As Brewer fans, we've been spoiled in center field for awhile. For most of the last five years we have had the joy of watching Carlos Gomez roam the outfield at Miller Park, chasing down balls and crashing into walls and robbing home runs. Oh, and he also came into his own at the plate during that time as well an could certainly provide offensive fireworks. His larger-than-life personality and dynamic play on the field made him arguably one of the most entertaining players in baseball.
And then he was gone.
2016 will be new territory for the rebuilding Brewers and there may not be a position more wide open than center field. After the trade of Khris Davis to Oakland, the outfield realignment has Ryan Braun moving back to left field (where he's actually been a terrific defender) in order to allow the strong-armed Domingo Santana to take most of the reps in right field. That leaves center field up for grabs with some nine players who could be vying for a spot with the big league club.
Realistically, of course, some players have better opportunities than others. For non-roster players like Alex Pressley or Eric Young Jr, there will be a big hill to climb given that they aren't on the 40 man roster spot and lack recent success at the major league level. Shane Peterson saw plenty of action in center last season and hit an uninspiring .259/.323/.353 (83 wRC+), and defensive metrics like DRS and UZR were bearish on his work in center field. He also lost his 40 man spot this winter and would seem to be on the outside looking in at this point. Top prospect Brett Phillips is also in his first big league camp, but with only about 50 games at the AA level he's most certainly ticketed for the minor leagues to start the year.
Slingin' David Stearns did acquire a host of players this winter that are now on the 40 man roster and therefore have a better chance to compete for the spot. His first acquisition was outfielder 23 year old Ramon Flores who came over from Seattle in November. Flores is coming off a brutal ankle injury but has completed his rehab and is ready to go without restrictions this spring. He hit a combined .308/.401/.454 in 87 games at AAA last season and carries an 11.4% walk rate in his minor league career. Most of his experience is in left field but he's played 104 games in center field, as well. Flores is a left-handed hitter which should work in his favor, and he's also out of minor league options meaning he'll need to make the team this spring or be exposed to waivers.
Next is Keon Broxton, who came over from Pittsburgh in the Jason Rogers trade. At nearly 26 Broxton is a little on the older side as far as prospects go and he's had an up-and-down career to this point. After being "purchased" from the Diamondbacks by the Pirates in 2014, Broxton experienced an offensive breakout at AA with a career-high 134 wRC+. He hit .302/.365/.464 in 45 games at AA in 2015 before being called up to AAA and slashing .256/.352/.423 (126 wRC+) to end the season. He hit a combined 10 home runs and stole 39 bases across the two levels. Broxton even got a cup of coffee in the big leagues, going hitless in two plate appearances. He's a good defender in the outfield but has serious contact issues with a career 28.3% K rate in the minor leagues. He has options remaining.
Michael Reed is perhaps the most ready "homegrown" prospect for the position, and he showed up to camp in the "best shape of his life" this spring. Reed has always drawn rave reviews for his extremely patient approach at the plate and he walked in 14% of his plate appearances last season between AA and AAA while hitting a combined .269/.371/.410 with 26 stolen bases. Reed doesn't have much power, though, and has hit only 12 home runs in 435 MiLB games. He has a strong arm and has spent most of his time in right field, but also has some experience in center and certainly has the speed to play out there. Keith Law ranked Reed as the fifth best prospect in the Brewers' system and I also consider him a top 10 prospect, but at 23 and with just 38 games in AAA it might be beneficial for Reed to get some more seasoning in the minors. He also has minor league options remaning.
Michael Reed has definitely come to camp in excellent shape. pic.twitter.com/FLDGqKWW4k— Chris Harris (@CHarris731) February 23, 2016
Kirk Nieuwenhuis is the most experienced candidate, having played in 273 games at the big league level. During that time, however, he's posted a meager .232/.306/.389 slash with 17 home runs across 693 plate appearances. He's posted solid defensive numbers in center field, though, having accrued three Defensive Runs Saved in 723.2 career innings in the majors. Like Flores, Nieuwenhuis bats left-handed and is out of minor league options. Unfortunately for Kirk he also is the oldest legitimate candidate for center at 28 years old and probably has the least amount of upside. He was passed around between the Mets and Angels last season before finding his way to the Brewers via waivers, but he may not be long for Milwaukee.
Finally, my favorite candidate and the player whom I think will get the longest look in center field is former top-60 prospect Rymer Liriano. He was considered one of the best outfielders in the minor leagues before undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2013, causing him to miss that entire season. He looked overmatched in a 38 game stint in the majors with the Padres as a 23 year old in 2014, and a new front office lead by A.J. Preller pushed Liriano down the depth chart and eventually designated him for assignment. He came to the Brewers this winter in exchange for minor league lefty Trevor Seidenberger.
Liriano has done nothing but hit throughout his entire minor league career, though, and posted a .292/.383/.460 slash with 14 home runs and 18 steals in AAA in 2015. He does have some strikeout issues and has K'd in 24% of his minor league plate appearances, but he's also shown he's capable of drawing walks and has maintained a career .350 OBP in the minors. Like others listed here most of his outfield experience comes in right field but he does have the speed and the arm (even post TJ surgery) to play in center. He is still just 24 and has the potential to be an above-average regular at the major league level, though in a familiar theme he is out of minor league options and will have to break camp with the team or be exposed to waivers.
When it's all said and done, I believe that the Brewers will enter the season with some sort of Rymer Liriano/Ramon Flores time share in place in center field. Both have the upside of starters in the big leagues, and both are out of options and it's exceedingly likely either would get claimed if exposed to waivers. Given that both players required Stearns to dip into his own pool of prospects in order to bring them in, it wouldn't make sense to me to let either go without giving them a regular season audition with the big league team.
If the team chooses to carry five outfielders, that would leave one final bench position remaining for the rest of the cast to compete for. I personally believe Michael Reed is ticketed for AAA to start the season, leaving the spot up for grabs between Nieuwenhuis, Broxton, or perhaps someone like Shane Peterson. Expect to see some fierce competition this spring.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs