The Milwaukee Brewers have struggled to score runs consistently throughout the regular season. Their average of 4.15 runs per game ranks in the bottom third of the National League and they’ve only scored more than three runs once in their past seven games, a stretch during which they have gone 2-5 against the Cardinals, White Sox, and Indians. The team hasn’t quite gotten the offensive production it was hoping for behind the plate, in right field, and specifically in the middle infield.
Milwaukee still has the best winning percentage in the National League with a 37-25 record entering today, and they figure to continue hanging around the playoff race during the rest of the season. They’ll likely want to make some level of addition to their lineup to help boost the offense, but we don’t typically start to see those kinds of trades get made until July at the earliest. A unique circumstance could play into Milwaukee’s favor, however:
The Rays (28-32) are doing some weird stuff this year. They aren’t terrible, but they certainly aren’t at the level they need to be to compete with Boston and New York in their division. They spent the winter cutting costs, including jettisoning the likes of Corey Dickerson and Jake Odorizzi late in the offseason for relative peanuts in return. The team hasn’t specifically said that they are “rebuilding” but there is definitely a youth movement going on, and that has apparently made 28 year old Brad Miller expendable as the Rays called up one of their top prospects in Jake Bauers.
Before getting removed from the 40 man roster, Miller was actually in the midst of a productive offense campaign for the Rays. In 48 games and 174 plate appearances, the left-handed hitter has slashed .256/.322/.429 with five home runs for a wRC+ of 107. His current walk rate sits at a solid 9.2%, although his strikeout rate of 29.3% would be a career-high. He’s generally been tearing the cover off the ball this season when he does make contact, however, producing a career-best 39.3% hard-hit rate.
Miller has been a useful hitter during his parts of six seasons in the big leagues (.240/.314/.410, 73 HR, 100 wRC+) and just two seasons ago, he hit 30 home runs for the Rays with a .786 OPS in 152 games. He couldn’t build off that success last season, though, batting only .201 with nine home runs in 407 plate appearances. He did draw a free pass nearly 16% of the time, however, bringing his OBP up to a respectable .327, and furthermore there may have been some bad luck involved in his paltry slash line. Miller registered hard contact of the bat 38.4% of the time last season (a career-high before 2018) yet could manage only a .265 BABIP, which was the lowest total of his career and 22 points below his average mark. Even with his batting average flirting with the Mendoza line, Miller still put up an 83 wRC+ last season, which was better than Hernan Perez (78) and basically on-par with Orlando Arcia (85) in 2017.
Given his struggles last season, it’s encouraging to see that Miller’s bat has rebounded a bit here in 2018. There is a question of sustainability, however. Miller is currently riding a .343 BABIP, which is far-and-away the highest total he’s ever produced. His hard contact rate could perhaps support such a mark, but his 44.3% fly ball rate does not. That’s one of the highest fly ball rates in the big leagues and some nine points greater than the league average. Players with high fly ball rates generally have low BABIP totals (as ground balls and line drives tend to get through for hits more often) so it’s reasonable to think that there could be some regression coming for Miller on that end. On the flip side, a left-handed hitter who makes a ton of hard contact and regularly puts the ball in the air would be a perfect fit at Miller Park, especially now that the summer air is here in Milwaukee and the baseballs are starting to fly a little further off the bat. A move from pitcher-friendly Tropicana Field up to the Cream City could help to boost Miller’s production at the plate, similarly to how it’s helped southpaw swingers Travis Shaw and Christian Yelich.
The downside to bringing Brad Miller into the fold is his defense shortcomings. He’s a shortstop by trade, but has never been exactly deft at handling the position. He’s started 345 big league contests at the six but hasn’t manned the position regularly since 2016. In over 3,000 innings at short, he’s been valued at -23 Defensive Runs Saved, -6.5 UZR, and -15.3 Fielding Runs Above Average. So historically, he’s cost his teams roughly somewhere between 1.5 - 6 runs on defense per season in his four years as a regular shortstop. He also played second base regularly for Tampa Bay last season and has started 107 games at that position in his career, and he’s got experience at third base and all three outfield spots. He started playing a little bit of first base last year and has spent most of his time there this season, starting 34 games at the cold corner in 2018. He can play all across the diamond, but at each position he grades out as a below-average defender.
The Brewers rank 26th in baseball in terms of offensive production from their second base spot (74 wRC+) and no team in the MLB has gotten worse production from the shortstop position than Milwaukee (45 wRC+). Jonathan Villar (95 wRC+) has seemingly turned things around and is making some useful contributions at the plate, but Orlando Arcia (37 wRC+) and Eric Sogard (6 (!!!) wRC+) have been two of the worst hitters in baseball this season and Hernan Perez (63 wRC+) hasn’t been much better. Brad Miller is hitting better than all four of those players right now and offers a higher offensive floor than that quartet. He’s also “versatile” on defense, although not exactly “skilled.” Is that more valuable than, say, what Orlando Arcia can bring to the table with his golden glove but putrid bat? That will for the front office to decide. At the very least, he would almost surely be an upgrade over Sogard on the bench.
Miller is owed another $2.79 mil on the arbitration deal he signed last winter, and he isn’t eligible to become a free agent until after the 2019 season. The Rays have a week from his DFA to decide what to do with him, but it’s likely that he’ll be able to be had via a waiver claim or in a minor trade that involves a low-level prospect or some kind of cash/player to be named later type of deal. The cost should be negligible, and the need is there on Milwaukee’s end. We’ll know before long if Slingin’ David Stearns is willing to roll the dice on Brad Miller.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs, Baseball-Reference, and Baseball Prospectus