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Milwaukee Brewers 2017 Preview by Position: Center Field

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The job is Keon Broxton’s, but for how long?

Texas Rangers v Milwaukee Brewers Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

The Milwaukee Brewers’ outfield depth is the envy of the league. From the big league club all the way down to rookie ball, the Brewers have a pipeline of highly-touted players at every step along the way. That is sure to create plenty of competition for jobs not only now, but each successive season in the foreseeable future. Thanks to his strong finish last season, Keon Broxton is the man at the front of the line for the center field job in camp this spring, but he’s not taking it for granted.

“I feel like I still have a lot to prove,” Broxton said. “I feel like every day I step out there I have a lot to show to the world and show to myself. So to say I feel like I’m the centerfielder, yeah and no.

“At any point in time your job can be gone just like that, just as if I came in and took someone else’s job. I can’t get comfortable at all. If I am the centerfielder then that’s awesome.

“I still have a job to do every day, and that’s what I’m going to focus on.”

After a terrific spring last year, Keon Broxton was Milwaukee’s center fielder on Opening Day against Madison Bumgarner and the Giants. He took a little while to find his footing in the big leagues, however. He got off to an awful start, including going hitless in his first seven games as a Brewer, and racked up plenty of frequent flyer miles with four trips between Milwaukee and Colorado Springs during the first few months of the regular season. Each time he went back down to AAA he wound up raking (8 HR, .924 OPS in 47 games) but it wasn’t until his fourth call-up to the Brewers in late July that things finally started to come together for Keon at the big league level.

A major adjustment to his batting setup was the catalyst for Broxton’s success, as he channeled his inner-Eric Davis and dropped his hands from up near his ears to around his belt buckle while he waited to the pitch to be delivered. This allowed Broxton to get a “hitch” out of his swing and be much quicker to the ball, resulting in a huge increase in hard contact. No player in baseball with at least 150 plate appearances in the second half hit the ball with authority more regularly than Keon Broxton, who posted an outrageous 50.6% hard contact rate. According to Statcast, Keon had the 4th-highest average exit velocity (95.0 MPH) in baseball last season.

Broxton’s torrid 2nd-half OPS of .937 helped bring his season long batting line to a strong .242/.354/.430 (107 OPS+) with 9 home runs and 23 steals in 75 games. Combine that with sterling defense in center field (+9 DRS, +5.4 UZR in 511.0) innings, and Keon was a 2-win player according to both Fangraphs WAR and Baseball-Reference WAR in less than half a season’s worth of plate appearances. His outstanding batted-ball results and awe-inspiring finish to the season galvanized Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs to pen a piece entitled “How Keon Broxton looks like the Brewers’ best player” back in January, among several other pro-Broxton posts published at Fangraphs over the winter.

We know Keon has plus speed, has displayed above-average power, can draw plenty of walks (14.8% BB rate last year), and is a terrific defender in center field. The biggest question that he faces this season is if he’ll be able to hit enough to keep his bat in the lineup everyday. Had Broxton accrued enough plate appearances to qualify last season, his 36.1% strikeout rate would have been far-and-away the highest in the league (Chris Davis lead qualified hitters with 32.9%). He required a .373 BABIP in order to hit .242 on the season, though much of the damage was done during a first half that saw Keon strike out in 33 of his first 75 plate appearances. Broxton did at least manage to cut his K-rate down to 32.5% after the All-Star break, though that’d still be among the highest totals in the league. Even though Broxton has the tools to post consistently above-average BABIPs (speed, hard contact), it would bode much better for his success going forward if he can get that K-rate number below 30% this season. An improvement against fastballs (.207 batting average, 42 strikeouts) would be a big help in that category.

Broxton’s season was cut short last year when he broke his wrist against the brick outfield wall at Wrigley Field last September, but so far a scorching spring (.387/.486/.806, 3 HR, 6 BB in 11 games) has shown no ill-effects from that injury. Keon will be the center fielder on Opening Day (with Kirk Nieuwenhuis and Hernan Perez backing him up), but how long he’s able to keep that job will be dependent on him replicating the success he enjoyed during his breakout rookie season in the big leagues. The ample supply of hungry prospects nipping at his heels should keep the 27 year old motivated to continue working hard to produce results. Wouldn’t it be something if Milwaukee’s “center fielder of the future” doesn’t end up being one of the prospects acquired through the handful of blockbusters that we’ve seen over the past two years, but instead is a player who came over in an afterthought of a deal that sent Jason Rogers to Pittsburgh?

On the Farm

Lewis Brinson is Milwaukee’s #1 prospect and is having a strong spring training after posting a 1.005 OPS in 23 games in AAA last year, he’s ticketed to begin the season back in AAA but should see the big leagues this year...Michael Reed spent some time in center last year in AAA, but is likely more of a 4th or 5th OF...Brett Phillips has the best outfield arm in the system and is a strong defender, but his stock has fallen after a tough year in AA last year...Once the organization’s top prospect, Tyrone Taylor has seemingly stalled out at AA and been passed over on the org depth chart...2016 1st-rounder Corey Ray had a solid pro debut in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League, but is currently recovering slowly from a torn meniscus...2015 1st-rounder Trent Clark struggled with injuries at Wisconsin and may have to move to left field eventually, but lacks typical corner outfield power...Monte Harrison has shown flashes but can’t stay on the field...Jesus Lujano, Jose Gomez, and Joantgel Segovia enjoyed solid seasons for rookie-level affiliates last year.

Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference