Since David Stearns arrived in Milwaukee, he’s made a clear and conscious effort to prove that he loves stacking players up the middle and for good reason.
But that hasn’t stopped a black hole from forming behind the mound.
Friday’s non-tender deadline proved to be just another episode in the Milwaukee Brewers’ search for a serviceable second baseman, as Stearns non-tendered trade deadline acquisition Jonathan Schoop in lieu of paying $10 million to keep him in Milwaukee for 2019.
Despite ending the 2017 season as an All-Star with career highs in nearly every offensive category and coming to Milwaukee in the midst of a tear at the plate in 2018, Schoop promptly regressed to his career numbers and continued downward. The sustained decline kept him from seeing no more than eight plate appearances in the postseason, all but reducing his chances of returning in 2019.
Although the deadline did provide some clarity in the form of versatile backups and bench bats, as the Brewers settled with both super-utility man Hernan Perez and Tyler Saladino, it did little to fill the hole the team has been unable to substantiate since Rickie Weeks post-2011 decline — and even that tenure felt short-lived.
Now, with only three potential second basemen on the 40-man roster — barring Travis Shaw, who seems to be destined to move back to third if recent reports about Stearns’ intentions bear out — the Brewers are again faced with an all-too-familiar question at the heart of the infield.
There’s little doubt that the future of the franchise’s middle infield lies with two of the club’s best prospects, 24-year-old Mauricio Dubon and 2017 first-round pick Keston Hiura, but each still has obstacles to overcome before anyone in the organization hands them the keys — the prior, his health, after an ACL tear in May, as well as plate discipline; the latter, defensive viability and experience.
But in their own right, each has also proven themselves worthy of at least a measure of belief. Before injury derailed most of his 2017 season, Dubon was slashing .343/.348/.574 with 18 RBI, 4 HR and 6 SB in just 27 games and garnered enough attention for Stearns himself to publicly call him an option at the major league level. And Hiura may have made an even better case, refusing to slow down since being brought into the organization, capping his wildly successful two-year tenure in the minors (.313/.374/.502) in Double-A before going on to win the Arizona Fall League MVP with 5 HR, 33 RBI and 7 SB in 23 games at just 21 years old.
Of course, none of this proves them worthy of more than consideration coming into the year, and even that might be a stretch since neither has played more than a quarter of a season above Double-A.
So where does this leave the Brewers? Well, it provides little in the present and a lot to lean on in the future. But that doesn’t mean they’re without options. Here are some ways they can potentially shore up second base before Spring Training rolls around.
If non-tendering Schoop made anything clear, it’s that David Stearns isn’t going to pay a premium for underperformers. Given that Schoop was originally targeted because he also brought the option of a second year to the club before he hit free agency, chances are that the team was and is willing to spend around $10 million at the position — that is, for someone more productive. But the good news is, there are still a few options on the market that could prove to be more worthwhile, even on more than a one-year deal. Miller Park is, after all, a hitters’ haven, leaving the door open to improve the value of any player they choose to bring in, as long as they’re able to take advantage of it.
If LeMahieu can really command the three-year deal experts suggest, the potential for the Brewers to land him might be diminished by clubs who can offer bigger and better contracts. However, given the going rate for his production, which seems to be about $9 million a year, they could still be in the running and with the chance to flip him with added value as soon as either Hiura or Dubon are able to prove themselves capable at the major league level.
There are still weaknesses to LeMahieu’s game, namely that he has little power, an issue the Brewers tried to solve with both Mike Moustakas and Schoop, but he has remained somewhat consistent in terms of average and on-base percentage and is only two years removed from a NL batting title. While his skill set seems to overlap the already-crowded top of the order, from which most of his production has historically come, the Brewers also suffered from a significant lack of contact at various times throughout the season, leaving the true need at the position open to interpretation enough to make LeMahieu a reasonable option.
There were reports even prior to last season that the Brewers might be interested in the veteran’s services after he tore through the 2017 on his way to his first All-Star bid 11 years into his MLB career, but even the slow decline at the end of 2018 didn’t seem enough to hamper his value. Although he won’t make boffo dollars in 2019 and beyond, he did seem to ensure at least a two-year contract at around $10 million a season, even after breaking out at 34. His skill set plays well closer to the heart of the order, which seems to be one of the big gaps the Brewers are still missing — transitioning from the consistency at the top to the works-in-progress at the bottom.
With the power potential he’s flashed, he could play well even coming over from the AL where he’s spent the entirety of his career (barring the 2012 season when the Astros were still in the NL Central), but half of that is composed of his time with the A’s, which could be enough motivation for him to stay given their financial flexibility, familiarity and the path to success they proved to be on in 2018.
