Liriano has an attacking swing but he’s a master at working the count, and he walked at a clip north of 11 percent the past two years at Triple-A. Defensively, he can cover all three outfield positions competently.

Weaknesses: A long swing paired with a patient approach usually leads to a ton of strikeouts, and Liriano is no exception. His whiff rates still more than doubled his walk rates at Triple-A these past two seasons, and at the major-league level in 2014 he struck out almost a third of the time. In the field, Liriano is best deployed as a right fielder, not a center fielder. Overall, that’s not a knock, but in the context of “who will play center field for the Brewers this season,” it totally is.

Optimistic Major-League Comparison: Liriano matches up favorably with Tampa outfielder Steven Souza, a player in relation to whom he owns a 90 Similarity Index score. Both are dynamic speed/power threats who can play anywhere in the outfield, both have missed developmental time due to injury, and both strike out too much to ever post a decent batting average. Last offseason, Souza was traded into a situation where he had the opportunity to win playing time. This offseason, Liriano followed suit. Souza’s 2015 season saw him post nearly a full win above replacement level in spite of a .225 batting average and slightly below-replacement defensive contribution. Liriano has the skill set to do the exact same thing this year, and keep getting better.

Outlook: Smart engineers build with redundancies, and it’s becoming clearer and clearer with each move that David Stearns is engineering an exciting baseball team. It’s easy to look at the Liriano acquisition and think “Why? This guy has the exact same profile as Domingo Santana!” And while that’s 100 percent true, it’s also the answer to the “why.” In exchange for the most marginal of pitching prospects, the Brewers were able to double the odds that they develop an impact outfield talent while slashing the odds that nobody works out for that role. And if both players live up to their potential, well, that’s a great problem for a team to have.

Domingo Santana – The Reassigned(?) One-Time Favorite

How he was acquired: Santana was the most big-league ready piece acquired at the deadline last year for Carlos Gomez. After the trade, he provided over half the value that Gomez did (0.5 WARP to 0.9 WARP).

What he did last year: For one thing, he proved he was done with the minor leagues. Between Fresno and Colorado Springs, Santana slashed .333/.426/.573 with 18 home runs in just 354 at-bats at the Triple-A level. When the Brewers kept him in Triple-A immediately following the trade, he hit .380 over the next twenty games, forcing a promotion. Once in the big leagues, Santana flashed the power that makes him such an exciting young player. He hit six home runs in 121 at-bats for the Brewers, but he was less than stellar in the field and prone to inconsistency. His Dominican League stat line — no home runs in 83 at-bats, and a putrid .181/.244/.217 slash — serves as a reminder that Santana is an exciting, but volatile, young player.

Strengths: Santana is a big dude — 6-foot-5, 225 pounds — and he gets his whole profile into his swing. So, when he makes contact, he absolutely tattoos the ball.

This shows itself both in his isolated power numbers and, additionally, in a higher-than-average expected BABIP. Coming up, he regularly posted BABIP marks in the upper .300s or .400s. After six years, it’s hard to call that a fluke. In the field, Santana’s Howitzer of an arm is a perfect fit for right field, but he’s big and quick enough to reasonably imitate a centerfielder when the need arises, too.

Weaknesses: Domingo’s high-BABIP tendencies would be so much cooler if they weren’t caused by a swing that can be practically compared to a wind tunnel. His minor-league track record suggested the 33 percent whiff rate that Santana posted as a rookie in 2015 was quite likely, and at this point to suggest that he’ll completely overcome the swing-and-miss in his game is nothing but wishful thinking. You can also duplicate the Liriano notes on being a better right fielder. They’re just as applicable for Santana.

Optimistic Major-League Comparison: I’ve always thought of Santana as a poor man’s George Springer — that the Astros traded away Santana because they already had Springer didn’t help this — but the BP Similarity Index doesn’t quite agree with me. Not only is Santana’s overall score of 74 considerably lower than usual, suggesting that he’s a far more one-of-a-kind player than I had anticipated, his top comparison by a four-point margin is San Diego outfielder Wil Myers. If that’s not the Baseball Gods sending a coded “don’t play this guy in centerfield” message, I don’t know what is.

