Last month, I broke down the first significant playing-time battle for the Brewers coming into Spring Training: center field. Today, we’re going to look at third base, a position the team threw to the wolves last year with the late-July trade of Aramis Ramirez. Down the stretch, playing time at the hot corner went to Hernan Perez and then, as he outplayed Perez, Elian Herrera. But just like in center, the new front-office regime has acquired a handful of options who are expected to fight for the lion’s share of playing time this spring. Just like in center, too, they were all acquired for bargain-basement prices!
Let’s meet the potentials, shall we?
Tier 3: The Department of Organizational Depth
Outlook: Perez had this job for a month or so last summer, but he couldn’t hold it. To make things worse, the guy who took the job from him went to the Dodgers on a minor-league deal. That’s not exactly a good look. Perez has cumulatively played about a half-season in the big leagues, and he’s already tallied a win and a half below replacement level. The writing is on the wall with him at this point.
He’ll be 25 years old on opening day, though, so he’s not quite old enough to be completely written off. Perez just has no prospect pedigree to bank on and a major-league stat line that screams “overmatched.” On the bright side, Colorado Springs should inflate his stats nicely, so that’s cool.
Outlook: Like Perez, Elmore has been a below-replacement-level player for his career. Worse still, no less than seven different teams have cut bait on Elmore in the past five years. That’s approximately a quarter of the league who have waived, DFA’d, or non-tendered Elmore. He’s now in Milwaukee on a minor-league deal and traveled to Spring Training as a non-roster invitee. Elmore is around because if multiple infielders succumb to injury he can play all three positions somewhat adequately. It would be disingenuous to write Elmore off as a completely uninteresting player, however — he’s pitched, as a position player, for two different teams already.
Outlook: Of the three fringe candidates in this race, Rivera boasts the best shot at a major-league roster spot. His defensive skill and versatility, combined with his largely impotent bat, make him a textbook reserve infielder. He can play short, second, and third and leave you impressed at every turn. In fact, his glove has been considered the best in Milwaukee’s system for years now.
Rivera shot through the Double-A and Triple-A levels in 2015 before making his big-league debut in September. After that, he participated in both the Arizona Fall League and the Venezuelan Winter League. While he is a plus defender at all three positions, his bat is decidedly below average. During his minor-league career, he seems to have vacillated back and forth between two different approaches at the plate: he can hit for acceptably mediocre power and strike out a lot, or he can cut his strikeouts to a mid-teens percentage clip while simultaneously slashing his already-tenuous power numbers back to essentially zero. I’m not even remotely kidding; Rivera posted an ISO of .066 in Colorado Springs, which feels like either a typo or some kind of really crappy miracle.
Neither approach seems like one that will provide value at the big-league level, but since Rivera is so useful defensively, that’s basically a moot point. He’s never going to win an award, unless they give one out for “Least Valuable Fantasy Baseball Commodity,” but he should be able to hold gainful employment in a big-league jersey for a number of years. We should all be so lucky.
Tier 2: The Department of Fenway Park Dumpster Diving
How he was acquired: The Padres non-tendered him, and Milwaukee inked him to a minor-league contract with an invite to Spring Training. It’s probably the best possible situation for Middlebrooks because…
What he did last year: Middlebrooks was downright terrible in 2015. Remember in high school, when you got fired from your first job because you were too busy playing video games and missed multiple shifts? Teenage You was undeniably more valuable to that McJob than Will Middlebrooks was to the San Diego Padres last year. Really, the biggest positive you can draw from Middlebrooks’ tenure in San Diego is probably that he didn’t steal any tanks while in town.
He actually started the year as the Padres’ regular third baseman. But a nightmarish .212/.241/.361 slash line saw him lose his job to Yangervis Solarte in June. Then, because this was the 2015 Padres and no defensive tactic was too wacky to employ, San Diego ran Middlebrooks — who had never played the position professionally — out at shortstop for four starts. Eventually this circus act was shelved, and Middlebrooks was exiled to the minors. At Triple-A El Paso, Middlebrooks posted an OBP of .287 and was almost half-a-game worse than replacement level in just 38 games with the team. His non-tender was not shocking this past fall. Middlebrooks’ breakout 2012 season feels like forever ago now, and if he continues to play as poorly as he did last year, he’ll find himself looking for a new career path before long.
Strengths: You don’t become a Top-100 prospect without some kind of skill. Middlebrooks’ ability to hit for power has been his calling card since he smashed 18 homers and slugged out a .201 ISO in Double-A five years ago. The next season, despite making his big-league debut in May, he was a 1.8-win third baseman. Twenty-seven is nowhere near the traditional decline age, so he still owns that .270-20HR skill set he flashed years ago. Defensively, it’s the same story. He’s inconsistent, but at his best he’s definitely an asset. What’s more is that San Diego’s daffy shortstop experiment might actually have legs — the advanced defensive metrics like what he did there, though the usual cautions about extremely small sample sizes apply here, and he certainly passes the eye test.
Weaknesses: Conversely, you don’t get non-tendered without a few really obnoxious warts. As you might be able to tell from his OBP numbers, Middlebrooks has no patience at the plate and is routinely outfoxed by big-league — or even Triple-A — pitching. Middlebrooks’ premature decline is not merely an offensive phenomenon, either. His FRAA metrics have trended in the wrong direction for several years, and he was two-plus runs below average at both San Diego and El Paso in 2015.
Optimistic Major-League Comparison: The good news is that even a slight correction for Middlebrooks could yield fantastic results. PECOTA’s second-favorite comparison for him is 2013 Trevor Plouffe. Plouffe has been a two-plus win player at the hot corner the past two seasons, but coming into 2013 — at 27 years old, same as Middlebrooks this year — he had a career line of just +0.1 WARP. His career OBP is just .308 and he might never even hit .260, but his power, speed, and defense make up the value lost. In theory, Middlebrooks is quite capable of doing the same thing.
Outlook: It’s not that I’m not rooting for Middlebrooks — quite the opposite, in fact. The thing about professional baseball, when you get past the low minors, is that the sorts of physical gifts that used to buoy Middlebrooks matter far less. It’s an ecosystem in perpetual flux, forever adapting and counteradapting to itself. Middlebrooks was physically gifted enough to make it to, and even succeed in, the big leagues for a stretch. But the league adapted to him, and now he has to either learn to adapt back or learn how to sell insurance. The rarefied air of Colorado Springs and homer-friendly tendencies of Miller Park will give him every opportunity to showcase his power. If he learns any semblance of pitch recognition, that will be a perfect match.
How he was acquired: Milwaukee purchased the post-hype prospect from the Red Sox in December, a deal Bryan Grosnik referred to as “the definition of ‘buying low.'”
What he did last year: It has to be a special kind of bad in order to plummet from “eventual MLB regular” to “sold for cash considerations” in just a year.
When he struggled in his first taste of Triple-A ball in 2014, it was concerning, as a +0.7 WARP season from a top prospect should be, but it was hardly the end of the world. Furthermore, in a late-season cup of coffee, Cecchini didn’t look lost. Then, the Red Sox signed Pablo Sandoval and moved Cecchini to left field. For whatever reason, this seems to have sapped his will to play ball. The player who had once been nicknamed “The Roman God of Walks” in reference to Kevin Youkilis posted a Triple-A on-base percentage of just .286. He didn’t exactly compensate in other areas of his game, either — Cecchini was two wins worse than replacement level at Pawtucket.
Strengths: Cecchini comes with the Kevin Youkilis Skill Set — average defense at third base, power that is present if not overwhelming, and a patient approach that works the count, bleeds out walks, and exhausts pitchers. Even in the post-Moneyball era, it’s an underrated skill set. In other words, it’s a profile that lacks excitement, but really what’s more exciting than someone who can contribute to a championship?
Weaknesses: Two years of evidence indicate that Double-A has been Cecchini’s glass ceiling. In making the jump from Double- to Triple-A, Cecchini struck out at a clip four points higher and lost the majority of his walks. During his second Triple-A season, these trends only got worse. Cecchini’s profile has always been the “low ceiling but high floor” type, which in light of his Triple-A track record has to beg the question: Were we seeing something that wasn’t there because the Red Sox hype the bejeezus out of their prospects?
Optimistic Major-League Comparison: Projection models don’t wear clothes, but if they could, PECOTA would be proudly sporting a “Screw Garin Cecchini” T-shirt right about now. His list of comparables are a Rachel Phelps wet dream, Quad-A flotsam like Trevor Crowe, Cole Gillespie, and Jaff Decker. Sitting atop this catalog of the crappy is none other than Shane Peterson. Like Peterson, Cecchini is pretty decent at avoiding outs and not much else. The difference being Cecchini’s overall offensive game is stronger, while Peterson is actually a plus defender in the corners.
Outlook: The days of expectations for Cecchini disappeared with his batting eye. If he figures out what’s been ailing him about Triple-A pitching, there’s still hope he can turn into an okay big leaguer. But last year was a giant leap towards career minor-leaguerdom for Cecchini and, like Middlebrooks, he’s got nowhere to go but up after 2015. Still, you can’t fault the brass for giving him a shot. All it cost was money, and money’s the cheapest thing in baseball nowadays.
Tier 1: The Department of Resellable Assets
How he was acquired: Most of the other names we’ve run through are young, post-hype prospects who were acquired for next to nothing. Hill, on the other hand, is an aging former regular who was foisted onto the Brewers in order to make the Jean Segura/Chase Anderson deal happen in January. In fact, the Diamondbacks were so happy to be rid of him that they agreed to cover over half of his 2016 salary.
What he did last year: For the first time in years, Hill managed to stay healthy, arguably because he struggled to see the field. Arizona frequently tabbed Nick Ahmed, Yasmany Tomas, Jake Lamb, or even Phil Gosselin to play ahead of him. Maybe it’s because their new front office saw Hill, and his lavish contract, as a symbol of everything the old guard did wrong. Maybe it’s that when he did see the field, he slashed a mere .230/.295/.345. For this level of production, Arizona paid a sum of $12 million. In light of that, it sort of makes sense that they’d pay him $6.5 million to stay away from their Major League roster.
Strengths: The best thing you can say in Hill’s favor is he’s been here once before, and he bounced back nicely.
Four years before he played his way out of favor in Arizona, Hill played his way out of favor in Toronto. He was almost a two-loss player when Arizona acquired him in a waiver trade. Then, over the final five weeks of the season, he nearly clawed his way back to even for the year. He improved his OBP by over a hundred points, and his slugging percent by over a buck fifty. The next year, Hill kept the momentum going, hitting .300 in regular action and posting 6.8 wins above replacement. The eight wins Hill was worth to the D-Backs from the end of 2011 through 2012 represent over a third of his career total. It could very well be that he’s the type of player who needs that extra motivation.