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Assessing the options at second for the Milwaukee Brewers

What might the team be looking for in an outside candidate?

MLB: Colorado Rockies at Los Angeles Dodgers Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

As many Brew Crew Ball readers will know, the BCB crew has been providing extensive looks at the Brewers’ second base options this offseason. While the Brewers have two promising young infielders nearing the Majors in Keston Hiura and Mauricio Dubon, neither is a lock to assist the team in 2019. Thus, the organization is very likely to bring in a free agent at the position, at a least for one season. I thought I would consolidate these names, with more superficial write-ups, to allow for faster comparisons between the many options.

Longtime Second Basemen

Brian Dozier, Age 31

Dozier is a bit like former Brewer Jonathan Schoop. He had several strong years in a row, but faltered just before reaching free agency. Of course, Schoop’s free agency was granted early, but I digress. In Dozier’s favor is a stronger resume, with four consecutive 3+ fWAR seasons from 2014-17. Dozier’s hard-hit% also didn’t drop like Schoop’s did, with Dozier’s increasing from 34% to 37% from 2017 to ‘18. That isn’t the improvement it initially appears to be, as its important to note that, according to FanGraphs, the league average hard-hit rate jumped noticeably from 2017 (32%) to 2018 (35%).

Still, this means Dozier remained above-average in terms of hard contact, while experiencing a career low .240 BABIP. A few of his stats moved in the wrong direction—his ground ball rate was higher than his career average, and his line drive rate was lower—but his plate discipline remained steady. Additionally, Dozier is projected to earn a salary between $8 million to $10 million on a one-year deal. That would certainly fit the Brewers’ budget, especially for a middle infielder with an .817 OPS (116 wRC+) over the last three seasons.

DJ LeMahieu, Age 30

I’ll admit to trepidation about LeMahieu’s potential at the plate, but as Kyle pointed out in a recent article, the longtime Rockie quietly had a strong season with the bat in 2018. His hard-hit rate remained near league average from 2017 to ’18 (30.6% to 35%), but, like Dozier, LeMahieu seemed to experience hard luck. His BABIP this past year was .298, down from .366 from 2015-17, though some of that can be attributed to a career-high fly ball rate.

LeMahieu also benefited from those fly balls, hitting 15 home runs in 581 plate appearances in 2018, after knocking just 34 in his previous 3218 PAs. Even if LeMahieu’s offense doesn’t improve, he’s a 2 WAR player thanks to excellent defense, and at a projected $16-18 million over two years, he would fit the Brewers needs.

Daniel Murphy, Age 33

Speaking of players who struggled at an inopportune time, Daniel Murphy averaged 45 doubles and 24 home runs between 2016 and 2017, earning a .956 OPS over that time. In the final year of his three-year deal, however, he slashed .299/.336/.454 in 351 plate appearances between the Nationals and Cubs, a weak batting line for a poor defender at the keystone. In fairness, Murphy missed significant time with a knee injury, and still managed a 110 wRC+. And unlike Dozier and LeMahieu, Murphy swings a left-handed bat. But his defense is questionable enough that some predict he will sign with an AL team, so that he could rotate in at designated hitter as well as first base.

Murphy’s hard-hit rate also plummeted from nearly 36% in 2017 to 26% in 2018. Given the league-wide increase in hard-hit rate, Murphy’s drop appears all the more precipitous. Murphy could earn a deal similar to either Dozier or LeMahieu, and for that money, I think an NL team like the Brewers could do better than Murphy. His uncommonly strong bat at second base could still entice the Crew for the right price.

Valuable, Versatile (Switch-Hitting) Veterans

Jed Lowrie, Age 34

Over the past two seasons, Lowrie has been one of the best second baseman in the league. He has been healthy and consistent, two previous weaknesses in Lowrie’s long career. From 2017-18, Lowrie slashed .272/.356/.448, averaging 43 doubles and 18 homers per year. Injury concerns, along with Lowrie’s age, are still projected to limit his earning potential this off-season, as he’s predicted to earn $10-$11 million AAV for two or three years. On top of being one of the better hitting second basemen in recent years, Lowrie spent several years as a shortstop, and has 95 starts at third base.

The Brewers clearly crave such versatility, especially with hopes high that Hiura and Dubon will compete for infield reps as soon as this season. Lowrie turns 35 in April, and interested teams could face declining results and possible injuries from the infielder, particularly on a three-year deal. Then again, Lowrie ranks below just Jose Ramirez and Jose Altuve in WAR at the keystone over the last two seasons, so it’s very possible teams risk a third year on a deal—or bump the AAV on a two-year deal—to secure the versatile infielder.

Marwin Gonzalez, Age 29

Probably the crown jewel of the second base market, Gonzalez is on the right side of 30, and has 550+ defensive innings at shortstop, third base, second base, first base, and left field. This is especially meaningful to the Brewers, who not only value versatility, but also have regular openings in left field, with a 35-year-old Ryan Braun requiring regular days off to stay healthy and effective. Gonzalez experienced his breakout in 2017, posting a stellar .907 OPS that season. He returned closer to his career averages in 2018, slashing .247/.324/.409.

In the coming years, it’s more likely that Gonzalez remains an average, to slightly above-average, hitter. Of all the players on this list, Gonzalez likely has the largest number of suitors, and should make $10-$12 million AAV for at least four years. As the youngest and most versatile of the bunch, Gonzalez certainly deserves a lengthier contract. There is no doubt the Brewers would benefit from adding Gonzalez, though a wide market could hike prices for his services. Still, if the Brewers can have their choice of the aforementioned infielders at around $12 million per year, it will be hard to pass on the versatile Venezuelan.

Bargain Bin

Asdrubal Cabrera, Age 33

In a weaker 2B free agent class, Cabrera would garner more attention as a one-year bridge for a team like the Brewers. Interestingly, FanGraphs, Baseball Prospectus, and Baseball Reference can’t seem to agree on Cabrera’s value from year to year since 2016. Generally, he’s seen as at least a 2 WAR/year player for those years, though BRef is the least enthused about Cabrera’s value, assigning him just a 0.7 WAR in 2018. Alternatively, BP and FanGraphs have Cabrera earning ~2.5 WAR this past season.

The uncertainty around Cabrera’s value comes from inconsistent marks on defense and on the bases. At the plate, he is solid, and has posted at least a 110 wRC+ each year since 2016. Cabrera has significant experience at shortstop, though he’s well below-average there at this point in his career. Given the market, Cabrera could be a cheap option at second base, should the organization wish to focus funds elsewhere.

Troy Tulowitzki, Age 34

The ultimate bargain, Tulowitzki will play for a new team at the league minimum salary in 2019, after being released by the Blue Jays while still owed $38 million over three seasons (including a 2021 buyout). Since he’s “spoken for” financially, Tulowitzki will likely choose a suitor based on opportunity and location. Tulo’s agent has said publicly that the long-time shortstop would be willing to consider position changes, though he’d very likely prefer not to. He would also prefer to play in the bay area, where he grew up. According to his agent, Paul Cohen, “winning is important (to Tulowitzki), and geography is an issue.”

Tulowitzki missed 2018 with foot and ankle injuries, and ended up getting surgery on both heels earlier this year. In 2017, he slashed .249/.300/.378 in just 260 PA. When he was healthy in 2015 and ’16, he averaged a .769 OPS and 3 WAR per year. No one is assuming Tulo will return to those numbers, and obviously the Blue Jays knew more about Tulowitzki’s health than any other team, but at his price, it’s hard to poke too many holes in a potential signing. He’d also be overqualified at second base, so if healthy, he wouldn’t have to hit at a high level to have value.

Jose Iglesias, Age 29

On the subject of overqualified defenders, Iglesias is an excellent shortstop, and would likely make a plus-plus second baseman, though he slashed just .269/.310/.389 last season, in his best season at the plate since 2015. Iglesias might get picked up as a utilityman, but it’d certainly be fun to watch him vacuum up ground balls at second base for a full season.

Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs, Baseball-Reference, and Baseball Prospectus