Of all the moves completed during David Stearns’ tenure as General Manager (plus, now, President of Baseball Operations), one of his earliest moves still stands out as perhaps the best that he has executed. On December 6th, 2016, Slingin’ Stearns and the Milwaukee Brewers sent reliever Tyler Thornburg to the Boston Red Sox in exchange for Josh Pennington, Mauricio Dubon, Travis Shaw, and a player to be named that later turned out to be Yeison Coca.
Thornburg wound up missing all of 2017 with Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, and then compiled a 5.63 ERA in 25 appearances for the Red Sox last season (though that didn’t stop them from winning the World Series). On the Brewers’ side of things, meanwhile, Dubon is now the org’s #5 prospect according to MLB Pipeline, Coca hit .281 with 16 steals as a 19 year old in rookie ball last season, Pennington got hurt and retired, and Travis Shaw has turned into a long-term solution at the hot corner.
Shaw was selected as the team’s Most Valuable Player during their 86-win season in 2017 and in many ways, was even better in 2018. He boosted his hard contact rate even higher. He became more selective at the plate, reducing his strikeout rate while boosting his walk totals. He set a new career-high with 32 home runs. And his defense at third base (+9 DRS in 868.1 innings) was strong enough to earn a nomination for the Gold Glove.
Shaw hit more fly balls in 2018, which may explain some, but not all, of the precipitous 70 point drop he experienced on his batting average on balls in play. That paltry .242 BABIP (down from .312 in 2017) dragged his overall batting line down to .241/.345/.480 in 587 plate appearances, hiding some of the gains that he made in his overall offensive game last season. That slash was was still good for a 119 wRC+, though, only one percentage point off from his 2017 output when compared to the league-average hitter.
Shaw spent most of the second half of last season at second base, making room to beef up the lineup after Mike Moustakas was acquired and slotted in at third base. Shaw was serviceable enough at the keystone, but both he and the organization expressed a preference for Travis to return to the hot corner in 2019. So, even with Moustakas back in the fold on a short-term deal, that’s what will be happening as now Moose gets a shot at moving over to second.
The only real glaring weakness that Shaw displayed last season was an inability to hit same-handed pitching, which cost him playing time down the stretch. He could manage only a .209/.303/.296 slash line off fellow southpaws for a 66 wRC+, and he eventually found himself in a timeshare of sorts with Hernan Perez down the stretch as winning each game became more and more important. Shaw has shown he can useful against left-handed pitching in the past, posting a .250/.312/.464 slash as recently as 2017. He is hoping that some minor tweaks to his swing will help create better balance and more consistent production against lefties in 2019.
On occasions when ‘The Mayor of Ding Dong City’ isn’t starting at third base, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Moustakas slide back over there to his natural position while someone like Perez gets a starts at second. HP could also see some time backing up at third base, as could Tyler Saladino and Cory Spangenberg.
In the Minors
Scouts are no longer enamored with Lucas Erceg, who looked like he might be a quick riser through the system after Milwaukee tabbed him in the second round of the 2016 draft. He’s coming off a below-average offensive season at Double-A Biloxi and though he possesses impressive raw power, the hit tool has not developed as expected. Some have suggested that the Brewers should even consider exploring what his 70-grade arm would look like on the mound. That probably won’t happen anytime soon, though, and Erceg figures to get a crack at Triple-A pitching this season. Other third base depth in the minors includes Nate Orf, Jake Hager, Bruce Caldwell, Patrick Leonard, and once he is fully healthy, eventually Brett Lawrie.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs