While the Brewers haven’t hit the quite the same type of offensive swoon as they did after the All-Star break last year, it was still pretty clear something had to be done. Despite playing more games than anyone else in baseball to this point in the season, Milwaukee still ranked 17th in baseball in runs scored and 9th in the National League — virtually tied with disappointing clubs like St. Louis and Washington, and significantly better than only San Francisco, New York, Miami and San Diego.
Catcher, shortstop and second base were all significant weak spots in the lineup, but second is where it seemed like the quickest and easiest upgrades could be had on the trade market.
While Jonathan Villar is rebounding slightly from his terrible 2017 season, he was still hitting .261/.315/.377 with a .304 wOBA and 86 wRC+ before landing on the disabled list. Hernan Perez is hitting .249/.280/.389 with a .289 wOBA and 76 wRC+. Tyler Saladino is hitting .262/.325/.408 with a .320 wOBA and 96 wRC+, but much of that is still being powered by his hot start with the Brewers. In July, Saladino has started to look a lot more like a replacement-level infielder, hitting just .227/.307/.288 with a .270 wOBA and 63 wRC+.
The problem with the Brewers’ lineup as it stood was that production from Saladino was being frequently slotted 5th in the batting order because there was simply a lack of other options. It’s tough to score runs when 5 through 9 in the batting order is largely a black hole without much — if any — pop.
That’s why a lot of the trade rumors connecting the Brewers to various second basemen made sense. Even when it came to some of the options that have also been slumping this year — specifically Brian Dozier and Jonathan Schoop — those players would have represented an upgrade over what the Brewers were putting into the lineup at the keystone every day.
That’s part of what made the trade for Mike Moustakas — and the subsequent announcement that Travis Shaw would be moving to second base — so surprising. It frankly felt like a bit of overkill, or an unncessarily complex solution to a simple problem: just needing someone who had a pulse with the bat at second base.
There’s no question that Dozier would have been a perfectly acceptable and sensible solution. He’s hitting .226/.307/.409 this year with a .310 wOBA and 93 wRC+ and carries more power than any of the Brewers’ other options at second base. Schoop also would have been an upgrade, currently carrying a .306 wOBA and 91 wRC+.
But it looks like David Stearns felt like that slight improvement wasn’t enough to give the lineup the boost it truly needed, so he went out and traded for a player he’s long had his eye on (you may remember the rumors in the winter that connected the Brewers to Moustakas when he was on the free agent market).
Stearns on Moustakas: "We think Mike is one of, if not the best bat currently available.We think his profile fits particularly well in our ballpark, and in our lineup. He puts a lot of balls in the air. He hits with power from the left side; that plays well in Miller Park."— Tom (@Haudricourt) July 28, 2018
Moustakas will come to Milwaukee hitting .249/.309/.468 with 20 home runs, a .330 wOBA and a 107 wRC+. Shaw was already hitting .246/.344/.468 with 19 home runs, a .347 wOBA and a 114 wRC+. Basically, Stearns decided to go next level in improving the offense instead of settling for a more mild upgrade to the lineup, while adding another left-handed bat (both Dozier and Schoop hit right-handed).
The big question with this trade is one that came up almost immediately — will the boost in offense be worth whatever defensive issues may arise from playing Shaw out of position? Shaw is listed at 6’4” and 230 pounds, but plenty of other big guys have started to man the position (including Schoop, who weighs in at 225 pounds despite being three inches shorter) and Shaw has always shown good athleticism defensively at third base.
But the production the Brewers were getting at second base was such that Shaw would have to be almost historically bad defensively to cancel out the offensive gains, and as Shaw himself has said, he’s played on the right side of second base enough with the Brewers’ constant shifting that fielding grounders isn’t much of a concern.
Where things may get interesting is trying to turn double plays, but the return of Orlando Arcia should hopefully help mitigate some of the defensive concerns up the middle. It doesn’t sound like Stearns and Craig Counsell are too concerned about the potential defensive hit, either.
David Stearns on Moustakas/Shaw: “We’re focused on the upside here offensively here. ... The truth is, with the way we move our infielders around, conventional positions don’t apply to us all that much. We ask a lot of all of our infielders to play all over the dirt.”— Adam McCalvy (@AdamMcCalvy) July 28, 2018
Counsell on Travis Shaw at 2B: "Everything we’ve seen in practice, in pregame, in all of the shifting that we do, we believe that he’s capable of handling it. That’s part of this, for sure. It’s a decision that we believe in."— Adam McCalvy (@AdamMcCalvy) July 28, 2018
The odds are this experiment will only last for a couple months. Moustakas has a $15 million mutual option for next season, and while there’s a chance he was spooked by the lack of a free agent market this past winter, the Brewers may not feel comfortable paying that much money if this doesn’t go well or they determine Keston Hiura is ready to take over at second base sometime next year.
With the likelihood of this being a rental, it’s fair to question whether the Brewers gave up a lot in order to make a playoff push. Brett Phillips could still be a valuable major league center fielder based on his defense and walk rates alone, and will now get a chance to prove it with an opportunity to play every day in Kansas City. That’s something that pretty clearly was never going to happen in Milwaukee once the team signed Lorenzo Cain and added Christian Yelich, essentially locking down the team’s outfield alignment for the foreseeable future.
Jorge Lopez has pitched well in low-leverage outings for the Brewers this year, but will be out of options next year and was no longer seen as a potential starting pitcher at the big league level, having been passed up on the depth chart by several other arms.
Maybe Phillips and Lopez end up panning out like Cain and Jorge de la Rosa did when the Brewers traded them to Kansas City in separate deals in the past. Even if they do, though, it would be the result of those two finally getting a chance to truly prove themselves at the big league level — something the Brewers simply couldn’t afford to do while they consider themselves a contender, and when they simply have better options right now.
Ultimately, the Brewers sent two blocked players who may or may not end up being AAAA-level players away in a deal for a player who could make a big impact over the final 50-60 games. Considering where the Brewers sit in the playoff race right now, even small upgrades may end up making a big difference.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs