Battling back: Brewers bats to watch for in 2020

If this winter’s aura has been any indicator—social media, Brewers On Deck, and all Milwaukee’s fanbase is currently in a state of unrest.

Although both owner Mark Attanasio and general manager David Stearns have stood by their “trust the process” shibboleth with years of proof now in tow, even some the most faithful of fans seem to marginalize it and stand convinced the team is just one fit from its death throes.

Franchise history aside, it’s a hard case to refute. The Brewers went from just one game out of the Fall Classic in 2018 to getting bumped just one game into October in 2019, then lost some of its most valuable talent this winter, including Mike Moustakas and Yasmani Grandal, as well as role players like Eric Thames, Gio Gonzalez, and Zach Davies, among others—not to mention the recent draining their farm system.

What seems even more disconcerting to the disconcerted is that the replacements selected by the front office aren’t equivalent in name value to those who left—despite what they may argue shakes out on paper—and given the unknown, may not even aptly fill the glaring positional vacancies.

But even without brand names and the types of big contracts that routinely sandbag small market teams, there’s still cause for optimism. Although the Brewers are nearly $25M short of their spending this time last year, the solution to their downward trend may not reside on the market, but in whom they’ve already placed their faith—more specifically, the bats primed for a bounce-back in 2020.

Whether the team decides to trade for or acquire another impact player before the regular season launches remains to be seen—and they’re certainly positioned for it midseason—but if there’s a chance that the Brewers extend their historic multi-year run and turn back-to-back playoff appearances into a club-first three-peat, the impetus for success may largely fall within the hands of these key players.

Lorenzo Cain

Just a year removed from being an All-Star and placing 7th in MVP voting, it’s safe to say Lo Cain had a down year in 2019, slashing an uncharacteristic .260/.325/.372 while compiling well under his career average in runs, RBI, and stolen bases.

Although the detractors are many, there is plenty of evidence that indicates he still has some gas left in the tank—including a defensive reel that finally awarded him a long-overdue Gold Glove.

Beyond his almost daily Not Today campaign, however, Cain has openly admitted in recent weeks that he finally feels fully healthy—something he hadn’t been all season long. Outside of battling a bad left knee and ankle for most of last year, Cain was also hampered by a lingering thumb issue, the same type that marked an offensive downturn for Ryan Braun just a few years ago.

Given his consistency, it seems that health may be the only true barrier at this point, as the veteran center fielder set career highs in nearly every category at age 32. And his age 33 isn’t a typical 33: Cain didn’t start playing in The Show until he was 24, wasn’t a full-timer until age 27 and patrolling center field in Kansas City. There is good reason to believe that he may have two, three, even four impact years in him most players would have already expended. There’s good tread yet on those tires.

Even if he’s not able to sustain the kinds of numbers he posted in either of his two All-Star campaigns, there’s little proof that he won’t return to being the spark plug at or near the top of the Brewers’ lineup in 2020.

Justin Smoak

Let’s start by doing a quick player comparison. Which would you rather have, Player A or Player B?

Player A
2019 Cost: $5M
2019: .247/.356/.505, 25 HR, 61 RBI, 67 R in 149 G
162 Game Avg: .244/.327/.478, 27 HR, 64 RBI, 79 R

Player B
2019 Cost: $4M
2019: .208/.342/.406, 22 HR, 61 RBI, 54 R in 121 G
162 Game Avg: .231/.324/.420, 25 HR, 72 RBI, 64 R

Player C [for later reference]
2019 Cost (averaged over multi-year deal): $16M
2019: .254/.329/.516, 35 HR, 87 RBI, 80 R
162 Game Avg: .252/.310/.441, 26 HR, 80 RBI, 70 R

Chances are pretty good most people would lean towards Player A, and it’s reasonable to think the Brewers did at first too. Except Player A is Eric Thames and keeping him meant paying his $7M club option—which frankly isn’t a bad price given production—or trying to renegotiate. Knowing David Stearns, there was likely an attempt to bring that figure down after declining his option, but coming to terms at nearly half that price is likely what lead him elsewhere.

In terms of character, OBP, and a slight edge in raw power and speed, Thames is an easy pick, but if there’s one thing David Stearns is almost universally known for, it’s versatility—and despite his ability to stretch into the outfield, where the Brewers are now flush, Thames was limited in a few key places.

First, the splits alone speak volumes. Thames’ career numbers vs LHP is .197/.272/.376 compared to Smoak’s .235/.311/.384. Second, Thames is a bit pull-happy to say the least, especially when it comes to power, whereas Smoak is able to barrel up to all parts of the field. Third, Smoak is a switch hitter with pretty similar numbers from both sides of the plate and vs both lefties and righties, which makes slotting him in the lineup or pinch hitting him a hell of a lot easier and provides far more options.

Eric Thames spray chart shows he's pull heavy

via FanGraphs

Justin Smoak's spray chart shows he hits power to all fields

via FanGraphs

Now let’s look at Player C: Mike Moustakas. Even with his three All-Star seasons, he still plays just above Smoak in everything but OBP—except he’s $11M more per year. So if the detractors want to go on about how the Brewers didn’t properly replace Moose, they arguably did, for cheaper, with a calculated gamble that Smoak will play up.

Smoak didn’t have the best 2019, but like Cain, he’s only a few years removed from a 2017 All-Star caliber performance, in which he slashed .270/.355/.529 with 38 HR, 90 RBI, 85 R, and if there’s anything that plays well in Miller Park, it’s power. Even at his career numbers Smoak should be serviceable, but if he’s able to extend beyond that, even if it’s only half way between that and his ceiling, he could end up one of the team’s best acquisitions this offseason.

Ryon Healy

By most accounts, Healy is not the most exciting name. He only played 47 games in 2019 thanks to a hip injury and the resulting surgery, and his career slash line of .261/.298/.452 leaves a bit to be desired in the on-base department—he literally only averages about 30 walks per 162 games.

But what many people seem to overlook is that Healy is remarkably productive when he gets playing time. Although he’s only played the equivalent of about two and a half full seasons (401 games over 4 years), his 162-game average is 28 HR, 86 RBI and 72 R—all the more remarkable considering he played on some pretty mediocre clubs in Oakland and Seattle, both with pitcher-friendly parks.

Given that he’s just entering his age 28 season, only cost $1M, and is coming to one of the most hitter-friendly parks in baseball, the Brewers could certainly do a lot worse in adding options with his kind of upside—which may not have even surfaced yet.

Jedd Gyorko

If you can see why the Brewers gunned for Healy, then it should be no surprise why they also took a shot on Jedd Gyorko. Outside of having a similar profile (.245/.309/.421), Gyorko also suffered a similar fate in that he’s not truly seen a full season of playing time—he’s never played more than 128 games in a season over the course of seven years.

Gyorko entered his prime just a year before being traded to the Cardinals, which is where he first started hitting his stride across the board—and leaving Petco surely didn’t hurt in that regard—improving his slash line in St. Louis (.256/.328/.456) over his time in San Diego (.236/.293/.395). What’s more, is that despite a disappointing 2019 season in which injuries and general ineffectiveness—related or otherwise—kept him off the field, he’s clearly improved his ability to get on base, averaging a .343 OBP between 2017 and 2018.

On top of all that, Gyorko clearly checks a lot of boxes for the Brewers front office, as he’s played every infield position but catcher, even if only as a league-average defender. Plus, much like Healy, his per-game production (23 HR, 71 RBI, 60 R, 162G Avg) is useful for the cost ($1M), making him an easy plug-and-play backup or even potential starter depending on how the infield shakes out.

Manny Pina

While he may not have put up the best numbers at the plate over his career (.257/.317/.407)—though not bad for a catcher—there’s no denying that Piña’s defensive skills are a serious asset when it comes to everything from framing to sequencing to throwing runners out.

But that doesn’t mean his bat is worthless. In fact, Piña’s biggest downfall is that, like plenty of players around the league, his consistency and upside both hinge on his playing time—something he’s not seen much of thanks to Jonathan Lucroy and Yasmani Grandal. Of course, that pattern may repeat again considering the Brewers traded for Omar Narvaez after the best offensive performance of his career (.278/.353/.460 w/ 22 HR, 55 RBI, 63 R in 132 G), but there’s a chance that Piña gets the call more often given Narvaez’s defensive shortcomings, and it could help him at least get his low 2019 average (.228) back up to something much more helpful offensively.

Even if he’s not a game-changer in that regard, as long as he’s able to get on-base and keep the lineup moving, it’s a step in the right direction.

Orlando Arcia

Let’s be real: you knew you’d find Arcia on this list. Why? Because he’s on it; Every. Single. Year.

The hype for the Brewers former top prospect grows and fades with his streaks and slumps every season, despite the fact that his performance is like a tide that casually ebbs and flows on its own schedule, as if the team and the fans and baseball’s overlying context are nothing but an inconsequential moon. It seems as if he’s too busy having fun to actually try—which, as someone who wishes to make even one-tenth of his salary playing what started as a pastime, I can’t honestly decry outside of the game and team fandom.

Despite the promise he flashes like his sometimes show-stopping glove, the numbers don’t universally bear out that he’s going to be anything more than what he already is—and that includes his defense, as although it may look and feel and sound fantastic, it’s still hovering just above league-average in nearly every category on paper.

So it stands to reason that there was speculation that the Brewers would even pay $2.2M in arbitration to keep arguably the worst offensive player at his position several years running. In fact, he’s the second worst qualifying position player in offensive WAR (-64.6) in all of baseball since entering the league in 2016—only fellow one-time Brewer shortstop Alcides Escobar was worse (-76.5).

And yet, you may ask, he’s on a list of bouncebacks? Yup. Because after performing so poorly for so many years, it seems there’s no place to go but up—at least, without actually getting benched. And in truth, his high water marks aren’t that bad if his 2017 season was any indicator (.277/.324/.407, 15 HR, 53 RBI, 56 R, 14 SB in 153 G).

At this point, he’s been given almost every opportunity possible to succeed, including the now default option of opening the season at short after Luis Urias, a former top prospect in his own right, underwent wrist surgery that will likely push his debut into early- or mid-spring.

Will the timing be right? It hasn’t so far. But that’s not to say he hasn’t shown improvement or at least the ability to maintain. Although his 2019 numbers were below his meager career averages, he did show signs of life in a few key areas. In 2019, he improved his walk rate to a career best 7.9% (even if it’s still not good, it’s improvement), maintained his isolated power (.128), boosted his plate discipline to a career best in nearly every category including zone contact %, chase %, chase contact %, and whiff %, and also cut his soft contact rate while boosting his hard hit rate to the best of his career—all of this with a brutal .253 BABIP. So what’s this all to say? He is actually improving in some important ways, but between the bad luck and slow progression, it hasn’t quite manifested on the field—at least, not yet, if it ever will.

Given that he’s still only 25, has showcased enticing flashes of ability, shown clear improvement on paper, and will be faced with the first real positional competition of his Major League career, there’s always a chance that this year—both like and unlike the last four—could be the year he finally breaks through. Or loses his job.

So, even if just for a moment, take off the skeptic’s hat and enjoy the fact that there is promise in Milwaukee, whether you believe in it or not.

Jonathan Powell is a lead writer and co-founder of Bronx to Bushville.

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