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Milwaukee Brewers 2020 preview by position: First Base

Smoak ‘em if you got ‘em!

San Francisco Giants v Milwaukee Brewers Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images

Eric Thames will go down in history as a successful free agent signing for the Milwaukee Brewers. Inked to a three-year contract after playing like a deity in Korea, Thames posted above-average batting lines during each of his seasons in Milwaukee, tallying a cumulative .241/.343/.504 slash line with 72 home runs in 1,288 plate appearances for an OPS+ of 118. He generated 4.9 Wins Above Replacement during his time with the Brewers according to Fangraphs, which translates to $39.8 mil worth of value per that website’s dollar-per-WAR calculations. All of that while earning a total of $16 mil during those three seasons.

The guaranteed portion of Thames’ contract ran out after the 2019 season, but there was a $7.5 mil club option that would have kept him in Milwaukee for 2020. Given his production level as well as his popularity with the fans, it seemed like a no-brainer to bring him back. Indeed, 86% of voters from our poll back in October thought that the Brewers should exercise the option. But David Stearns had different ideas.

For better or for worse, ‘surplus value’ seems to drive almost every personnel decision that the President of Baseball Operations makes. Amid reports that the franchise was looking to shed payroll, Stearns concluded that he would be able to find similar production at first base for a price lower than $6.5 mil (the cost of Thames’ 2020 option less the $1 mil buyout). The club officially declined Thames’ option on November 4th and allowed him to hit the open market.

There were plenty of rumors regarding how the Brewers would fill that vacancy, including the possibility of bringing Thames back at a lower price and even a pursuit of Edwin Encarnacion. But about six weeks after opening up a hole at first, the club filled it by signing veteran switch-hitter Justin Smoak to a one-year deal with a team option for 2021. Smoak will earn $4 mil as a base salary in 2020, with the option valued at $5.5 mil along with a $1 mil buyout, bringing the total guarantee to a total of $5 mil.

A former first-round pick and top prospect, Smoak has now spent the last decade in the big leagues. He is a career .231/.324/.420 hitter across more than 4,600 plate appearances for a 104 wRC+, generating 6.2 fWAR in 1,250 games. His best work has come with the Toronto Blue Jays, with whom he spent the last five seasons. He hit a career-high 38 home runs with a 133 wRC+ and 3.6 fWAR in 2017, and followed that up with a 121 wRC+ and 25 dingers in 2018. Last season, though, Smoak turned in a roughly replacement-level campaign, finishing with a 101 wRC+ and 0.2 fWAR.

In the eyes of the Brewers, however, the 33 year old appears to be a legitimate bounce back candidate that was worth investing in. His .208/.342/.406 batting line was weighed down by a career-low .223 batting average on balls in play, despite finishing above the league average in both exit velocity (72nd percentile) and hard contact rate (53rd percentile). As a fly-ball oriented (42.7%), pull-heavy (47.9%) hitter who is slower than molasses in January (6th percentile in Sprint Speed), Smoak is unlikely to ever post consistently high BABIPs. But even a bump back up to his career average of .266 would have given a significant boost to his slash line. Statcast suggests that he was the victim of some pretty poor luck last season, with an expected weighted on-base average of .366 (which ranks in the 86th percentile of hitters) versus and actual wOBA of .323. Deserved Runs Created from Baseball Prospectus agrees, giving him a DRC+ of 111 that was 10% better than his actual wRC+.

Though he is a switch-hitter, Smoak has been much better throughout his career as a left-handed hitter versus righties than he has as a righty hitter versus southpaws. That means that like many other positions around the diamond for the Brewers in 2020, first base looks like it will be something of a platoon situation. Smoak figures to see most of the action as the strong-side hitter, and he will share time with none other than Ryan Braun. The organization revived the “Braun to First Base” idea when Avisail Garcia was signed, picking back up the short-lived experiment that first began in 2018 after the additions of Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain.

Braun was the Opening Day starter at first base that season but wound up making only 12 total starts at the cold corner as Jesus Aguilar turned in an All-Star campaign. Braun was well on his way to getting re-acclimated to the position this spring, admitting that he was feeling much more comfortable this time around than he did when he first started taking reps at the position two years ago. The metrics didn’t like Braun defensively in his small sample back then (-2 Defensive Runs Saved, -1.8 Ultimate Zone Rating), but as long as he can make all the necessary routine plays and hit at a level close to the 117 wRC+ he produced last season (including a 136 wRC+ against lefties), that should be more than enough. That might be a lot to ask from a player entering his age-36 season and the final guaranteed year of his contract, however.

Also present on the depth chart is Ryon Healy, who signed an MLB deal worth $1 mil coming off an injury-plagued season in Seattle. Healy has hit 69 home runs across 401 career MLB games, including 24 and 25 in back-to-back during his two full seasons in 2017 and 2018. Healy hasn’t walked much and owns a .261/.298/.452 slash line for a 102 wRC+, but he doesn’t strike out excessively (21.4% last season) and actually drew free passes at a career-high 7.0% rate last season. Unfortunately his year was abbreviated by back and hip issues that limited him to 47 games and 187 plate appearances, during which he hit .237/.289/.456 with 7 home runs for a 94 wRC+. The right-handed hitting Healy can also play third base (though he doesn’t grade well defensively at either position) and has three minor league options remaining.

The wild card in this group is Logan Morrison, who was in camp as a non-roster invitee. Morrison has battled injuries throughout his 10 year big league career but has been an above-average hitter on the whole, with a .239/.324/.426 batting line and 139 home runs in 3,751 plate appearances for a 106 wRC+. He was at his best in 2017 when he hit 38 home runs with a 131 wRC+ for the Rays, but has struggled to a .187/.275/.371 slash line in 397 plate appearances during the last two seasons. LoMo was excellent in Triple-A last year, however, posting a 1.009 OPS with 18 long balls in 61 games while suiting up for affiliates of the Phillies and Yankees. He had been one of Milwaukee’s best bats in spring before the Cactus League was cancelled, finishing with a .300/.364/.600 batting line and three home runs in 33 plate appearances. Morrison has said he would not accept an assignment to Triple-A and appears to have earned an MLB shot somewhere whenever the regular season starts back up. Should it be in Milwaukee, beginning with a role as a left-handed hitter off the bench and 26th man on the roster, or will he exercise his opt-out clause and attempt to find work elsewhere?

In the Minors

Healy is healthy now but appears to be ticketed for Triple-A whenever the season does begin after posting a .469 OPS in 10 games during the spring. Catchers David Freitas and Jacob Nottingham are also capable of manning the position, as is Lucas Erceg. There is Jake Gatewood, Weston Wilson, Gabriel Garcia, Pat McInerny, Ryan Aguilar, trade acquisition Chad Spanberger, and interesting minor league signee Luis Castro hanging around in the mid-minors. Further on down the ladder are the likes of Aaron Familia, Thomas Dillard, David Fry, and Ernesto Martinez.

Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs, Baseball-Reference, Baseball Prospectus, and Baseball Savant