Sometimes what’s old is new again.
On December 19, 2010, the Milwaukee Brewers traded outfielder Lorenzo Cain and shortstop Alcides Escobar along with pitchers Jake Odorizzi and Jeremy Jeffress – both hurlers being prospects at the time – to the Kansas City Royals for Cy Young winner Zack Greinke. Fast forward to the present, Cain and Jeffress are now suddenly crucial to Milwaukee’s continued success in 2019.
This next part starts off in a similar fashion but takes a handful of different turns after that.
Almost two weeks before that Greinke trade, on December 6, 2010, the Brewers sent top prospect Brett Lawrie to the Toronto Blue Jays for starting pitcher Shaun Marcum. As we know, both Greinke and Marcum helped lead the Brewers to 96 wins and a division title in 2011. Fast forward to the present and Lawrie is suddenly back with the Brewers for the first time since that fateful December day.
He’s also back in baseball for the first time in over two years. Now what?
To be honest, it’s difficult to see Lawrie cracking Milwaukee’s major league roster for any sort of meaningful stretch of time this season. Again, we haven’t even seen him in the majors since 2016. Still, the infielder does have a couple of things going for him. For starters, whether you believe it or not Lawrie is only 29 years old. Secondly, if he can still play both second and third base then the former first-rounder potentially provides cover at positions where the Brewers lack considerable depth at the moment.
When this wild ride of his got started, Lawrie put up an impressive .293/.373/.580 (.953 OPS) line with 8 doubles, 4 triples, 9 home runs and 7 stolen bases. He did all that in just 171 plate appearances for the Blue Jays back in 2011. He also produced an excellent mark of +14 defensive runs saved across 43 games and 380 innings at third base. He finished with an OPS+ and wRC+ of 153 and 157 respectively while posting 2.6 fWAR. Once more, it took Lawrie just 43 games to accomplish this. Surely bigger things were about to follow.
Well in the five seasons since that dazzling debut, he’s played in fewer than 100 games twice. He’s also never posted an fWAR quite that high again, topping out at 1.9 in 2012. The duration of his stint with the Blue Jays saw him hit a solid if unremarkable .265/.323/.426 (.749 OPS) with 43 home runs. And after registering +14 defensive runs saved during his first 43 major league games, Lawrie was good for only +6 defensive runs saved between second and third base in the 327 games (and nearly 2,610 innings) that followed.
Then on November 28, 2014, the Blue Jays acquired fellow third baseman Josh Donaldson from the Oakland Athletics for a package that sent Lawrie the other way. In his lone season with Oakland, he slashed just .260/.299/.407 (.706 OPS) across 149 games before being traded again the following December – this time in a deal with the Chicago White Sox. It is there where lower body injuries came to torment Lawrie, limiting him to just 94 appearances and a line of .248/.310/.413 (.723 OPS).
The former top prospect never hit the ball all that hard, topping out at a rate of just 33.5% in 70 games with the Blue Jays in 2014. That said, things got especially bad for him during his last two seasons. With the A’s and White Sox between 2015 and 2016, Lawrie made hard contact at a rate of only 29.1%. He saw his strikeout rate balloon from 17.4% in 2014 to 23.9% in 2015 and then to 28.4% the following season. Yet it was clear that near the end of his first major league stint, Lawrie was hurting.
That’s why it’s so difficult to predict what’s going to happen next. Right now this is a feel-good story at a time when not much else is happening. But if Lawrie is indeed fully healthy and able once again, there’s still a fairly valuable bat in there. As for his defense, competent if unspectacular is probably the wisest outcome to hope for.
In a free agent market where Mike Moustakas, Marwin González, and even Derek Dietrich remain available, the Brewers decided to go in an entirely different direction. That led them to a reunion with their old friend and former 16th overall selection from nearly 11 years ago. At the end of the day, this is as low-risk as it gets for Milwaukee. But for Lawrie it’s so much more than that. This is his second chance to make a first impression, and he’s not going to take it for granted.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball Reference and Fangraphs