It was always going to be interesting to see how the Brewers and Craig Counsell mapped out playing time in the outfield after signing Avisail Garcia to a multi-year contract.
Now, with position players reporting to spring training today, we’re hearing what the (initial) plan is.
In a bit of a surprise move, Counsell says Christian Yelich will be moving out of right field — the position he’s largely played since coming to Milwaukee — and will be moving to left field, where he spent much of his time with the Miami Marlins. Garcia will largely play right field, with Ryan Braun also moving back to right while also giving first base another try.
Just how much time Braun ends up spending there — considering his rotating schedule of off days and Lorenzo Cain’s apparent impending increase in rest — still remains to be seen. But as he reported to camp today, Braun said he at least feels better about playing first base than he did two years ago, when he first tried it in the name of helping the team while also making it clear he wasn’t comfortable.
Ryan Braun on The First Base Project II. pic.twitter.com/3KgtMQr5aR— Adam McCalvy (@AdamMcCalvy) February 17, 2020
“The plan going in is I’ll definitely see some time at first base. I feel better about it now than I did then (2018) because I had literally never put on a first baseman’s glove or spent any time over there at all. I’ll have to re-acclimate myself to the position a little bit, but I think the tentative plan is for me to see some time at first base this year and the best time to get acclimated is during spring training.”
“I don’t know if I have a (first baseman’s) glove or not. Moose told me that he had a really good one, but I think Yaz took it so I have to track that one down. I’m not sure if my first baseman’s glove is here, I’ve got to check, but we’ll have to dust it off and get it ready for action again.”
“I think we’ve seen the value of versatility in our game, and I think with our personnel and our current group of what looks like the initial 26 guys on the roster, it really makes sense for me to play some infield, I do enjoy the challenge of it. And it is a challenge, it’s not as easy as I think some people make it out to be, especially in today’s game with shifts and guys playing all over the place, and learning bunt plays and first-and-third plays and making sure you’re in the right position for cutoffs and relays — just a lot of things that come with experience and when you don’t have experience, it’s all new to you.”
The Brewers first tried to move Braun to first base — or at least make it a part of his playing time plan — in 2018, when Domingo Santana was coming off a 30-home run season and the team added Cain and Yelich in the offseason. That experiment proved to be short-lived for a couple of reasons — mainly, Santana’s horrible slump to start that season that landed him on the bench, and Jesus Aguilar’s breakout All-Star campaign that lessened the need for Braun to serve as the right-handed complement to Eric Thames — and we never got to truly gauge how well Braun took to the position.
Adding an inexperienced Braun to an already shaky defensive infield mix might be a cause for concern, but — similar to the team’s experimentation with Travis Shaw and Mike Moustakas at second base — there’s no doubt it sets up the best possible offensive lineup if he can at least be passable defensively. Considering the other options for the position, it may be the team’s best bet to putting together an above-average offense.
As far as the other parts of the outfield equation go, the left-to-right alignment of Yelich-Cain-Garcia would give the Brewers an above-average defensive outfield, which could prove to be more valuable than an above-average infield, given the current focus on hitting the ball in the air.
So, it's a switch for Yelich from playing RF in his first two seasons with #Brewers but he was a Gold Glove LF with the Marlins so Counsell feels very comfortable there. He said bigger thing is getting Braun comfortable in RF again.— Tom (@Haudricourt) February 17, 2020
Yelich played left field a fair amount for the Brewers in 2018 before ultimately settling into right on a fairly permanent basis. He was a legitimately good defensive left fielder for the Marlins, though, grading out at +32 Defensive Runs Saved combined from 2014-2016. Cain has been worth +40 DRS during the last two years (an even +20 in each season), while Garcia was worth +3 DRS in right field for Tampa Bay last year. What Garcia may lack in defensive range, he makes up with a very strong arm.
Add in Ben Gamel as the primary backup (+5 DRS last year combined over all three positions) and — brace yourself — defense in the outfield may actually be a strength of the Milwaukee Brewers.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs