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Milwaukee Brewers officially announce signings of Justin Smoak, Eric Sogard

“Incremental upgrades” has been the focus this winter.

Divisional Series - Tampa Bay Rays v Houston Astros - Game Five Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

The Milwaukee Brewers officially announced two of their latest free agent signings yesterday, confirming the additions of Justin Smoak and Eric Sogard to the roster for 2020 (and potentially 2021):

President David Stearns obviously lauded his two newest employees in the introductory press conference held yesterday afternoon. On Smoak, he stated that “We think Justin’s overall offensive game is a game that’s going to work well not only in our ballpark, but also complement our team very well. This is a player who has elite zone control; he grinds through at-bats.”

For his part, Smoak is excited about the opportunity to play at Miller Park, which is one of the most friendly ballparks in MLB for left-handed sluggers: “To be here on this team, which has been really good the past couple of years, and has a chance to compete and go to the playoffs, I’m definitely excited about that...I played in a good ballpark there in Toronto; I definitely think it was hitter-friendly. But the things I’ve heard and the things I’ve seen about Miller Park, I’m definitely excited about that.”

Smoak is coming off somewhat of a down season with Toronto, batting only .208, but his OBP and slugging ability helped boost his overall offensive production. Smoak drew free passes at a career-best 15.8% rate, and slashed more than five points off of his strikeout total from the year before, coming in at a reasonable 21.2% clip. He also smashed 22 home runs in 500 plate appearances. All together, it added up to a still slightly-better-than-league-average 101 wRC+ even with a career-low .223 BABIP working against him (his average in parts of 10 MLB seasons is .266).

Smoak also suggested that his decline in production from the previous two seasons may have been due in part to trying to play through a quad injury: “At times I get hard-headed and I feel like I can play through anything. I probably should have taken a little more time than I did.”

Fans in Milwaukee may not have pleasant memories regarding Eric Sogard’s most recent stint with the Menomonee Valley Nine, as he was released by the team mid-2018 after batting .134/.241/.165 in 55 MLB games as well as .225/.297/.270 in 27 contests for the team’s Triple-A affiliate. But he enjoyed the finest season of his career in 2019 after landing in Toronto on a minor league deal (and later getting traded to Tampa Bay), and Slingin’ Stearns expressed confidence that the Brewers will receive the “good” version of Sogard this time around. “We are betting 2017 and 2019 are closer to what we’re going to get going forward, and I think that’s a very reasonable assumption.”

Sogard was not willing to get into the details, but he told the assembled media that off-the-field issues were a significant reason as to why he struggled so mightily between the lines the last time he was in town. “I’m not afraid to admit that I had some issues going on off-the-field that kind of took my mind away from the field in a way. Being able to...get everything handled and get my family the help we needed in those situations allowed me to really focus on getting back to the game, which got me to a point where mentally and physically stronger than any point in my life.”

Sogard ranked near the bottom of the league in terms of hard contact rate and exit velocity in 2019, but the “juiced” baseball helped him more than double his career home run total — he entered the year with 11 dingers in parts of eight seasons, then clubbed 13 long balls in 110 games with the Blue Jays and Rays. His walk rate of 8.6% was right in line with his career average, and he continued to be a master of putting the bat on the baseball, turning in a mere 14.3% strikeout rate and 4.2% swinging-strike rate. His .290/.353/.457 slash line came to a 115 wRC+, easily the best total of his career. That production was aided in part by a .316 BABIP, which was 36 points better than his career number of .280.

Sogard is capable of playing all over the infield dirt and even saw some time on the grass last season, appearing in the outfield during seven contests for Toronto. As the roster is currently constructed, Stearns said that he expects Sogard to see time at the hot corner in 2020. Barring any additional acquisitions, a platoon of Sogard and another recent signing — right-handed slugger Ryon Healy — might be the most logical way for manager Craig Counsell to fill the third base position in 2020. That pairing may feel a bit underwhelming for fans of a team with designs on competing for the postseason once again next year, but the expectation around the league is the Brewers will continue to explore the trade and free agents markets and could still find someone else to man the position next year.

Stearns stated that the recent flurry of moves has come as their offseason focus shifted once it was realized just how robust the markets for departing stalwarts Yasmani Grandal and Mike Moustakas would be. The goal has been to “incrementally upgrade around our roster to complement what we believe is a very strong Major League core.” That core group of players likely includes Christian Yelich, Lorenzo Cain, Keston Hiura, and Ryan Braun on the position player side, as well as pitchers Brandon Woodruff and Josh Hader. “We think that the moves we’ve made over the last 10 days or so — and it has been a flurry — are making progress toward accomplishing that goal.”

Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs