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Keon Broxton Could Be Valuable in 2017

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Exploring the options in the center field.

MLB: Chicago Cubs at Milwaukee Brewers Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Many are assuming that Keon Broxton will be the Brewers’ starting center fielder in 2017. Keon had an exciting hot streak during the second half that should give him a leg up going into next year, but is he the best option for the team in 2017?

Broxton began his career as a third round pick in 2009 by the Arizona Diamondbacks. (Keon was also drafted in the 29th round of the 2008 Amateur Draft by the Phillies, but did not sign.) The Brewers acquired him (along with Trey Supak) from the Pirates’ organization in a trade for first baseman Jason Rogers on Dec. 17, 2015. He will turn 27 in May of 2017, entering what should be his prime-age seasons as a professional baseball player.

Broxton started the 2016 season with the Brewers as a 4th outfielder/platoon center fielder with Kirk Nieuwenhuis. He struggled mightily at the plate, striking out 10 times in his first 14 (hitless) at-bats, and became a yo-yo for the Brewers between the big club and AAA Colorado Springs during the first half of the season. Nagging injuries to right fielder Domingo Santana and injuries and/or scheduled time off for left fielder Ryan Braun made Broxton’s presence a necessity at the major league level.

During the middle of the year while at Colorado Springs, Broxton had made an adjustment to his hand position and it allowed him to be set more quickly as a pitch came in. Keon attributed that adjustment to hot hitting in AAA, and it carried over into a fine second half with the Brewers.

If we simply extrapolate Broxton’s 45 second half games to a full season we get 135 games played, a .294/.399/.538 slash, an OPS of .937, with 27 doubles, 3 triples, and 24 homers. That is all-star territory. Of course, this assumes that a BABIP of .425 is a sustainable number, that his adjustment continues to work, that pitchers don’t make adjustments to him, and that a regression to the mean doesn’t apply here. He still posted a high K % of 32.5% for the second half (an improvement over his astonishing 44% for his first half with the Brewers).

Fangraphs has their Steamer projections out, and they aren’t buying Broxton’s second half as a guide for 2017. Their projection for 2017 is 122 games played and a slash of .222/.304/.379, OPS of .683, with a BABIP of .315. His extra base projection is 18 doubles, 4 triples, and 14 homers. His strikeout rate remains high at 32.9%, though he is also projected to walk in 10.2% of his plate appearances as well. Overall he’s forecasted for an 80 wRC+ by this model, which would be a fair sight below the 96 wRC+ that the league-average CF posted in 2016. This projection feels like it totally disregards the success of the hitting adjustment, rather than just pure luck. That may be fair if pitchers make their adjustments to Broxton’s new approach and he’s unable to continue adapting, but I certainly hope that’s not the case.

ZiPS projections have just come in and project Broxton at similar numbers to the Steamer numbers, with 18 doubles, 6 triples, and 16 homers to go along with a .216/.297/.408 slash line (92 OPS+). Perhaps those statistical projections will be correct; if anything they seem to provide a reasonable floor for what we can expect from Keon. It is worth noting that even with those modest offensive numbers, Keon still rates out at a 1-2 WAR level in about 480 PA by those projections thanks to his defensive ability in center field.

The best advantage the Brewers will get from deploying Keon is his defense. He is rated with a slightly below average arm, but still posted 9 defensive runs saved in his 511 innings of work last season. His UZR/150 was 23.2. Broxton did commit 4 errors last year, usually on over-aggressiveness on hits up the middle (bobbles, over-runs). But his overall numbers and prowess on the outfield grass increase his value to the team and the pitching staff tremendously.

Keon is a plus runner whose speed is an asset not only in the outfield, but on the basepaths. Broxton is a good base stealer, and he was successful on 23 of 27 attempts last year. Steamer has him coming in at 27 of 40, and ZiPS with 25 of 33, which both sound low - I’d say if given a full season opportunity, he’d get 30 steals if he comes in with 40 attempts.

There is the issue of Broxton’s broken right wrist, suffered on Sept. 16 while making a catch at Wrigley Field and colliding with the wall. Even if his recovery is complete, it will have no doubt altered what’s he able to do in workouts this offseason to continue his development and prepare for 2017. A slow start wouldn’t be a surprise, but not 2016 slow, one hopes.

It’s worth noting that Keon’s overall wRC+ of 109 (brutal first half and outstanding second half) was well above the average center fielder’s production last year, so if he can even replicate that it would be a plus for the Brewers. I’ll probably be a bit overly optimistic in my projection: .258/.351/.458. OPS of .789 in about 480 PA, and 23 doubles, 3 triples, and 19 homers. That should certainly be enough to keep a full-time job, but I expect it should be the high end of our hopes.

The Brewers have a few options on their 40 man roster to compete for the center field job. Incumbent 4th outfielder Kirk Nieuwenhuis played about 75% of his 813 innings in center last season for the Brewers, and posted a solid 13.7 UZR/150 there (which was much better than his corner outfield numbers). He is also rated with a slightly above average arm for center. Nieuwenhuis hit with power for the Brewers but had stats splits crazily tilted towards hitting in Miller Park (.290/.397/.526 home, BABIP of .418; away was .127/.249/.211, OPS of .460, BABIP of .194). Despite the defensive ratings, it is pretty obvious that Keon Broxton has much more range in center than Nieuwenhuis, and will help the pitching staff more. Nieuwenhuis looks to be a solid bet as the 4th outfielder again.

Prospect Lewis Brinson will most likely start the year at AAA Colorado Springs. Brinson has played a large majority of his games in the minors in center, but has some experience at the corners. As the Brewers top rated prospect in all such ratings (including BCB), it would seem that he is ultimately slated to take over there. But it is possible that the Brewers will still trade Ryan Braun before this season starts, and Brinson would be a logical player to compete for the left field spot right away. Corey Ray and Brett Phillips also rate as top ten prospects in the Brewers’ organization, and could be in center at some point, but appear set to open 2017 in low-A and AA.

Current right fielder Domingo Santana has played in center, but is clearly a corner outfielder. His second half batting numbers after his return from shoulder and elbow injuries were very encouraging, giving the Brewers a lot of depth at the position. So at some point in the next two or three years it would appear that the Brewers will have a surplus of major league ready outfielders, even if Ryan Braun is traded now. That could mean that any of the above mentioned could be traded, including Keon Broxton.

But for 2017 the prudent approach seems to be to give Broxton the job in center and let him play unless he totally flames out. The Brewers still have time in their rebuild. Slim hopes of contention depend on players like Broxton and Santana continuing their second half performances of 2016, among a myriad of things that need to go right.

Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs