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Tyler Saladino is pushing Orlando Arcia for time at shortstop for the Milwaukee Brewers

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Could Milwaukee’s most hyped prospect in a decade be in danger of losing time to a journeyman?

MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at Arizona Diamondbacks Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Orlando Arcia is one of the most skilled defensive players in baseball. He’ll make an occasional mental lapse, to be sure (who amongst us doesn’t?), but he boasts outstanding instincts at shortstop, range for days, and a plus-plus arm. It’s even more glaring when he does make a mistake, because Arcia spends so much of his time on defense making the difficult plays look routine. By the metrics, Orlando’s +9 Defensive Runs Saved this season are the most of any player in baseball; his +3.2 UZR and +4.8 FRAA are also top-15 marks league-wide.

Orlando Arcia is not the most skilled hitter in baseball, or even an average one. Quite the contrary, actually; Arcia is batting just .199/.238/.279 through his first 143 plate appearances with two home runs and two stolen bags. That translates to a 38 wRC+, which, among hitters with at least 140 plate appearances, ranks as the fourth-worst offensive output among the 186 players who meet that PA requirement. Only Kole Calhoun (5 wRC+), Chris Davis (30), and Lewis Brinson (31) have provided less offensive value to their clubs this season while playing as often as Orlando Arcia.

Arcia is currently mired in a 2-for-25 slump, and his at-bats have been difficult to watch all season. He’s not striking out excessively (although his 23.1% rate this year would represent a new career-worst), he just swings at a ton of junk. His swing rate at pitches outside the zone of 37.8% is one of the highest totals in the majors this season, as is his swing-and-miss rate of 13.9%. Only two players in the big leagues put the ball on the ground more often than Arcia’s 60.2% ground ball rate, and no player is hitting fewer line drives than Orlando (12.6% LD rate). His soft contact rate of 24.3% is among the 10 worst players in the MLB, and his hard contact rate of 28.2% is in the bottom 20 and well below the league-average of 35.2% for non-pitchers. Basically, we’ve been seeing an awful lot of Arcia hitting weak ground outs on the infield this season on pitches that he probably shouldn’t be swinging at.

What is frustrating from a fan standpoint is that Arcia is still basically the same player on offense as he was when he was called up to the big leagues two years ago. He was this organization’s most-hyped prospect since Ryan Braun debuted over a decade ago, and I think it’s safe to say that he’s failed to live up to the expectations of most at this point. Even during his “solid” offensive campaign last year that produced an 85 wRC+, most of the underlying concerns were still there - a below-average rate of hard contact, tons of ground balls, swinging at bad pitches. The only real difference was the .317 batting average on balls in play, which looks like it may have been the result of some good fortune given that it is quite a bit higher than the .267 and .248 marks he’s produced in 2016 and 2018.

Even when factoring in his marvelous defense, Arcia’s contributions on the whole have been below replacement-level this season in the eyes of Fangraphs (-0.2 fWAR) and Baseball Prospectus (-0.1 WARP). He was out of the lineup in yesterday’s series finale in favor of Tyler Saladino, which led me to post this on Twitter before the game:

There was little fanfare when the Brewers acquired Tyler Saladino from the White Sox in a cash transaction on April 19th this year, and why would there have been? To his credit, David Stearns did mention that Saladino was a player that he and his brain trust had had their eyes on for a long time and that he was glad to get the opportunity to obtain his contractual rights. But in parts of four seasons with Chicago from 2015-2018, the soon-to-be 29 year old slashed a meager .231/.281/.330 with 12 home runs and 24 steals in 246 games. The Oral Roberts product was never that highly rated a prospect, topping out at #7 in the White Sox system by Baseball America in 2011 and ranking at #19 before falling off the eligibility list in 2014. He’s also a Tommy John survivor, having undergone the procedure on his throwing arm and missing time from 2014-2015 to recover. Many wondered how long his stay on Milwaukee’s 40 man would even last, given Stearns’ proclivity for turning over those last couple of roster spots.

Saladino stuck on the 40 man but didn’t immediately receive his chance with the Brewers, getting optioned to Colorado Springs as soon as he arrived in the organization. When the front office decided it was time to send out struggling veteran Eric Sogard, it was Nick Franklin who got the first call even though he was in AA Biloxi and not on the 40 man roster. Fortunately for Saladino, Franklin hurt his calf in his first game with Milwaukee and was immediately placed on the 10-day DL. That opened the door for Tyler’s call up to Milwaukee on May 9th.

It sounded initially like Saladino was slated for a pretty limited role, with manager Craig Counsell saying that most of the action he would see would be backing up Arcia at short. But what was supposed to be a bit part for the team has started to blossom into more, thanks to Saladino’s impressive play on both sides of the ball. The right-handed swinger has appeared in 10 games, including four starts spelling Arcia at short, and has torn the cover off the ball in his small 22 plate appearance sample. After his 2-for-4 showing yesterday against the Diamondbacks, Tyler owns a .429/.455/.905 slash with a double and three dingers. 60.9% of the balls he’s put in play have registered as hard contact. He’s looked the part at shortstop, too - defensive metrics can be noisy in small samples, but Saladino has already recorded +3 DRS and a +0.9 UZR in 34.0 innings at the six, and it seems like every time he’s in there he’s made at least one standout play. After he served a key role in the win on Wednesday, his manager offered this praise while hinting at an increased role:

It’s pretty simple - at this moment in time, playing Tyler Saladino more regularly at shortstop gives the Milwaukee Brewers a better chance to win. They aren’t rebuilding anymore in the Cream City; Stearns and company gave up four top prospects and shelled out some $150 mil to upgrade their team over the winter. Entering today, Milwaukee had the top record in the National League at 31-19, their best 50-game start in franchise history. The time to win is now. Unfortunately, that means shorter leashes for young players like Arcia who are struggling to contribute. And if after awhile Saladino starts to slip, it means that Counsell should have no reservations in removing his name from the lineup card.

Arcia is still only 23 years old and has less than two full seasons of big league experience. He hasn’t made any notable adjustments to MLB pitching yet, but that doesn’t mean he never will. His early career numbers and peripherals look rather similar to Jean Segura, the shortstop he supplanted in Milwaukee. Segura was able to make improvements at the plate after a few down offensive years (and after a change in teams), and has been a well above-average hitter for going on three seasons now. Arcia was always a prospect who was carried by his defensive profile, with hope that the bat could come around to be average or better and give him that All-Star type ceiling. Since his game at the plate hasn’t yet started to take those steps forward, we’re getting a look at Arcia’s floor - a glove-first middle infielder with hitting prowess (.250/.298/.375 in 907 PA, 73 wRC+) that might be better served in a utility role or as a bottom-of-the-lineup, second-division regular on a contending team.

It’s obviously too soon to say that Tyler Saladino (who has three more years of club control remaining after 2018) is unseating Orlando Arcia as the “shortstop of the future” in Milwaukee. Hell, he could just be another flash-in-the-pan middle infield pickup for the Brewers, like Eric Sogard before him in 2017 and Jonathan Villar even before him in 2016. But Saladino’s bat is scorching right now while Arcia has struggled to get anything going all year, and when you’re a team that is competing for the playoffs you need to ride the hot hand for as long as you can.

Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus