The Brewers have eight players up for arbitration this winter as they continue their rebuild. We'll take a look at each one, make the case for tendering that player a contract and the case for cutting ties, and try to figure out what the Brewers should do before the non-tender deadline.
Today it's the backup outfielder who was pressed into action due to injury and wound up being a virtual full-time player.
OF Kirk Nieuwenhuis
2016 Salary: $514,000
Estimated Arbitration Cost (via MLB Trade Rumors): $1.6 million
The Case for Tendering
Nieuwenhuis was supposed to be, at most, a platoon centerfielder in 2016. But with Domingo Santana missing more than half the year, he wound up being in the lineup more than anyone expected. He ended up providing some left-handed pop, taking advantage of the party area in right field to hit 13 home runs and 18 doubles in 392 plate appearances. He also found himself on base quite a bit for a guy who struggles with contact, walking 56 times to put up an OBP 115 points higher than his batting average.
He also lived up to his reputation as a good defensive outfielder, posting a postive UZR for the fourth year in a row. Steady defense is the main reason Nieuwenhuis managed to post a positive WAR (according to both FanGraphs and Baseball Reference) despite the inconsistent offense.
Put it all together and you have an okay-if-unspectacular reserve outfielder that you'd be fine with filling in for a day here or there. For about a million-and-a-half, that's not a terrible deal.
The Case for Non-Tendering
Chris Carter thinks Kirk should shorten up that swing a bit and strike out less. I'm kidding, but Nieuwenhuis did struggle to catch up against above-average fastballs and breaking pitches last year and struck out in more than 1/3 of his plate appearances. His 33.9% K% ranked first on the team among those with at least 300 PAs, ahead of even Carter (Keon Broxton would've taken that title, but his broken wrist meant his only compiled 244 PAs). A high number of strikeouts is easier to accept when you're talking about your slugging first baseman and the game has grown to generally look the other way on strikeouts, but you also need to look like a Major League hitter that isn't overmatched.
There's also the matter of a growing logjam in the outfield. Aside from Broxton, Santana also needs to see regular at-bats in 2017, Lewis Brinson is running out of things to prove at Triple-A, Ryan Cordell will join the upper levels of the Brewers' system and Brett Phillips could also see a call-up by the end of 2017. In addition to the top prospects, the Brewers will have to ask themselves if Nieuwenhuis brings anything more than Michael Reed or even Kyle Wren could at a lower cost (and with much easier-to-spell names). Some of that could be alleviated by dealing Ryan Braun in the offseason, but that's not a deal that's guaranteed to happen.
What Should Happen?
If there's a player among the Brewers' eight arbitration-eligible players that's actually in danger of possibly being non-tendered, I would argue it's Nieuwenhuis. He performed as expected, but the organization is also at a point where they shouldn't be wasting at-bats on a 29-year-old journeyman when they should be figuring out what they have in some of their prospects.
With that said, the financial cost of bringing him back isn't prohibitive. It'd be a much easier decision if he was a year deeper into the arbitration process and in line to make, say, $4 or $5 million instead of $1.5 million. If management isn't confident Broxton will be totally healed in time for spring training or convinced Brinson is ready (or would rather wait to start his arb clock, or try to eek out an extra year of control), they could choose to at least bring him to Arizona in the spring and make a 25-man roster decision later.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball Reference