There is no questioning the fact that the Brewers’ plan is for Orlando Arcia to be the shortstop of the future. However, when exactly “the future” will begin is a bit of a question mark at this point, as we are not yet at the Super Two deadline and Jonathan Villar has been playing very well at the big league level. And on the one hand, there is no rush here: Arcia is just 21, so the Brewers aren’t exactly risking wasting some of his prime years in an attempt to save a few bucks. On the other hand, though, the Brewers are unlikely to compete until Arcia is a legitimate contributor at the big league level, so allowing him to get some seasoning is important.
Super Two is a status given to the top 22 percent of players with between two and three years of service time at the end of the season, and this allows them to become arbitration-eligible a year early. Starting a player like Arcia at the beginning of the season would likely qualify him for Super Two status. However, keeping Arcia at AAA is not solely a cost-cutting measure—unlike the Cubs holding down Kris Bryant for two weeks to begin 2015. It is a necessary evil for a small-market club like the Brewers to control arbitration costs. The Super Two date usually comes in the first couple weeks of June, so Arcia will not make his debut before then.
Jonathan Villar’s performance is also a bit of a complicating factor. As has been discussed in this space several times, the Brewers aren’t trying to contend, but they also don’t appear willing to totally humiliate themselves the way the Astros did. Thus, if Villar had been truly awful and there were no other internal shortstop options, the Brewers might be more tempted to bring up Arcia sooner. Villar, though, has been surprisingly good. He has already accumulated 1.2 WARP, and his .300 TAv ranks fifth among all shortstops with at least 100 plate appearances. He has undoubtedly played well enough to keep his position, and he will likely even stay in the everyday lineup (at either second or third) once Arcia makes his inevitable debut.
Even with all of the above, though, it is virtually guaranteed that Arcia will make his debut sometime in the middle of 2016. He has posted a .261 TAv in AAA despite being just 21 years old, some six years younger than his competition (per Baseball-Reference’s weighted age differential). And his bat isn’t even his carrying tool; BP’s own preseason scouting report gave him a 60 glove and called him “one of the best defensive shortstop prospects in baseball.” All of this is to simply say that he is an excellent prospect who is proving his worth in AAA.
But he won’t be of much value to the Brewers in AAA for much longer. Recent rookie performances like those of Kris Bryant and Bryce Harper have spoiled us, because players do tend to need some development time in the big leagues as they get used to the grind, better pitching, and lifestyle. Maybe Arcia will be one of those prodigies who doesn’t need any seasoning in the big leagues, and that would be great—however, the Brewers won’t know that until he gets there, and he might very well take a few months or a year to truly get accustomed to facing big league pitching every night.
The reason his development matters so much is that the Brewers are unlikely to be truly competitive until and unless he becomes an above-average major leaguer. He doesn’t have to be a perennial All-Star—and it is foolish and naïve to put that kind of expectation on any one player anyway—but he very likely does have to come close to his ceiling. Good shortstops are hard to find, and even with Villar’s excellent start, he’s still likely more of a 1-2 WARP player going forward than anything special. Arcia can be more than that, though.
Despite the fact that the Brewers are in an excellent position in their rebuild, they aren’t exactly set up to be a dynasty. They aren’t going to be the Cubs, who were loaded with so many elite hitters that someone could fizzle and the team wouldn’t miss a beat. Instead, they are going to need most—if not all—of their top prospects to hit, and Arcia is at the top of that list. Good front offices will be able to put the correct pieces in place around a solid core, but that core has to exist in the first place. And without Arcia in the middle of the diamond everyday, the Brewers will have a hard time finding a winning core in the next several years.
All of this is to say that Arcia’s development is incredibly important to the Brewers’ future—perhaps more important than any single other individual (at least until a potential ace comes around). Most of the next year or two needs to be devoted to making sure he is put in a position to succeed. Right now, AAA is the correct place for him, and keeping him down for a while makes sense from the organization’s perspective as well. After all, they do want to have him around for as long as possible. However, once he reaches the point where there is nothing more for him to learn at AAA—and we have seen top prospects reach this point—he needs to be given the chance to prove himself at the big league level.
Jonathan Villar’s excellent 2016 season has taken some of the pressure off both Arcia and David Stearns, as the club isn’t being forced into a premature decision. If Arcia isn’t deemed ready until next season, Villar has given the Brewers a safety net. But if he is knocking on the door come the end of the summer, he needs to be given the chance to succeed.