After coming within one win of the World Series, expectations in Milwaukee will no doubt be high for the 2019 Brewers. But the franchise enters the offseason in a peculiar place: they “arrived” slightly ahead of schedule, and will now defend their NL Central championship with a roster that, on paper, still looks a piece of two shy of perennial contender status. Because of this, the 2019 season looks like one that will provide fans an intriguing blend of established names (Christian Yelich, Lorenzo Cain, Travis Shaw, Ryan Braun) and continuing player development at the big league level (Jesus Aguilar, Orlando Arcia, Freddy Peralta, and Corbin Burnes, among many others).
Depending on which moves David Stearns and company make this offseason, and how and where Travis Shaw fits into the equation, the middle of the infield figures to be an area of special interest. Young and intriguing players abound, with still more waiting in the wings. Highlighted below are a few of the players most likely to impact up the middle next season.
Orlando Arcia, SS
Arcia arrived in 2016 shouldering high expectations. He was Milwaukee’s best prospect since Ryan Braun came along in 2007 and changed the history of the franchise. Arcia produced a very nice age-22 season in 2017, finishing with 3.4 Wins Above Replacement Player (WARP) and vaulting to the top of Milwaukee’s list of talents aged 25 and under, just ahead of Domingo Santana. Times have changed.
Arcia regressed to a .214 True Average (TAv) and 0.0 WARP in 2018, losing playing time to a handful of low-profile players and heading into the All-Star Break below the Mendoza line. After some time sorting out his swing in the minors, he roared back to life in the second half, clawing playing time back from the just-imported Jonathan Schoop and helping to lead the team through their playoff charge.
Arcia is still just 24 years old, is a ton of fun to watch on the infield, and has offered fans glimpses of his offensive potential over the last two years. He’ll be starting at shortstop next spring, perhaps with a somewhat shorter leash than he had at the start of 2018.
Travis Shaw, 2B
Shaw famously crossed over to the right side of the infield at the trade deadline, freeing up the hot corner for Mike Moustakas. He’s 6’4” and 230 pounds, but showed solid glove work and good instincts at the keystone, especially for someone learning on the fly. As lines between positions blur around the league, the big man could see more time at second base in 2019.
Shaw recorded 32 home runs in just under 500 at bats in 2018, marking his second year in a row reaching that milestone. He showed a nice approach at the plate, drawing 78 walks to offset his 108 strikeouts. He also topped the 4-WARP plateau for the second straight season, making him the kind of cheap, under-the-radar star that franchises like Milwaukee need in order to sustain success.
There may be more in the tank. Shaw is still in the midst of his physical prime, and recorded an average exit velocity in 2018 that was right in line with his career norms. Even so, his BABIP dipped 70 points from 2017. Some of this can be attributed to an uptick in fly balls. But if Shaw can add back a few points to his batting average, and perhaps decrease his reliance on pulling the ball in certain counts, 2019 could be the year that he breaks out as one of the better-rounded sluggers in the league.
Jonathan Schoop, 2B/SS
Schoop enjoyed a monster 2017 in Baltimore, accumulating 4.7 WARP and whacking 32 home runs while providing surprisingly good defense at second base. 2018 didn’t go as well, particularly after the trade that sent him to Milwaukee in exchange for Jonathan Villar (still hurts), Luis Ortiz, and Jean Carmona. That’s a bit of a haul, but Schoop was hot, and he’s been a special bat in the past. Milwaukee didn’t get that player; Schoop struggled to a .202/.246/.331 line in 46 games for the Brewers.
Schoop is controllable for 2019, though it’s less clear whether Milwaukee intends to offer him a contract. MLB Trade Rumors pegs his salary at $10.1 million in his final year of arbitration, a hefty sum for a small market team to spend on a player with plenty of question marks. Never a patient hitter, Schoop relies on the quality of his contact to generate value with the bat. Worryingly, his exit velocity, launch angle, hard hit percentage, and barrel percentage were all down in 2018, per Statcast; Schoop actually outperformed his Expected Weighted On-Base Average (xWOBA).
Losing three players for a few weeks of sub-replacement performance would hurt; so would paying $10 M for a player who could end up on the bench. 2019 will be a crucial year for Schoop, no matter whose jersey he ends up wearing.
Hernán Pérez, UTIL
Pérez, 28 next Opening Day, continued to slip a little after an exciting 2016 campaign. Even so, he provided average offense (.258 TAv) and credible defense at seven different positions. There’s value in that. Pérez didn’t manage quite as much power in 2018 as he did the previous two seasons, and his K/BB ratio is as unseemly as ever. He shouldn’t be anyone’s idea of a starting player on a playoff-caliber team at this point, but he’s a fine option to have around in case of injury or early-season ineffectiveness. Projected at a reasonable $2.7 million next year by MLB Trade Rumors, he’s a good guy to have around the back end of the roster.
Tyler Saladino, UTIL
Saladino made some noise upon his initial promotion to Milwaukee, batting .298 in the first half of the season. But he was injured in May, missed all of June, and looked fairly awful in July and September. So in the end, he wound up with a pretty Saladino-esque line of .246/.302/.398. He’s 29 years old, and is projected to make $1.0 million next year by MLB Trade Rumors. He had a nice year in 2016, running up 1.4 WARP in half a season with the White Sox. That’s looking like the peak of his big league career at this point.
Mauricio Dubon, 2B/SS
The 2018 season could have gone very differently for Mauricio Dubon. The young infielder tore through his first 27 games in Triple-A, batting .343/.348/.574 with some nice doubles power and not too many whiffs. Then he tore through his ACL, and missed the rest of the season. It was a case of bad timing for Dubon and the Brewers; Orlando Arcia and Eric Sogard were struggling with the big club, and Dubon might have been the first man up. Instead, he’ll aim to occupy that position in 2019.
Dubon makes a lot of contact, and routinely runs strikeout rates in the low-to-mid-teens. He’s quick on the base paths, though not a tremendous threat to steal. And he’s teased some intriguing power at various points in his minor league career, though it tends to come and go. Dubon is a capable defender at shortstop, though he fits better at second base long-term. One knock on his game: He doesn’t walk much. Even so, the floor here is something like Hernán Pérez, perhaps with less ability to roam the outfield grass (though it wouldn’t surprise me to see him shagging some extra fly balls in spring training). As for the ceiling? Well…
Keston Hiura, 2B
Keston Hiura is looking more and more like a blue-chip prospect at the keystone. There’s little remaining doubt about his bat, though he’s oddly susceptible to strikeouts for someone who projects as a Grade 60 or better hitter (on a scale where 50 is average). As many of you know, Hiura combined for a .293 batting average, 13 home runs, and 34 doubles in his first full minor league season, reaching Double-A along the way. Were it not for a minor thumb injury suffered in July, those numbers all may have been better; Hiura’s performance dipped considerably in late July and August. Currently, he’s smacking the ball around to the tune of a .333 average and 30 RBIs in the Arizona Fall League. It’s been said that the man can hit.
Happily, he’s answering questions about his work in the dirt, too. Through last season and into the AFL, Hiura has looked like an average defender at second, maybe a tick below. That’s a great outcome for someone who’s missed so many reps. If Hiura continues to progress at all defensively, he should be able to handle himself just fine at the keystone.
Hiura looks like a threat to hit .300 with 20-25 home runs and a mess of doubles. Even now, he could probably muster a decent-enough slash line against big league pitching. He’ll be up soon; how long the Brewers wait on a promotion may ultimately depend on how well whoever’s making the majority of big league starts is performing.
There are a number of interesting names on the free agent market that could help shore up Milwaukee’s infield depth. That’s particularly true if the Brewers buy into Travis Shaw at second and cast around for upgrades at third. Mike Moustakas is a natural target there, as he performed ably for the Brewers down the stretch and quietly offers average skills on both sides of the ball. He’ll likely get a multi-year deal this time out, but the commitment shouldn’t be too costly, in either dollars or years.
Jed Lowrie, Marwin Gonzalez, Josh Harrison, and Neil Walker could all help at either second or third base. Any of those names could sign for between two and four years, with Gonzalez probably representing the best and most expensive option. But even Josh Donaldson may not be out of reach, depending on how leery teams are of his age and injury history.
Should the Brewers feel that Hiura will be ready to make an impact by mid-season, they could be tempted to simply bridge the gap with a cheap one-year deal. The most logical name, in that case, may be Ian Kinsler’s (Kinsler was also mentioned as a possible target by Andrew Salzman in a piece earlier this month.) Kinsler doesn’t offer too much with the bat anymore, but he still provides solid defense. He turns 37 next year, and will likely settle for a one-year deal.