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Milwaukee Brewers will face a tricky roster decision when the time comes to activate Travis Shaw

David Stearns and Company have difficult choices to make.

Milwaukee Brewers v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

So Travis Shaw is scheduled to come off the injured list and join the major league club prior to Milwaukee’s next home stand. With an off-day on Monday, that means Shaw will be ready to go on June 4. All of this means that a corresponding move must be made to get Shaw back on the 25-man roster. There are issues to consider for David Stearns and company.

1. There are 13 pitchers and 12 position players currently on the 25-man roster. With a pitching staff that relies heavily on its bullpen and does not get a lot of length out of its starters, would the Brewers consider sending a pitcher down to open up a spot for Shaw?

2. Keston Hiura is the top prospect in Milwaukee’s system. Normally when a team brings up a prospect of Hiura’s pedigree, he stays up unless he performs poorly. By necessity, the Shaw injury probably pushed up his timeline to the big league club. Has Hiura done enough to keep his spot on the 25-man, and even if he has, will the Brewers make a decision to send Hiura down and keep him from being granted Super Two status and get an extra year of arbitration eligibility as a result?

3. Travis Shaw struggled mightily prior to his wrist injury that landed him on the IL to start with. He continues to struggle against AAA pitching. How does the Brewers’ front office reconcile that? Should they possibly utilize one of his minor league options and keep him in San Antonio?

4. Jesus Aguilar and Eric Thames have struggled as well. Aguilar plays first base only (one could argue he can play third base). Thames can play the corner outfield positions, but not well. Shaw can play three infield positions pretty well. Are Aguilar or Thames performing so poorly and have such limited defensive value that front office minds turn to thoughts of a DFA of one of them?

David Stearns and his front office have never shied away from making tough decisions, but this decision is actually pretty difficult. As Adam McCalvy pointed out, there are not a lot of spots available for Shaw. As a result a decision will be made that is open for being second guessed and potentially seen as controversial.

So what do the Brewers do? Do they send down a pitcher? Do they send down their top prospect who has held his own and the major league level? Do they exercise a minor league option and keep Shaw in San Antonio? Do they DFA either Aguilar or Thames based on poor offensive performance and lack of defensive versatility? There is a case to made for all four options.

The case for sending down a pitcher:

There are a couple of pitchers struggling in the Brewers bullpen at this time. Alex Claudio has pitched in 21.1 innings this year. That which was thought to be his bugaboo was a high BABIP. His BABIP is currently at .250. Unfortunately he is giving up home runs at a higher rate than any time in his career (27.8%). He is sporting a 6.33 ERA and opposing hitters are getting the ball in the air more than ever as well (26.9%). Left handed hitters are slashing .174/.269/.283, so he remains effective as a LOOGY, but he is struggling overall. Those struggles are most pronounced of late. In the month of May, opposing hitters are slashing .379/.438/.897. Even against left-handers the slash remains high at .333/.412/.667. Claudio has given up four of his five home runs in May. He has never given up more than five home runs in any season. He is arbitration eligible through 2021, so it is unlikely that they just let him go. However, might Claudio have an injury he needs to treat? With such numbers, that question might be a legitimate one.

Corbin Burnes has been one of the biggest disappointments in the first two months of Milwaukee’s 2019 season. By many accounts, he was thought to be the most promising of the three young guns, and there was reason for it. In fact he is in the 100th percentile in MLB for fastball spin rate. That is crazy good. Yet his results as a starter and reliever are just bad. He is sporting a 9.92 ERA and he gives up home runs as if he were pitching to Prince Fielder during the Home Run Derby. When we look at him in terms of the rest of the league, he is in the 25th percentile in xBA, 21st percentile in exit velocity, 11th percentile in xwOBA, 9th percentile in hard hit%, and 7th percentile in xSLG. He is just not getting it done, and he would be a prime candidate for a return to San Antonio, maybe even begin to stretch him back out as a starter to come up later in the year or prepare him for next season.

Freddy Peralta is sporting a 5.97 ERA, which is less than stellar. He is a great enigma as he seems to either dominate or struggle. In fact, that is not out of the ordinary for a talented pitcher who is learning to pitch and is days away from turning 23 years old. Peralta is also not being used in high leverage situations. Getting him back into a starting rotation in San Antonio might be best for his development as well as the Brewers in the short term.

Adrian Houser might be the move, although he has been decent. His ERA is 3.63, and he has given up just two runs in one outing as a reliever (he did give up five runs in his first appearance of the season, which was a start, back in April). By merit, it seems he would stay with the big league club, but he is one of the pitchers on the pitching carousel between Milwaukee and San Antonio.

The case for sending down Hiura:

Keston Hiura is the number one prospect in the Brewers’ system, and the number 15 prospect in all of baseball. Because of Shaw’s injury, Hiura was called up, probably before the Brewers really wanted to. In 50 at-bats he has hit three home runs and has a respectable slash of .260/.315/.460. With the exception of his first game, Hiura struggled a bit out of the gates. He is holding his own and he seems to be making quick adjustments. He has exceptional bat speed and bat-to-ball skills. This level of player usually does not go back down once he is called up unless he is struggling mightily. Hiura is not struggling.

There is advantage for the Brewers if they do decide to send him down. While the amount of time a player must remain in the minors to avoid Super Two is determined after the season, another few weeks would in the minors would likely achieve that goal. That might be the deciding factor.

The case for optioning Shaw:

Travis Shaw has two minor league options. The Brewers could exercise one of them and allow the Brewers’ slugger to continue to work out his woes. Shaw has struggled all season (.163/.266/.281). He is striking out 32.5% of the time. He has one of the lowest WARs for a position player in baseball (-0.9 fWAR). In his rehab assignment, he has not fared much better going 4-for-23 against AAA pitching. No one really knows what is going on with Travis Shaw. He is a good hitter who has performed terribly. Is it his head? Is it his mechanics? Is it a nagging injury? Is it some combination of things? While it might be “insulting” for a player of his caliber to be optioned, his performance certainly merits it. If he could get past any perceived slights, remaining with the Missions might be the best thing for everyone.

The case for DFAing Aguilar or Thames:

The 2019 season-to-date for Jesus Aguilar and Eric Thames has been disappointing. Both have performed well in the past, and it is difficult the think about letting one of these two guys go. Yet if their bats are not helping the cause, they have limited to detrimental value on the defensive end outside of first base. Travis Shaw would likely play first base, defensively, better than both Thames and Aguilar. Right now, each Aguilar and Thames offensive production does not merit a roster spot.

Jesus Aguilar is slashing .189/.299/.288 with just three home runs. He is sporting a wRC+ of 60. His last start prior to the 5/28 game against the Twins cam on 5/18. He looks like Aguilar has lost the confidence of the Craig Counsell. He is really just a first baseman with decent defensive skills at the position. If his bat cannot carry him, he just will not make it. The Cleveland Indians let him go to Milwaukee once he was out of options based on that concern. Aguilar did prove himself to be good for a stretch last season. Right now, he is looking like a hitter unable to make the adjustment made to him. How long will the Brewers continue to hang on to such a player? Aguilar has the potential to be a power bat for a long time, but concern about him has to be creeping into the minds of Stearns, Counsell, and others.

Eric Thames has performed a bit better on the whole, and was even pretty good early on. His slash is .239/.366/.427, and he is putting up that level of slash with a .349 BABIP. He is striking out 34.5% of the time. He is walking 15.5% of the time, which keeps his value up more than otherwise would be the case. He arguably has some defensive versatility, but he posts a negative UZR no matter the position played including a -1.6 at first base. Thames’s contract also runs out at the end of the 2019 season (there is a club option for 2020 that will almost certainly not be exercised), whereas Aguilar is controllable.

Even struggling as much as he has, Travis Shaw could put up similar production to Aguilar right now. Shaw is a plus defender at third base, and he would likely be a plus defender at first base. Between the three of them, Shaw has the more impressive track record of performance. It would not be a surprise to see if the Brewers let one of Aguilar or Thames go through waivers.

Quite simply, the Brewers have a very tough decision to make. Yet they have to make one. The easiest decision to make might be to send Hiura down for a few weeks and see if Aguilar or Thames turn it around. It might also be easy to send down Burnes or Peralta and keep 13 position players for awhile. Letting Shaw work it out in the minor leagues by exercising a minor league option might be the best for everyone if emotions can be managed. Yet it might be time to let one of Aguilar or Thames go since it is difficult to carry so many sluggers who aren’t slugging on the same roster at the same time. It would not surprise me to see multiple moves made prior to the June 4 game against the Miami Marlins.

Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball Savant