Outlook: The Brewers have said they will not be using Santana in center this year, and that was even before the Davis trade. In light of the move, that is all but a certainty. He has the most professional experience, by far, in right field, and he fits that position best. But Rymer Liriano is also a rightfielder who can sort of play center, and Ramon Flores is considered a “tweener” precisely because he has a centerfielder’s offensive profile but can’t play the position. If either of them breaks through and emerges as the third-best outfielder on the roster, playing Santana in center just might make an awkward sort of sense once again. Still, he’s likely a right fielder for good now.

Keon Broxton – The Untapped Tools

How he was acquired: Many of us loved Jason Rogers here at BP Milwaukee, but that doesn’t mean we weren’t excited by the trade that sent him to Pittsburgh. Back on December 17th, the free-agent market was flooded with first basemen so that the Pirates saw fit to give up Broxton and pitching prospect Trey Supak was, and remains, curious to say the least. Two weeks later, the Pirates signed John Jaso for a mere $4 million a year. He mashes righties, just like Rogers, only he’s better at it and has been at it for longer. Maybe the Pirates were just sending Milwaukee a gift because they knew it was my birthday that day. Thanks, guys, you shouldn’t have!

(No, for real. You shouldn’t have.)

What he did last year: For the second-straight year, Broxton looked like a ballplayer again. His mediocre 2013 season bumped him off of the prospect landscape and inspired Arizona to dump him to the Pirates for cash considerations, but since then he’s posted respective 15-25 and 10-40 seasons in the minors. He’s also turned things around defensively, saving his team runs in each of the past two seasons. He had one bad year at Double-A versus one and a half good ones, plus a highly competent stretch for Triple-A Indianapolis this past season. The former third-round pick even got himself a September cup of coffee, and the Pirates used him down the stretch as a pinch runner and defensive replacement.

Strengths: Broxton broke out and stole 40 bases across the top-three levels of professional baseball in 2015, and he’s got enough power to hit double-digit totals in home runs most seasons. Defensively, he was worth nearly seven runs in 2015 while playing all three positions. Broxton is a veritable four-tool player, and his walk rate has reached the double digits each of the past two seasons to boot. I love guys who can walk and steal bases; that’s a skill combination which can mitigate even the gnarliest of slumps.

Weaknesses: Broxton’s bats are sick with an advanced case of Pedro Cerrano’s Disease. They cannot hit the curveball. Straight ball, they hit it very much. Curveball, bats are afraid. Unfortunately, Broxton is clearly not offering appropriate sacrifices to Jobu — throughout his minor-league career, Keon has never been able to produce a whiff rate better than 25 percent. Those problems are only going to be magnified against the best pitchers on the planet. With only two major-league at-bats to his name — one strikeout — it’s impossible to say that Broxton’s contact issues will not condemn him to the life of “Triple-A Superstar Who Gets Eaten Alive By Top-Flight Pitching.” I hope Milwaukee’s spring training clubhouse has plenty of rum.

Optimistic Major-League Comparison: Yipes. Suffice to say that the Similarity Index does not have kind opinions on the Major League futures of toolsy, contact-averse outfielders. His most highly-rated comparison is a career minor leaguer named Melky Mesa who got 15 at-bats for the Yankees between 2012 and 2013. The top results are a lot of guys with careers like that, and a lot of guys who probably would have had careers like that save for the sorry state of the organization employing them. If you’re arguing in favor of Broxton as a career minor leaguer, this is where you nod smugly. Current San Francisco fifth outfielder Justin Maxwell is next up after Mesa — though it should be noted that Broxton is faster and more patient, while Maxwell has more power. While the algorithm doesn’t point in that direction, I liken Broxton to a poor man’s Milwaukee-era Scott Podsednik. Cast off by multiple other teams, double-digit homers, an absurd amount of steals … only with a batting average way closer to the Mendoza line. For what it’s worth, Maxwell posted a half-time 2.3-win season in 2012 despite hitting .229. As frustrating as his strikeouts will be, he can deliver value working around them.

Outlook: Folks, I want you to properly prepare yourselves. Should he win the center field job, Keon Broxton is going to be a goddamn roller coaster. He’s going to turn doubles into outs, and he’s going to turn walks into doubles. He’s going to remind everybody why, once upon a time, Kevin Goldstein wrote that Broxton “had the best tools in the Midwest League after Mike Trout.” He’s going to face pitchers who rely on their fastball and turn them into burger. Then, he’s going to run into a junkballer and go 0-5 with five ugly strikeouts. He’ll probably have an oh-fer-the-week performance at one point or another. The odds that he hits below .200 for a full season are chillingly short. Just relax, you have to take the good with the bad when it comes to Broxton. The best situation for him might be as a fourth or fifth outfielder off the bench. His defensive versatility and skill can facilitate late double switches, his wheels make him a dangerous pinch runner, and his bat can be maximized by using him as a pinch hitter against hard-throwing relievers.

