The arrival of baseball in 2016 is nearly upon us as spring training begins in less than three weeks time. It's been a busy first offseason for Slingin' David Stearns and the Milwaukee Brewers, who have turned over nearly half their 40 man roster so far this winter. Stearns has not only focused on bringing in talent in the lower minors to rebuild the farm system, but he has also added several players who should have the opportunity to compete for playing time and the chance to make an impact on the 2016 ballclub.
One of the Brewers greatest positions of depth even coming into this winter was in the outfield. But that didn't stop Stearns from adding four new outfielders to the 40 man roster, culminating in last week's trade for post-hype prospect Rymer Liriano from the Padres. After Shane Peterson was designated for assignment (and remains in DFA limbo) to make room for Liriano on the 40 man, the Brewers were left stocked with eight outfielders who they figure to enter spring training with:
Ramon Flores - no minor league options
Rymer Liriano - no minor league options
Kirk Nieuwenhuis - no minor league options
The club has also invited Alex Presley, Eric Young Jr, and Brett Phillips to big league camp as non-roster invitees. Phillips will eventually be returned to the minor leagues to continue his development, which leaves 10 players who could conceivably be competing for a spot on the Brewers' Opening Day roster. So the question is, where do all these guys fit in?
As it stands, left field will be Khris Davis' job, as it rightfully should be. Davis had a terrific season last year, ranking second among all major league left fielders (min 400 PA) with 27 home runs, fifth with a .828 OPS and .353 wOBA, and seventh with a 121 wRC+. He's gotten continued support from manager Craig Counsell, who again stressed that Davis will be the starting left fielder during the On Deck event over the weekend. The only way Davis could lose the gig before Opening Day would be if he gets traded, which is a realistic possibility. The White Sox have been mentioned as potential suitors.
Here again in the other outfield corner we know who the starter will be in Ryan Braun. The former MVP and the club's current longest-tenured player is beginning the first year of his five-year, $105 mil contract extension this season and doesn't figure to be going anywhere anytime soon. He was very productive last season while posting a .285/.356/.498 line with 25 home runs and staying healthy enough to play 140 games. If Braun can repeat that production in 2016, his contract suddenly doesn't look quite as intimidating to try and trade. He had back surgery early in the winter and is currently a couple weeks behind in his rehab, but he still plans to be ready for Opening Day.
Here is where the real competition starts. Stearns quickly decided that playing Domingo Santana out of position was not something he wanted the club to do on an everyday basis in 2016, and as such has brought in several players who could compete for the job. Kirk Nieuwenhuis is the most experienced and has posted solid fielding numbers in more than 700 career innings in center, though he doesn't offer much offensively and has limited upside. Rymer Liriano has played mostly right field during his minor league career, but also has significant experience in center and certainly has the tools to play there. A former top 60 prospect as little as two years ago, Liriano probably has the most upside to offer. Keon Broxton looked good in the upper minors for Pittsburgh last season, but he'll turn 26 this season and has only played 88 games in AAA. Unlike Liriano and Nieuwenhuis, Broxton also has options remaining and can be sent to the minor leagues without having to clear waivers. Alex Presley and Eric Young, Jr could get token looks at the position, but given that they are on minor league contracts it's hard to imagine them taking someone's space on the 40 man roster at this point.
Since he's not going to be the usual center fielder, Domingo Santana figures to slide into an oft-used fourth outfield role similar to the one Gerardo Parra began in last season. He'll probably get anywhere from 2-4 starts per week while rotating through all three outfield spots, which should be consistent enough playing time to see what Santana can do against big league pitching. This would change if Khris Davis is traded, which would move Ryan Braun (the weaker defender) over to left and allow Santana to play right field every day.
That leaves one potential bench spot remaining. Ramon Flores is out of options but also recovering from a broken ankle, so there's a good possibility he can be stashed on the disabled list for awhile while the other optionless candidates are being evaluated. With a DL stint and the accompanying minor league rehab assignment, the Brewers could probably buy themselves and extra month or two before having to give Flores a look, and his excellent contact-discipline profile and defensive versatility should make him a capable piece to have off the bench.
In the meantime though, Michael Reed probably gets a look but given that he's got options remaining, he'll likely be relegated to AAA. Presley and Young Jr again may have a shot, though it's probably limited. That likely means the loser of the center field battle could end up claiming the last spot on the bench.
Without any baseball having yet been played, I'll predict that the Brewers outfield picture looks like this to start the year:
LF - Davis
CF - Liriano
RF - Braun
BN - Santana
BN - Nieuwenhuis
The Brewers are going to want to give themselves as many opportunities as possible to fully evaluate the optionless Liriano before cutting the cord, as he's got starting-caliber tools and upside and center field is the best spot for them to do that. Nieuwenhuis can provide a veteran presence off the bench and given that he bats left-handed, he could perhaps even platoon with Liriano in center. I don't think Nieuwenhuis is long for the team, however, and he probably gets replaced by fellow lefty Ramon Flores once he is healthy enough to return.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs