Can the first basemen play first base?
Keston Hiura is moving to his left on the infield diamond, from second base over to first – where he’s never played, not even in college. With no designated hitter, Daniel Vogelbach is also expected to see time at first base. He played two games there in 2020 and has played 44 complete games at that position over his five-year career.
Both players can hit for power, which is a usual requisite for the position these days. But we expect a lot of grounder and wide-throw drills during the spring.
Even with his inexperience, Hiura’s move to first is quite rare. He’s 6-foot, 202 pounds according to baseball-reference (which might be a bit of a stretch). According to the site’s Stathead, in the past 15 years only three players listed at 6-foot or shorter and 202 pounds or less played 100+ games at first base (note: b-r uses the same height and weight every year for each player, so this is certainly not perfect but gives a good idea at how often players of Hiura’s physical stature man first base). Those three are Nomar Garciaparra (6-0, 165; 118 games with 117 starts) in 2006, Nick Swisher (6-0, 195; 112 games, 101 starts) in 2013 and Sean Rodriguez (6-0, 199; 102 games, 12 starts) in 2015.
If neither Hiura nor Vogelbach work out … well, there’s currently not a lot of options beyond a few utility players who are better off at other spots in the infield or outfield. In other words, this experiment is really more like a dress rehearsal for the regular season.
Who will play third base?
There’s a reason the Brewers were mentioned as a team interested in signing Justin Turner. There’s no clear starting third baseman on Milwaukee’s roster.
Luis Urias, who played 30 games at third in 2020, probably has an early leg up. A good fielder, Urias’ bat (not a lot of power) isn’t what you’d normally expect at third. He’s also struggled to hit at the major-league level (.226/.315/.320 in 422 plate appearances). Urias is just 23, however, and has hit .305/.403/.511 in 196 Triple-A games.
Daniel Robertson, signed this offseason as a free agent and one of a number of utility players on the roster, is another possibility. However, he’s never had more than 340 plate appearances in any of his four MLB seasons. Robertson owns a career .234/.342/.352 career slash line with 16 homers in 855 PA.
Other utility players in camp who can play third are Mark Mathias and Jace Peterson, although the latter is on a minor-league deal. Another, Tim Lopes, has played just one game at third in the majors but has 108 appearances there in the minors.
A late-emerging candidate is Travis Shaw, who played for the Brewers form 2017-19. But Shaw is coming to camp on a reported minor-league deal, so he’s certainly no lock. Shaw hit .273/.349/.513 with 31 home runs in 2017 then smashed 32 taters the following season, although his average fell to .241. In 2019, he was hitting .157/.281/270 being sent to Triple-A. In 50 games for Toronto last season he slashed an underwhelming .239/.306/.411 with six home runs. Shaw turns 31 in April.
Non-roster invitee Zach Green, who had a cup of coffee with San Francisco, is a true third baseman who also possesses a power bat.
Will Christian Yelich revert back to form?
The 2020 season obviously was like no other in MLB history and maybe the statistics from a short season should be taken with a grain of salt. But Yelich struggled early and often, never getting into a groove.
He had bar far his worst season since coming to Milwaukee in 2018. His .205 batting average and .356 on-base percentage were career lows while his .430 slugging percentage was his worst since 2015.
Yelich struck out 30.8% of the time in 2020, or 2.6 AB/K, easily the worst rates of his career (from 2014-19 he was at 20.3% and 4.3 AB/K) and his 8.1 HR% was his lowest with the Brewers.
Spring training stats usually don’t mean too much. But after a reduced season in 2020, maybe the exhibition games will take on a little more meaning in 2021.
Get back to running?
Speaking of spring games, perhaps we’ll see if manager Craig Counsell will reinstitute the stolen base as part of Milwaukee’s repertoire.
In 2020, the Brewers had just 15 steals – and were caught 11 times (a horrid 57.7% success rate) – which was second worst in the majors (Minnesota was last with 14). Milwaukee had over 100 steals every year from 2016-19 and led the majors in 2016 and the National League in 2017 and ‘18. Not coincidentally, 2016 was Counsell’s first full year as Brewers manager.