Kirk Nieuwenhuis – The Low-Key Competent Big-Leaguer

How he was acquired: The New York Mets waived him two days before Christmas, effectively giving up on him for the second time in the 2015 calendar year. How does that happen? He was designated for assignment by the Mets in May, and they sold him to the Angels rather than waive him. Less than a month later, the Angels waived him — he hit .136 in Anaheim — and he was claimed by… you guessed it, the Mets. Who, of course, decided to give him walking papers for Christmas. Since the Brewers had no clear-cut center fielder and an open spot on the 40-man roster, it was a match made in heaven. The whole thing is eerily reminiscent of the events that led to Santa’s Little Helper joining the Simpson family.

What he did last year: He added half a win to his team’s chances, in about half as many plate appearances as Shane Peterson was given. This is a guy who was waived by two different teams. Ladies and gentlemen, your 2015 Milwaukee Brewers!

If you took a flier on Nieuwenhuis in a DraftKings lineup on July 12th, you probably won hundreds of dollars for your foresight.

That breakout performance spearheaded a pretty nice month of July for Nieuwenhuis, who posted a 1.038 OPS as he ascended from “double waiver wire retread” to “starting center fielder, more or less” in the wake of a concurrent slump from Juan Lagares. But even after two teams gave up on him and he still bounced back, the guy still couldn’t catch a break. The Mets traded for Yoenis Cespedes, Formula Juan got the knocks out of his motor, and Nieuwenhuis wouldn’t start another game until the last weekend of the season. During the month of August, the Mets rewarded Nieuwenhuis for his big July by shackling him to the bench for an entire month.

Strengths: Nieuwenhuis has been a steady defender and a streaky hitter throughout parts of four big-league seasons. That July stretch was a great example of how, when he’s on his game, Kirk can play like a borderline star. His defense is always good; Nieuwenhuis has been a net positive in the field to every team he’s played for at every level since the 2010 season, and he can play all three positions well. When he gets his bat going, he can hit for power and average, and he looks like the complete package. And I mean that literally, as well.

Weaknesses: Eventually, Dr. Jekyll turns into Mr. Hyde, and you remember why Nieuwenhuis has yet to hold onto a starting job for more than a month or two here and there. Usually, this transformation can be triggered by something as simple as facing a left-handed pitcher. Nieuwenhuis is a career .149 hitter against southpaws. And when he cools, Nieuwenhuis turns into a frozen offensive vortex. In 2013, he slashed just .189/.278/.337, so it’s a recorded fact that his slumps can last for an entire season or more.

Optimistic Major-League Comparison: Nieuwenhuis’ first page of Similarity Index comparisons are a depressing hodgepodge of Quad-A-type outfielders and benchwarmers, but one name stands out among them — Curtis Granderson, the former Silver Slugger who slid over to take his place in centerfield following the Cespedes acquisition. Maybe the Similarity Index knows about a body-snatching incident that the general public is still in the dark on? Nevertheless, Nieuwenhuis would need to develop into a little more powerful, and a lot more consistent, player in order to hit that plateau. But considering Granderson costs $15 million a year, while Nieuwenhuis was picked off of waivers, the Brewers will surely take those odds and smile if he turns into even 75 percent of the player Granderson is.

Outlook: Quick, what does the following stat line look like to you? 693 plate appearances, 617 at-bats, 17 home runs, 12 stolen bases, four defensive runs saved, a .232/.306/.389 slash line, and 2.4 wins above replacement? If you answered “a full season from a sneaky-good starting centerfielder,” you’re absolutely correct. If you answered “Kirk Nieuwenhuis’ career stat line in the Major Leagues,” you are also correct. It’s easy to assume that he’s a failure of a ballplayer because of his extensive experience with the waiver claims process, but the truth is, he never got a full shot to show what he can do. Nieuwenhuis is probably the favorite to win the job coming into Spring Training, and if that happens, we already know that he’s got the skills to excel.

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