All circumstances considered, he does seem to be a bit of an outside option, but his age, recent success and price tag all make him worthy of consideration for a club that will be looking to turn the reins over within the next two years.
Just before the non-waiver trade deadline, there were again rumors circulating about Dozier being a potential interest for the Brewers. Fortunately for front offices everywhere, Dozier turned a down year into a freefall, even after being plugged into one of the most potent offenses in baseball. Although he’s certainly a liability when he’s cold, when he’s hot, he’s up there with the best in baseball and will be looking for a one-year prove-it deal to get his career back on course at 32 years old. If he’s the only significant addition to the infield this offseason (outside of catcher), he won’t be battling for playing time in Milwaukee and there are few better places to prove his 30 HR, 162-game average is no fluke. His career profile is similar in look but considerably better than Schoop’s, and at a similar price with limited commitment, he’s still a viable possibility.
Although their ages differ and they have slightly different profiles, both Kinsler and Walker have essentially become the same player over the last two or three years. They’re both tenured MLB players who can still cut it, yet remain shadows of their former selves — although it’s safe to say Kinsler has significantly more success over the course of his career and can at least still steal bases.
For the Brewers’ purposes, however, they’d both be attempting to fill the same void and will both be commanding a contract of similar lengths and costs. Neither of them are a top option, but then again, depending on how important Stearns deems the impending season and the length of time before either of their top prospects sustain themselves in the majors, they could be cheap, serviceable options and one of them has already proven himself enough for a second consideration.
It’s hard to outright deny the remaining second basemen on the market, especially since Stearns is not one for convention, but as it stands, they remain fringe candidates for one reason another.
Daniel Murphy has proven time and again that age doesn’t seem to be a factor (barring injury) when it comes to hitting, but he’s rarely if ever linked to the Brewers and remains a defensive liability the Brewers may not be able to afford rolling out.
Marwin Gonzalez needed only two years to make himself an asset to Houston, but as much as David Stearns and Craig Counsell love versatility, they already have a similar type and can’t afford to even the kind of likely lucrative, three- or four-year deal Gonzalez is likely to land.
Josh Harrison has potential, but given his last paycheck and the fact that he can’t keep his left hand in one piece might diminish Milwaukee’s desire to pursue him, especially since at only 30 years old, he could still potentially land a multi-year deal. Daniel Descalso profiles similarly with a worse average, a marginally better OBP and fewer stolen bases, as does Asdrubal Cabrera, albeit with better counting stats.
Although the Marlins front office might be a bit reluctant to move more established talent, Castro doesn’t come anywhere close to the likes of Christian Yelich, Giancarlo Stanton, Marcell Ozuna or Dee Gordon and Miami should still be making as many desperate grabs for young talent as possible since they’re no where close to contending — even after slinging all those stars, their farm system is still in the bottom-third of the league.
All of this adds up to the high probability that the Marlins move Castro before his contract ends, especially if they want to avoid paying him the $11 million base salary. Considering his cost, relative youth and the potential for the Brewers to have two-years to see what shakes out with their young talent, he seems like a perfectly good short-term option.
Despite his traditional slash line last year (.230/.315/.389), Kipnis nearly paced his mid-career All-Star numbers in 2018 (18 HR, 75 RBI) even though his stolen base numbers dropped significantly (7) compared to years past. There’s no doubt he comes at a much higher cost than most of the rest, averaging around $15 million a season plus whatever prospects it would take to get the deal done (albeit with a $2.5 million buyout in 2020). But the Brewers are reportedly in talks with the Indians over a starter, which could help justify a higher-end prospect package should Stearns decide to continue making the push he started last year.
Merrifield seems to be almost a complete outlier given that the Royals will be looking for pieces to build around in the coming years and the fact that he won’t even reach arbitration until next year, but because of his versatility and the Brewers’ general love for that nearly above all else, he could still fit into the picture even with Dubon and Hiura hitting the majors in the next year or two.
Given Stearns’ history, it seems far-fetched to believe they’ll roll into the season with their current slate of infielders, especially with so much at stake after finishing one game shy of the first World Series appearance in over 35 years. Despite all the seemingly obvious options, that doesn’t mean that Stearns won’t have something else up his sleeve, since more times than not, he always seems to be one step ahead of the curve.
So what’s the answer for the Brewers’ black hole at second base? It’s the same answer that could have and should have been given for the last seven years: patience.
Jonathan Powell is a co-founder and lead writer for Bronx to Bushville.