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Trade Analysis: Money-saving swap with San Diego puts Orlando Arcia on the hot seat

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After getting benched multiple times in recent seasons, Milwaukee brings in Arcia’s possible replacement in Luis Urias.

Los Angeles Dodgers v San Diego Padres Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

The Milwaukee Brewers have not been shy about expressing their dissatisfaction with the production level of Orlando Arcia.

Arcia arrived in the big leagues in August of 2016, and since the start of his first full season in 2017, no team in Major League Baseball has gotten worse overall production out of their shortstops than the Brewers, at least according to fWAR (0.0 — 2.5 wins above replacement behind the next lowest team). Milwaukee’s cumulative wRC+ of 69 from the position is ahead of only the rebuilding Royals (67). Arcia was far-and-away the worst qualified hitter in baseball in 2019; his .223/.283/.350 slash in 546 plate appearances added up to a 61 wRC+, a full 13% worse than the trio of Mallex Smith, Brandon Crawford, and Yolmer Sanchez, who all tied with a 74 wRC+. Arcia did not have enough plate appearances to qualify in 2018, but among National League hitters who made at least 350 trips to bat, he was once again at the rock-bottom of the leaderboard with a .236/.268/.307 batting line that equaled out to a 54 wRC+.

In nearly four years at the team’s primary shortstop, Arcia has managed only a meager .243/.292/.360 slash line covering 1,676 plate appearances. That comes out to a 68 wRC+. Among all-time Brewers with at least 1,500 plate appearances, Orlando Arcia has been the worst hitter in franchise history by that metric. That’d be less of a problem if the defensive reputation he arrived in the Cream City with — one of a perennial Gold Glove-caliber shortstop — was actually true. But for all the flashy plays that Arcia has made on the dirt, he has made a nearly equal amount of frustrating missteps. Errors are no longer considered to be a complete way of evaluating defense, but Arcia’s 54 charged E’s are tied for the ninth-most in baseball since the start of 2016. He has been merely “good” by Defensive Runs Saved, averaging roughly +4 DRS per season since arriving in the big leagues. Ultimate Zone Rating doesn’t even like him that much, grading Arcia as 6.2 runs below average across his nearly 3,800 MLB innings. All-in-all, it adds up to a roughly replacement-level career no matter which site’s wins above replacement calculation you prefer — 0.2 fWAR, 2.2 bWAR, and 4.2 WARP in 479 games.

In late June, manager Craig Counsell talked about Arcia needing to shore things up with the glove. At the conclusion of the 2019 season, President David Stearns openly discussed the need for the franchise to receive better play out of the shortstop position. Over the past two seasons, Orlando has at times been benched in favor of journeymen Tyler Saladino, Hernan Perez, and Cory Spangenberg. And on the day before Thanksgiving, the franchise finally acquired a player who may be able to unseat Arcia as the starting shortstop for the long-term future.

In a surprise swap with the San Diego Padres, Slingin’ Stearns was able to pick up Luis Urias, considered to be one of the most promising young middle infielders in the game. Urias no longer appears on the top prospect lists due to his MLB service time, but at the beginning of the 2019 season, he was ranked at #27 in the league by MLB Pipeline and #24 overall by Fangraphs. He will be entering only his age-23 season at the outset of 2020, although he won’t officially blow out the candles on his birthday cake until June 3rd.

Despite his lofty status as a prospect, there is some division regarding just how good Urias will eventually turn out to be. He is far more experienced at second base than at short, but Keston Hiura is obviously already entrenched in that spot for Milwaukee. Some scouts have suggested that the keystone is ultimately where Urias will be most comfortable at the big league level, but he should have enough arm to play shortstop and others believe that he’ll eventually settle in as an average-or-better defender at the six with more repetitions.

At the plate, Urias has received 65-to-70 grades (on the 20-80 scouting scale) for his hit tool, and he owns a career .308/.397/.433 slash line in 540 minor league games. He has generally displayed strong bat-to-ball skills and a knack for getting on base via the free pass (10.7% MiLB walk rate), but there is some concern that a leg-kick he adopted in 2018 will lead to a greater penchant for swing-and-miss without adding enough power to make up for the additional whiffs. He did launch 19 dingers in 73 games in Triple-A in 2019, but that was with a juiced baseball in one of the most hitter-friendly parks in the minor leagues. At just 5’9” and 185 lbs, Urias isn’t expected to knock too many balls over the fence, most recently earning a future 45 game power grade from Fangraphs.

Still, Urias’ floor as a big leaguer should at the very least be equal to what Arcia has been for the Brewers. The right-handed hitter has posted a mere .221/.318/.331 slash line with six home runs in 83 MLB games and 302 plate appearances, but when taking into account the fact that he was playing his home games at Petco Park, that comes out to a 79 wRC+. Urias’ first couple of stints at the game’s highest level in 2018 and early 2019 didn’t go very well, but he did hit .241/.341/.351 in 58 second-half games last year, including .300/.371/.425 down the stretch in September. Marcel projections from Baseball-Reference predict a .245/.333/.400 batting line from Urias in 2020, while Steamer projections via Fangraphs foresee a similar .251/.333/.403 output. And for Arcia? Marcel sees a .246/.301/.379 slash, while Steamer projects him at .249/.306/.391.

Bringing in Urias required Milwaukee to give up Trent Grisham, who captured the org’s Minor League Player of the Year award in 2019 and played a significant role in September’s Wild Card push after the injury to Christian Yelich. Many had penciled in Grisham — who looks like a good bet to be at least an average regular after his breakout in 2019 — as the long-term replacement for Ryan Braun in left field after the Hebrew Hammer’s current deal expires at the conclusion of the 2020 campaign. But Stearns and company were obviously comfortable enough with their outfield depth to pull the trigger, which now includes Ben Gamel, Tyrone Taylor, and Corey Ray on the 40-man roster and prospects like Cooper Hummel and Tristen Lutz later on down the road.

There is another component to this trade, of course, and that is the swapping out of Zach Davies in the starting rotation for Eric Lauer. Picked up from the Orioles in 2015 for a half-season of Gerardo Parra (one of Doug Melvin’s more masterful heists), Davies outperformed both his diminutive stature and less-than-intimidating stuff by pitching to a 3.91 ERA in 111 starts and 614.1 innings across parts of five seasons with the Menomonee Valley Nine. ‘Bat Boy’ has always profiled as a back-end starter with his pitch-to-contact style and uninspiring peripherals, and with his arbitration price expected to rise to $5 mil in 2020, Stearns took the opportunity to switch him out for a cheaper model who is earlier along in his service time calendar.

Lauer is left-handed, throws a little harder than Davies, misses a few more bats, and relies predominantly on a fastball/cutter/curveball mix. Overall, however, he offers about the same profile — a guy who will take the ball every fifth day and toss five-or-so innings while keeping his team in ballgames. Lauer is the owner of a 4.40 ERA so far in 53 games (52 starts) and 261.2 innings since making it to The Show in 2018. That comes out to a 107 ERA-, which is slightly bested by his 103 FIP-. He has been about as average a starting pitcher as you’ll be able to find. Expect Lauer to continue in that role in 2020 based on the org’s currently limited rotation depth, but multiple scouts believe that his best role will eventually be in the bullpen.

The fact that Milwaukee projects to save about $4.5 mil in payroll space thanks to this deal is no small thing as the front office has so far spent the winter slashing monetary commitments all over the roster. More importantly, however, this trade between the Brewers and Padres appears to be a referendum on the career of Orlando Arcia and his future with the organization. If Arcia survives Monday’s non-tender deadline, he will head into Spring Training 2020 having to compete for an everyday job for the first time in his MLB career. His bat has so far failed to develop and his glovework hasn’t been nearly as good as hoped. Maybe this is the move that finally lights a fire underneath Orlando and pushes him to reach the gaudy potential that scouts thought he possessed when he was first called up in 2016. Or perhaps this will mark the start of Arcia’s transition to utility player, either with the Brewers or for another team altogether.

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