February has come around again, and for followers of the pastime, that means baseball is not far away. Aside from the surprising free agent signing of Eric Thames, the Milwaukee Brewers have been relatively quiet this offseason. After trade speculation surrounded MVP outfielder Ryan Braun for the last season and a half, any and all rumors fell through and Braun remains the Brewers’ franchise player. Reliever Tyler Thornburg was sent to Boston in exchange for infielders Travis Shaw and Mauricio Dubon, and pitcher Josh Pennington. Additionally, long time backstop Martín Maldonado was traded to the Los Angeles Angels for catcher Jett Bandy. Other than those transactions, General Manager David Stearns has been mostly out of the spotlight. With that being said, the Brewers will still enter Spring Training with several players to watch, each with unique storylines.
1B/OF Eric Thames (2016: 40 HR, 118 RBI, .317/.425/.676 in Korean Baseball Organization)
Thames last played in the Majors in 2012 with the Blue Jays and Mariners, where he only appeared in 86 games and compiled an underwhelming slash line of .232/.273/.399. Thames is expected to be the Brewers’ primary first baseman, replacing Chris Carter who led the National League in home runs (41) in 2016. Carter’s contract was not tendered, and he became a free agent this offseason.
What makes Thames so intriguing is the apparent commitment the Brewers are making to him. Thames signed a 3-year contract worth at least $16M after he put up video game-type numbers in South Korea. In his three seasons there, Thames recored 472 hits, 124 home runs, and a batting average of .349. Those kind of numbers are more than enough to draw attention from big league clubs, but is a three year commitment viable? Although Thames was the KBO’s MVP in 2015, the pitching he will face in Major League Baseball is, frankly, much better. Nonetheless, the Brewers liked their chances with Thames’ lefty bat enough to let Carter walk.
SS Orlando Arcia (2016: 4 HR, 17 RBI, .219/.273/.358 with Brewers)
For the first time in his career, Orlando Arica will go to Spring Training knowing one thing is for certain—he will be a Major League starting shortstop afterwards. Arcia’s long awaited debut came last year, and he flashed the brilliance many have said he was capable of. Although he only hit .217 at the plate, Arcia showcased his defensive range and offensive aggressiveness.
Arcia was long regarded as one of the premier defensive players in the minors. In 2015, he broke out as a potential offensive threat as well, and skyrocketed up baseball prospect boards. Since then, Brewers fans longed for the day he would become the team’s next star. And at just 22 years old, he has plenty of time to develop. 2016 will be Arcia’s first full-season test at the big league level. With Jonathan Villar to his left at second base, Milwaukee’s middle infield could evolve into one of the most prolific in baseball.
LHP Josh Hader (2016: 3-8, 3.29 ERA, 126.0 IP, 161 SO in AA and AAA)
According to MLB Pipeline, Josh Hader is the best southpaw prospect. He has recently drawn ambitious comparisons to Chris Sale because of his lanky build and three-quarter delivery. The prize of the Carlos Gomez-Mike Fiers trade in 2015, Hader has been a strikeout machine since his pro debut in 2012 with the Baltimore Orioles’ organization. In 505.0 professional career innings pitched, Hader has struck out 578 batters, all while maintaining an ERA of 2.96 and a WHIP of 1.18. Most baseball pundits and columnists agree that, barring injury, 2017 will be the year Hader gets to toss his electric repertoire against Major Leaguers.
The Brewers have a good problem—too many starting pitchers. In addition to Hader, Taylor Jungmann, Tommy Milone, Wily Peralta, Brent Suter, Chase Anderson, Matt Garza, and Jorge Lopez will all be considered for spots in the rotation (with Jimmy Nelson, Junior Guerra, and Zach Davies being virtual locks). Regardless of Hader’s spring performance, it’s unlikely that he will see substantial playing time in the Majors early in the season, but he could be first name called in the case of an open roster spot during the 2017 campaign.
OF Keon Broxton (2016: 9 HR, 19 RBI, .242/.354/.430 with Brewers)
Keon Broxton was somewhat unknown among fans when the Brewers traded Jason Rogers to the Pittsburgh Pirates for him in 2015. Broxton was drafted in the third round in 2009 by the Arizona Diamondbacks, but took longer than expected to blossom. He played in just seven games with the Pirates in 2015, but he earned the Opening Day start in center field for Milwaukee the following year. Broxton struggled initially, which led to multiple stints in AAA. However, in the latter half of the season and after adjusting his batting mechanics, Broxton became a reliable, consistent player, both offensively and defensively.
The Brewers have stockpiled talented outfielders in recent years, but even with young studs like Corey Ray, Lewis Brinson, and Brett Phillips nearing the Majors, Broxton’s spot on the team should be safe if he performs adequately this spring. Broxton has flashed signs of being a 20-20 player. He crushed nine home runs in just 75 games, and he stole 23 bases. If he’s able to stay consistent enough to stay in the bigs, he could be in for a breakout season in 2017.
2B/UTIL Scooter Gennett (2016: 14 HR, 56 RBI, .263/.317/.412 with Brewers)
With Arica easing in to the full-time shortstop role and Villar moving to second base, Scooter Gennett will have to learn new positions if he wants consistent playing time this season. Manager Craig Counsell told reporters in January that Gennett would be seeing time in the outfield in Spring Training, which is not unheard of. Gennett’s teammate Hernán Pérez, a third baseman by trade, saw extensive time in right field last year, in an effort to keep his solid bat in the lineup.
Having a switch hitter in Villar manning second base all but erases the need for a platoon at the position. If Gennett is able to handle the outfield transition without too many hiccups, it’s reasonable to expect him to share time with Domingo Santana in right field. Otherwise, Gennett could be moved towards the top of Stearns’ trade list.