What to expect from Lorenzo Cain?
Cain played five games in 2020 before opting out of the season. How much rust will there be from not having played since July 28?
Cain won a Gold Glove in 2019 and had his best defensive WAR since 2013. But at the same time his batting slipped from .308/.395/.417 the previous season to .260/.325/.372.
And how will age be a factor? Cain turns 35 on April 13.
Since 2010, there have been two players 35 or older who played at least 60% of their games in center and had 300+ plate appearances in a season: Brett Gardner in 2019 and Rajai Davis in 2016 and ’17. Of course, neither of those players is even close to the defensive player compared to Cain. Gardner did hit .251/.325/.503 with 28 homers. Davis had under a .700 OPS both years but stole 43 and 29 bases.
The only player in MLB history to have a defensive WAR of 2 or higher who was 35 or older and played at least half his games in center field was 35-year-old Willie Mays (2.1) in 1966. Cain had a 2.2 dWAR in 2018 and 2.4 in ’19 as well has having 2+ in three straight seasons with Kansas City from 2013-15.
Interestingly, the Brewers had a 35+-year old center fielder form 2008-10, with Mike Cameron, 35 and 36 in 2008-09, and 40-year-old Jim Edmonds, who appeared in 52 games and 73 games overall before being dealt in 2010.
How will the pitching staff shape up?
The Brewers’ unofficial depth chart lists the five starters as (in order) Brandon Woodruff, Corbin Burnes, Adrian Houser, Josh Lindblom and Eric Lauer. The team also reportedly re-signed Brett Anderson, although it has yet to be officially announced. The top two are solid bets for the rotation as would be Anderson. The other three all have major question marks based off the 2020 season.
However, if not the bottom three filling the final two spots, then who? Does Brent Suter or Freddy Peralta move from the bullpen to the rotation? Can Jordan Zimmermann impress enough in spring to earn a spot? Are any young pitchers – Aaron Ashby, Alec Bettinger, Zack Brown, Dylan File, Thomas Jankins or Ethan Wahl – close to being ready? (In that group, only Bettinger and File are on the 40-man roster … but FWIW their camp uniform numbers are 73 and 96.)
The bullpen makeup is always one in transition during the season and up for question on who will inhabit it at the start of the season. This year is no different, of course.
There are your locks, such as Josh Hader, Peralta, Suter, Devin Williams and Eric Yardley. That leaves probably 3-4 spots.
Rosters will have 26 players this season with no limit on the number of pitchers. We’d expect Milwaukee to have an eight- or nine-man pen. The latter would leave the Brewers with just a four-man bench, one of which would be a catcher.
Among the 40-man roster players battling for the remaining bullpen slots are Phil Bickford, Ray Black, J.P. Feyereisen, Angel Perdomo, Drew Rasmussen, Justin Topa and Bobby Wahl.
Milwaukee brought in a number of veterans on minor-league deals to compete, including Brad Boxberger (his signing has yet to be announced), Jake Cousins, Blaine Hardy and Hoby Milner. Prospects Clayton Andrew, Miguel Sanchez and Quintin Torres-Costa are also in camp.
If you go by the “assigned number” theory in trying to figure out who has the best chance to make the team, Hardy is No. 36 and Milner No. 55.
Which NRIs have the best chance of making the roster?
In case you’re wondering who all these guys are, we ran down all 21 non-roster invites previously.
Boxberger, Hardy and/or Millner, mentioned above, seem to have a decent shot of making the bullpen (Justin Grimm made the opening roster last season an NRI, for what it’s worth).
Zimmermann surely will be given a decent shot to show he can be a productive MLB player again.
Green, who flashed big-time power in the minors in 2018-19, perhaps has a shot at the quagmire known as third base.
Peterson played in 26 games for Milwaukee in 2020. Counsell will definitely keep at least one utility player if not more, although there’s a lot more competition for that role this spring, including another non-roster invite in Pablo Reyes.