Third base has been a rather unsettled position for the Milwaukee Brewers since the trade of Aramis Ramirez in July of 2015. Seven different players manned the hot corner last season, lead by Aaron Hill’s 55 starts. Looking to bring some stability to the position as well as some left-handed balance to lineup, Slingin’ David Stearns acquired Travis Shaw during the Winter Meetings as a part of the trade package for reliever Tyler Thornburg to help fill both voids.
Shaw was never really a highly-regarded prospect after being selected in the 9th round of the 2011 MLB Draft, but he ascended his way through the minor league ranks and debuted with Boston in 2015. He spent most of his time at first base in the minor leagues and appeared there in 55 of the 65 games he played during his first season in the big leagues, during which he batted a stellar .270/.327/.487 (114 OPS+) with 13 home runs in 248 plate appearances.
Affectionately known as “The Mayor of Ding Dong City,” Shaw came into spring training with Boston in 2016 figuring to compete for a bench job. The struggles and injuries of Pablo Sandoval, however, created a hole in the lineup at third base, a position that Travis had some experience at during his minor league career. A strong camp convinced John Farrell that Shaw was the right man to play at the hot corner, and he entered last season as the Red Sox regular third baseman.
A solid start to the season (.269/.332/.456, 9 HR during the first half) wasn’t enough to convince the Red Sox brass that Shaw could continue to handle playing everyday, so they acquired right-handed hitting Aaron Hill from the Brewers to platoon with Shaw down the stretch. Shaw struggled to adapt to losing his everyday role, and would lose more and more at-bats while he slumped to a .619 OPS in the season’s 2nd-half. He told Tom Haudricourt:
“I played every single day the first half of the season,” said Shaw, an Ohio native. “The Red Sox traded for Aaron Hill and I went into platoon mode as soon as he got there and that’s something I’d never done in my career, playing three days a week and sat three days.
“It was something that obviously I didn’t adjust to very well, and it kind of got me out of my rhythm. Then once I got out of my rhythm I got a little frustrated with what was going on.
“I think the platoon role messed everything up originally, but I could have handled it a lot better than I did.”
Shaw finished the season with a below-average .242/.306/.421 slash line (88 OPS+) across 530 plate appearances in 2016, clubbing 16 home runs and 34 doubles while also stealing five bases. He was deemed expendable by Dave Dombrowski of the Red Sox as the GM sought to upgrade his team’s pitching staff over the winter, and the Brewers will be hoping that Shaw can move on from his second-half struggles and provide them with useful production at third base.
At the plate, Shaw has struck out a fair amount during his young career (24.4% of his 778 plate appearances) and has only walked at about a league-average clip (7.8%). He’s probably never going to be a guy that posts high batting averages or on-base percentages, but he’s demonstrated above-average pop (29 home runs in 210 games) and a move to Miller Park should give his bat a boost. As I explored back in December, Fenway Park has been one of the toughest places for a southpaw hitter to play for the last several seasons as only two other parks (Miami and San Francisco) suppressed left-handed home runs more. Milwaukee’s home field, on the other hand, is the fourth-most conducive ballpark for left-handed home runs, behind only Yankee Stadium, Colorado, and Baltimore.
Shaw’s most important contribution may very well end up being his defense at the hot corner, which has graded out well above-average thus far during his time in the majors. Shaw accrued 10 defensive runs saved (5th among MLB third baseman) and 10.0 fielding runs above average (3rd) in just 851.1 innings at the hot corner last year. For as large as he is (6’4”, 230 lbs), he’s displayed adequate range and a strong enough arm to be an asset at the position.
Overall, Shaw doesn’t have an extremely high ceiling but appears to be capable of producing at an “average regular” clip of about 2 wins above replacement. He’s a strong defender who has been about a league-average hitter during his career (96 OPS+) and is a threat to put 15-20+ ball over the fence annually, which could increase with his move to Milwaukee. In addition to his abilities at third base, Shaw’s defensive versatilty (experience at first base and left field) will allow Craig Counsell to continue to be creative with his lineups. With five years of team control left and no top third base prospects in close proximity to the majors, expect Shaw to get an extended period to prove he can handle the position long-term.
If the left-handed hitting Shaw struggles against same-handed pitching like he did in 2016 (.599 OPS, though it was .975 in 2015), someone like Hernan Perez would make for a perfect platoon partner. Scooter Gennett, who has been learning third base in camp this spring, could also see some time there this season, as could someone like Eric Sogard or Ivan De Jesus, Jr., should either make the team as a non-roster invitee.
On the Farm
Utilty-type players Yadiel Rivera and Nate Orf both provide insurance in the upper minors...George Iskenderian and Jose Cuas each struggled in the pitcher-friendly confines of Brevard County...Lucas Erceg is the club’s top third base prospect and has been impressive this spring, he’ll likely begin the year with the Carolina Mudcats...Jake Gatewood split time between third base and first base in Appleton last year and has impressive raw power, but his approach needs work...Weston Wilson showed well in Helena but was old for the league...Chad McClanahan received a $1.2 mil bonus as an 11th rounder last year, but may ultimately have to move to first base.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs, Baseball-Reference, and Baseball Prospectus