Mike Moustakas is a good player.
Not a great one, mind you, but he’s been a solidly above-average regular since breaking out with the bat back in 2015. He’s hit .267/.324/.484 for an OPS+ of 115 since over the past four seasons, averaging 33 home runs and 3.2 bWAR per 162 games played. ZiPS projects a .267/.324/.506 slash from Moose in 2019, and PECOTA forecasts a .273/.336/.495 batting output. Very useful production.
Mike Moustakas is not a second baseman, though. Or, at least not yet.
The Milwaukee Brewers entered this winter with what appeared to be an acute need to upgrade their lineup at second base. That need was lessened a bit when Yasmani Grandal was brought in to shore up the offensive production behind the plate, but still, the combination of Cory Spangenberg and Hernan Perez at the keystone wasn’t inspiring a lot of confidence from fans. Fortunately, the free agent market was flush with second base options.
There were the upper-echelon guys like Jed Lowrie (Mets, 2/$20 mil) or Marwin Gonzalez (Twins, 2/$21 mil). There were offensively-adept non-tenders such as Wilmer Flores (DBacks, 1/$4.25 mil plus option) or Derek Dietrich (Reds, minor league) who signed for cheap. There were bounce back veterans obtainable on short-term pacts like Asdrubal Cabrera (Indians, 1/$3.5 mil), Josh Harrison (Tigers, 1/$2 mil), Brian Dozier (Nationals, 1/$9 mil), and Logan Forsythe (unsigned).
A plethora of actual second baseman readily available, some better than Moustakas who signed for comparable money, some with a similar history of production at the plate who agreed to far cheaper deals. And yet, David Stearns and company decided to ink Moosey to a one-year pact (with a mutual option for 2020) that guarantees him $10 mil with designs on having him man the keystone, a position he has never played professionally. In an era of widespread and easily accessible advanced statistics and analytics, it’s easy to view this deal as a bit of a head-scratcher. On paper, it is an ugly and unclean fit.
But, as old-school fans readily and eagerly remind us, the game of baseball is not played on paper or within a spreadsheet. There was clearly more at play here in the minds of Milwaukee’s front office than Moose’s track record at the plate and in the field. Craig Counsell often preaches the importance of a strong clubhouse culture, and Moustakas quickly endeared himself to teammates during his half-season in Milwaukee last season. He was popular with teammates, regularly lauded for the leadership and postseason credentials that helped him to become a highly-respected figure within the locker room.
Even after the season, Moose stayed close with MVP teammates Ryan Braun and Christian Yelich as the trio banded together to help those afflicted by the wildfires and violence around their Malibu-area homes with the ‘California Strong’ campaign. As Moustakas continued to linger out on the open market into the start of Spring Training, teammates like Travis Shaw became vocal about how they’d welcome him back while extolling his importance to the team’s playoff run last season. Braun, who is also close with owner Mark Attanasio, admitted after the re-signing that he knew there was mutual interest in a return from both sides and worked throughout the winter to make sure “the lines of communication stayed open and that both sides understood where each other was coming from.”
Moustakas was clearly enticed by the chance to return to the Menomonee Valley, as it was reported that he turned down a multi-year offer from elsewhere in order to sign for one year with the Brewers and attempt to shift across the diamond after eight seasons of generally steady glovework at the hot corner. Rather than being sore about being asked to switch positions, Moustakas took the opportunity to heap praise upon Shaw’s superior skills at third base (where was nominated for a Gold Glove in 2018) and express confidence in his own ability to adapt to second. He came up as a shortstop in high school and played on the middle infield in the minors at the outset of his professional career, saying that “I feel comfortable over there right now, so we’ll see how it happens.” Stearns expressed similar optimism regarding the switch. “[Moustakas] came up as a shortstop, played a lot of shortstop as an amateur and was a very good shortstop. In the limited exposure we had with him over there, whether it was in the shift or just taking ground balls when we first acquired him, his feet worked very well around the bag. We believe he can handle it.”
The Brewers clearly value what Moustakas is expected to bring to the plate more so than they value strong defense at second base, and they believe that Moose’s background as a middle infielder and their aggressive defensive shifting strategy will help to make him a passable defender at the keystone. And if he can’t hack it, then they’ll move Travis Shaw back over there and stick Moose at third. And if that doesn’t work, then they’ve still got Spangenberg and Perez, and eventually, top prospect Keston Hiura.
More than that, though, the Brewers once again eschewed convention in order to address their perceived hole at second base. Slingin’ Stearns and his brain trust didn’t sign the cheapest player available, or the best on-paper fit. They paid a more premium price to bring back the player they liked best, regardless of his defensive history. They brought back someone who was a popular figure in the clubhouse, a guy that teammates lobbied the front office to re-sign. They brought back Mike Moustakas, a player who wants to be here and who wants to win here.
“I think we had some unfinished business after last year. This is a great place to play baseball. I’ve got a bunch of friends on this team, it’s a great city, they love the Brewers. I loved playing here last year. It was a lot of fun. We fell a little bit short, obviously, but I feel like this team can get back to where we were at last year and make a push for the World Series.”