As fans of the Milwaukee Brewers, it feels like we’ve been waiting forever for that one prospect to graduate to the big leagues and be an immediate hit. No lengthy adjustment period, no back-and-forth to the minors while finding their footing, no changes of role or position. A player who comes up and produces like a stud from the get-go, and maintains that pace. When was the last time that happened? One could argue Josh Hader, but he had to go through a role change first, switching from starter to reliever before getting called up. Before that, are we going all the way back to Ryan Braun and Yovani Gallardo?
Once he was called up in May, Keston Hiura looked to be well on his way towards becoming the next homegrown rookie star for the Cream City Nine. A consensus top prospect league-wide, Hiura was brought up to sub in for the ailing — and struggling — Travis Shaw on May 14th. He was immediately plopped into the regular lineup by manager Craig Counsell, accumulated 69 plate appearances over 17 games, and batted .281/.333/.531 with five homer runs. That’s good for a 122 wRC+. Scouts have said that swing-and-miss tendencies are a more prevalent part of Hiura’s game now than when he was drafted and some of that was evident during his first trial against the planet’s best pitchers, but he was making an above-average amount of hard contact and peppering the field with line drives at a rate greater than anyone else on the team (and in the 96th percentile around the league).
But on June 3rd, Hiura was optioned back down to the minors despite ranking fourth on the team in wRC+ at the time. The team’s publicly-stated reasoning was that Shaw was deemed ready to return from his rehab assignment and the player believed he was ready to push the reset button on his season after a horrendous start. Shaw is a former team MVP with an impressive two-year track record of success in this city, playing an integral role in the club’s rise back to relevance. He didn’t exactly hit well during his respite in the minors but the explanation was plausible enough.
The move just didn’t feel right, though. What more could Hiura have done to keep his spot on the roster? Surely another transaction could have been made to accommodate Shaw’s return, such as sending down a reliever during a spot in the schedule that featured an abundance of off-days. With the benefit of hindsight, we can say now that Shaw has not been playing everyday since returning and has been switched out of a number of games, making it difficult to justify the idea that playing time wouldn’t have been available. Who would you rather see those non-Shaw infield at-bats going to — Hiura or Hernan Perez? Furthermore, exactly what role is Jesus Aguilar filling on the roster at this point? He’s accrued just 34 plate appearances in June, putting together and 84 wRC+. He’s batting .200/.308/.321 on the season for a not-so-nice 69 wRC+. Aguilar is filling only the short side of a platoon at first base at the current juncture, and even with that, Counsell has taken to using Yasmani Grandal at first base and Manny Pina behind the plate more frequently of late when an opposing left-hander is on the mound.
That is why it’s worth keeping in mind that another factor was almost surely weighing on the minds of the brain trust in the front office when it came to the decision to send Hiura back to the minors — his potential status as a Super Two player. A player qualifies if, when his service class reaches between two and three years, he ranks among the top 22% of players in terms of days in the major leagues (and the player must have spent at least 86 days of the preceding season on a big league roster or injured list). The players who fall within that top 22% become eligible for salary arbitration early and can then go through the process four times instead of the standard three during their years of reserve control before hitting free agency. That allows the player to start earning more money sooner and can also substantially increase the amount he can earn in the following years, as arbitration salaries are based off the year prior.
The Major League Baseball season lasts for 187 days and Hiura was called up to the big leagues on the 47th day of the season, meaning that he would have accrued 140 days of service time in 2019 had he stayed in the bigs for the rest of the year. Assuming two full seasons played in 2020 and 2021, Hiura would have almost surely been a Super Two player when the time came for his service class, based on recent history. Over the last decade, the highest that the cut-off has been is 2.139 years of service, or two years and 139 days. So in every season dating back to dating back to 2009, a player with 2.140 years of service would have qualified for a four go-rounds in arbitration.
But now 19 more days have passed since Hiura was optioned, meaning that if he is recalled today, the most time he can rack up this year is 121 days. The lowest that the Super Two cut-off has been in any season since 2009 is 2.122 years of service, so if that history means anything, the Brewers should be safe to call Keston back up to Milwaukee now or at any time in the near future without having to worry about paying him more money down the road should he keep hitting like he did during his first cup of MLB coffee.
Travis Shaw still isn’t producing, batting a mere .184/.311/.289 in 45 plate appearances since returning. He can be optioned to the minor leagues. Jesus Aguilar is hardly playing and isn’t producing when he does get opportunities, and he offers zero versatility as a right-handed hitting, first base-only player. He does not have options and would have to pass through waivers in order to go to the minors, which doesn’t exactly seem likely even with his pronounced struggles in 2019. The time to make a decision regarding the fate of one of them should be rapidly approaching, if it isn’t here already.
While Keston Hiura has hit .270/.361/.556 with five homers in 15 games for San Antonio, the big league Brewers have gone 6-10 with a lineup that currently features only four above-average hitters by wRC+ on any given night. The only thing that keeping Hiura in the minors will accomplish at this point is providing further certainty to Milwaukee’s front office that they won’t have to start paying him early down the road. How much longer can David Stearns delay making a move?
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs
Super Two information courtesy of MLB Trade Rumors