The Brewers have until the end of November to decide what to do with the 13 remaining players they have on the roster that are eligible for salary arbitration. They’ve already taken care of a couple of cases, picking up a team option for Jeremy Jeffress to avoid arbitration and outrighting Stephen Vogt off the roster.
For the remaining players, we’ll take a look at what they did during the 2018 season, what they’re expected to make in a hypothetical arbitration hearing, and whether the Brewers should tender them a contract or non-tender them. Today it’s the trade deadline acquisition that may have played himself out of Milwaukee after just a half season.
2B Jonathan Schoop
2018 salary: $8.5 million
2019 projection: $10.1 million
Difference: +$1.6 million
This is probably the most polarizing arbitration case the Brewers have had in some time, and it likely goes back to how polarizing the initial trade to bring Jonathan Schoop to Milwaukee was.
That was before Schoop hit just .202/.246/.331 in 46 games, never quite getting himself out of a slump that started when he admitted to pressing too much to impress his new teammates. By the end of the year, Schoop was riding the bench when the Brewers faced left-handed pitching, with Craig Counsell opting instead to go with the likes of Hernan Perez in the starting lineup.
We always say we generally can’t fully evaluate trades until a few years later, when everyone has had a chance to try to prove themselves with their new teams -- but this is already a clear frontrunner for the worst (or at least most disappointing) trade of the David Stearns Era. Now the team has a big decision to make in the next week -- whether to cut ties altogether, or see if they can catch one of Schoop’s patented hot streaks and ride it just long enough to buy time for Keston Hiura.
The Case for Tendering
We didn’t see it much -- if at all -- in Milwaukee, but Schoop has generally proven himself to be a solid defensive second baseman who can hit the ball out of the park at an above-average rate: basically Rickie Weeks with more defense and less on-base skills (more on that in a minute). Prior to 2018, he had wRC+ seasons of 122, 99, and 113 (if you need a reminder, 100 is average for a position player). Even if he never reaches the levels he hit in 2017 again -- that 122 wRC+ with a .293/.338/.503 line and 32 home runs -- he’s still been an average bat for multiple seasons, maybe even an above-average contributor when you factor in the fact he plays second base.
While he strikes out a fair amount -- 23% of his at-bats in 2018 -- there’s also an argument to be made that Schoop was a bit unlucky when he did make make contact this past year. His BABIP for the full season was .261, and his BABIP with the Brewers was a touch lower at .259, well below his career average BABIP of .296. Considering he only saw 134 plate appearances with the Brewers, a handful more hits falling in would have at least brought his production a little closer to career averages.
It wasn’t like Schoop was hitting weak tappers, either -- his hard-hit rate with Milwaukee was at 31.8%, actually higher than his career average. His line drive rate of 21.2% was also higher than his breakout season of 2017, when it was at 20.9%. That would seem to lend more evidence to the theory he was unlucky, and that he was hitting the ball hard only to find gloves instead of grass.
It’s a $10 million gamble, but there were signs that there was some life in Schoop’s bat.
The Case for Non-Tendering
Well, it’s a $10 million gamble, and that’s not one the Brewers can often afford to take.
Players with Schoop’s profile are incredibly volatile, and while he’s shown to be a productive player in the past, counting on that in hopes he’ll turn it around eventually is a bit of a gambler’s fallacy.
In today’s game, teams can live with strikeouts if you can make up for it by taking a fair amount of walks. At least that way, it’s a sign you’re making the opposing pitcher throw a lot of pitches, and even if your hit skill isn’t great -- and Schoop’s isn’t -- you at least avoid making an out and get on base. Schoop’s career BB% is 3.7%, putting him in a tie for third-worst in baseball since his debut with Dee Gordon and only better than Salvador Perez and Tim Anderson.
That, combined with a higher-than-average strikeout rate, makes him prone to long, long slumps -- as we saw this year, when his red-hot July was basically bookended by entire half-long slumps. For that kind of player to provide value, he almost needs to hit 30 home runs. Devoting that kind of playing time to a player like that may be fine for teams like Baltimore who have nothing to play for, or teams like the Yankees whose lineup is so deep it doesn’t matter, but for the Brewers that is a significant risk to take on both fronts -- even before you get to the $10 million pricetag.
If the Brewers want to kill a few months before Hiura clears the Super Two deadline and make sure he can hit higher-level pitching at Triple-A, there are other -- and much cheaper -- options they can use to muddle through April and May. They dealt with a half of Hernan Perez and Jonathan Villar in 2018 and still wound up with the best record in the National League. They could platoon Perez with another cheap option in 2019 and get something close to the same production they would from Schoop, allocate that $10 million to rotation help or somewhere else, and end up with a net positive.
What Should Happen
At this point it’s probably important to remember that even if the Brewers tender Schoop a contract on Friday, it isn’t a guarantee he’s on the Opening Day roster -- or even with the team when they report to camp in Arizona. More than a couple writers have floated the idea of a Schoop-for-Sonny Gray change of scenery swap, which makes sense for both teams in a lot of ways. Schoop could also be cut before the end of Spring Training, with the Brewers only on the hook for a portion of that salary. Of course, that math is a lot different for Schoop’s case than it is for someone like Dan Jennings -- even if the Brewers aren’t on the hook for all of the $10 million or so Schoop would likely get in arbitration, paying a fraction of that is still millions the Brewers threw down the drain.
Whether or not Stearns decides to tender Schoop a contract might depend on how he feels about his chances to trade him, whether it’s this winter or by July. There’s always the chance the Brewers get lucky and catch lightning in a bottle for a few months -- hey, it’s happened several times already in the past year or so -- and they get some value out of Schoop on the field before hot-potatoing him off to someone else, but again, that’s a risk that’s easier to take when the player in question is only making a couple million instead of $10 million.
If there’s one thing we probably shouldn’t worry about, it’s Stearns hanging on to Schoop and giving him a ton of at-bats just to try to prove it wasn’t a bad trade. Stearns has repeatedly shown he’s willing to cut bait on his mistakes fairly quickly if things aren’t working out, whether it’s Neftali Feliz or Boone Logan. Schoop may get a chance to prove himself this spring, but if he doesn’t do it in Maryvale, he probably shouldn’t count on being on the Opening Day roster.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs
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