Coming into Spring Training, the Milwaukee Brewers had an outfield "competition" on their hands that in reality probably wasn't really much of a competition at all. The club touted a field of some nine players vying for a starting role in center field and two available bench spots, but given the realities of roster construction those slots were probably already reserved for the trio of Kirk Neiuwenhuis, Ramon Flores, and Rymer Liriano, all of whom were acquired this past winter and are out of minor league options.
However things changed dramatically yesterday as Rymer Liriano took a fastball from the Dodgers' Matt West under his left eye in the eighth inning. Liriano was down on the ground for some fifteen minutes before being carted off the field and taken to the hospital, where he remains for observation after being diagnosed with multiple facial fractures. He'll now undoubtedly start the season on the disabled list as he recovers, with teammates and players around the league sending their thoughts and prayers for a speedy recovery.
#Brewers have developed good chemistry and brotherhood in clubhouse despite rebuilding. You know they will rally around Rymer Liriano now.— Tom (@Haudricourt) March 21, 2016
It's tough to focus on playing a game when something as devastating as what happened to Rymer occurs, but Opening Day is now just two weeks away and the club needs to re-focus on preparing for the season ahead. With Liriano now out of the picture for the Opening Day roster, a spot has opened up in the outfield and there's really only one obvious candidate to seize it.
There might not be a player who has made a more impactful first impression this spring than toolsy outfielder Keon Broxton, who came over from Pittsburgh in the Jason Rogers trade this past winter. Keon (who has minor league options remaining) split last season between AA and AAA, hitting a cumulative .273/.357/.438 with 10 home runs and 39 stolen bases in 133 games.
This spring, Broxton has been one of manager Craig Counsell's most oft-used players and has handled the majority of the innings (63.0 across 17 games) in center field. Not that spring training numbers matter all that much, but Keon is hitting a still-impressive .348/.531/.391 in 32 plate appearances and boasts a team-high nine walks. He's also leading the club with six stolen bases in eight attempts.
The soon to be 26 year old has long been praised for his other-worldly athleticism and has shown a tremendous ability to track down balls while roaming center field this spring. He's also versatile enough to be capable of playing left and right field if need be. His biggest drawback is that he does have serious contact issues that have always put his future big league production in question, and true to form he has struck out in 22% of his plate appearances this spring.
For a rebuilding club that is actively looking to improve its defense over last year's disaster, the Brewers could do much worse than putting Keon Broxton in center field. At the very least he will provide strong defensive value, and he should now finally have the opportunity to prove whether or not his bat will play at the big league level.
I have no doubt that Broxton would tell you he wishes his opportunity could have arisen through a means other than a devastating injury to a teammate. However this is as good a chance as he'll ever have for regular playing time in The Show and it's now going to be on Broxton to capitalize and prove that he's a major league-caliber ballplayer.
Statistics courtesy of Brewers.com