As the Milwaukee Brewers have tried to piece together a young core that could lead to a multi-year window of playoff contention, very few people paid much attention to shortstop.
While Orlando Arcia has had plenty of problems with the bat during his major league career, he was young -- still only 24 years old this season -- cheap, and good defensively. It was a safe assumption that we could just pencil Arcia into the team’s long-term plans.
Despite improved offensive production this year, that may be changing.
Tyler Saladino has started at shortstop in both games since getting called up, and on Saturday, Craig Counsell expressed some frustration with his young shortstop and made it clear that it was a position he and the front office thought needed to improve if the team was going to break out of its stretch of poor play.
Arcia has rediscovered the power stroke that completely abandoned him last year, but it may have come at the expense of his defense. While also having to cover more ground when Mike Moustakas was playing second base (who handled it well, all things considered, but did not have great range), Arcia has been more mistake-prone defensively with 11 errors in 696 innings, after 15 in 852.1 innings last year. We should generally be skeptical of single-season advanced defensive metrics (especially when only half a season has been played), but those aren’t great, either -- his Defensive Runs Saved is at +1 so far this year in those 696 innings after being +4 last year, which is still above average, but not as good as we’ve come to expect from someone with such a high defensive reputation.
Arcia’s always had a tendency to make the extremely difficult plays look routine while occasionally struggling with the actual routine plays, but that’s been especially pronounced this year. According to the Inside Edge Fielding data on Fangraphs, Arcia has converted about 70% of “Likely” outs (plays with a 60-90% chance of an out being recorded) for his career. This year, that’s down to just 57.9%. Considering the Brewers already have a shaky pitching staff -- especially during this recent rough patch -- they don’t need to compound those issues by not getting outs on plays that should be outs.
That kind of defense might be passable if Arcia was hitting like a true offensive shortstop, but even with his improvements this year, he’s still a below-average bat in the lineup. He enters Sunday hitting .240/.300/.404 for a .704 OPS and an OPS+ of just 81. He carries a wOBA of just .296 and a wRC+ of 79. Simply put, Arcia needs to be excellent defensively -- not just above average -- to provide value to the Brewers, and he’s barely done that this year, with a fWAR of just 0.3 in the first half.
That’s why, reading between the lines, you can’t really fault David Stearns and Craig Counsell for starting to wonder if he really is the long-term answer at shortstop. While it’s extremely hard to start thinking about giving up on a former top prospect who’s still only 24 and likely has his best years ahead of him, Arcia will be heading into arbitration this winter and could be looking at a big raise.
Is Arcia worth the $4 million or so he could command during his first year in arbitration, or could he be a non-tender candidate this winter? Someone like Saladino could provide roughly the same amount of overall production -- maybe a little more offense, a little less spectacular defense but more consistency on routine plays -- for a fraction of the price.
We don’t know yet how Mauricio Dubon would fare against major league pitching, but Arcia’s career .670 OPS and 75 OPS+ isn’t a high bar to clear. Even if the Brewers don’t want to go all-in on Dubon at shortstop, guys like Arcia are a dime a dozen and can likely be had on minor league contracts. For example -- Cincinnati signed Jose Iglesias to a minor league deal in the offseason and has seen him hit .292/.328/.411 for a .739 OPS and 89 OPS+ with his usual excellent defense.
There’s still an entire half of baseball left to be played, and if nothing else, Arcia has shown an ability to get hot late in the season. There’s plenty of time for him to respond to the latest challenge being put down by Stearns and Counsell and bounce back with a strong second half -- both offensively and defensively -- but with more than 400 games of data points to fall back on, we may have a pretty good idea already of what to expect. The question this winter will be if there are better things to spend that money on.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs