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Milwaukee Brewers 2020 preview by position: Shortstop

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Can the new kid in town unseat the incumbent?

Milwaukee Brewers Photo Day Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/Getty Images

There is a saying in psychology that “unrealistic expectations are premeditated resentments.” For baseball fans, the ever-popular top prospect lists are a regular exercise in creating and placing these kinds of unrealistic expectations upon young ballplayers. Scouts and analysts do the best they can to project a player’s future performance by evaluating tool sets, extrapolating statistics, and finding historical comparisons, and these reports — which are released and updated several times each year — tend to create obscene amounts of hype around the players graded near the top. Sometimes these forecasts create victims of expectation when players fail to live up to their labeled ceiling.

Such is the story of Orlando Arcia.

Arcia’s case is particularly acute because of the circumstances surrounding his arrival in Milwaukee. At the time he was called up, the Brewers were in the middle of a multiyear rebuild. The well-being of the farm system had become a primary focus for many fans, and Arcia had already been mentioned as one of the organization's top prospects for several years. He was coming off a 2015 season where he won the org’s Minor League Player of the Year award thanks to a stellar season in Biloxi, and was ranked as a global top-20 prospect league-wide when he was first brought to the Cream City in August of 2016.

Here is some of what Baseball Prospectus had to say about Arcia in their 2016 top prospect report:

The swing path is more conducive to line drives, but there’s enough loft and extension for him to hit a handful of homers and put the ball into the opposite-field gap. He’s also a plus runner capable of stealing 30 bases a year if he gets on base enough, which he should.

As good as the offensive profile is, the defense is even better...This is your rare high-floor, high-ceiling player, and Arcia should be hitting near the top of the Milwaukee lineup and providing stellar defense as soon as this summer.

And a glimpse of Baseball America’s 2016 profile:

Arcia has a confidence that is easy to see, maturity beyond his years and the instincts that only come naturally in being at the right place at the right time. His defensive skills are beyond reproach, and he could likely excel defensively in the major leagues right now...He has gap power with enough pop to be dangerous at the top of the lineup...When he does arrive at Miller Park, Arcia could be the first homegrown impact player developed by the Brewers since Ryan Braun arrived in the majors in 2007.

And our former leader Derek Harvey wrote this at the time of Arcia’s age-21 debut:

Again, this is pretty exciting. They’re showing a lot investment and confidence in their young shortstop of the future not only by giving him SS right away, but by moving Jonathan Villar off the spot he’s been playing for the majority of the season—and playing well.

As long as Villar proves he can handle everyday duties at the hot corner, we’re looking at the long term answer at each position.

Now, after parts of four years playing shortstop regularly for the Brewers at the big league level, it is safe to say that Arcia has so far failed to live up to those lofty expectations. He has provided glimpses of what could be when things all coming together — such as his 2017 season (the lone year he was valued at more than one win above replacement) or his 2018 postseason performance — but the overall picture is one of a player who has failed to make the adjustments necessary to become much more than a replacement-level player at the game’s highest level.

Always a free-swinger, Arcia did improve a bit with his plate discipline last season, cutting down on his number of chases as well as his swinging-strike rate. But he still ranked among the worst players in the league in terms of quality of contact. He was only in the 25th percentile when it comes to exit velocity and the 15th percentile in hard contact rate, and though his expected weighted on-base average of .284 was 15 points better than his actual wOBA, that total still ranked in the bottom 7% of the league.

In terms of his actual results, Arcia’s .223/.283/.350 slash line last season translated to a 61 wRC+, which was the worst total among all qualified Major League hitters in 2019. And not just by a little, either; the next lowest qualifiers were Mallex Smith, Brandon Crawford, and Yolmer Sanchez at 74 wRC+. This comes on the heels of a year where Arcia batted .236/.268/.307 for a 51 wRC+. In fact, Arcia’s career .243/.292/.360 slash line — a 68 wRC+ — means that he rates as tied for the 6th-least productive qualified hitter (among 292 players) since he made his big league debut.

On defense, too, Arcia has underwhelmed. He does have a reputation for making flashy plays, but he has also shown lapses in concentration on the routine ones and has been a bit error-prone, with 49 of them over the last three seasons. Defensive Runs Saved (+2) saw Arcia as above-average last year, but both Ultimate Zone Rating (-0.9) and Fielding Runs Above Average (-2.3) viewed Orlando as a net-negative at shortstop. Statcast’s new Outs Above Average metric graded Arcia in just the league’s 12th percentile. His supposed speed has never translated either, with Arcia ranking in only the 39th percentile in Sprint Speed last season. Fangraphs has rated him at less than one run added on the bases in each of the past three seasons, and for his career he’s stolen just 37 bases with a middling 69.8% success rate. In terms of overall value, Arcia has produced 4.2 wins above replacement in 479 games according to Baseball Prospectus, 2.6 WAR per Baseball-Reference, and 0.2 WAR by Fangraphs’ measure. Both B-Ref and FG graded Arcia as worse than replacement level in 2019.

Arcia has been benched multiple times in the last couple of years while chances were given to bit players like Tyler Saladino and Hernan Perez, but this past offseason David Stearns decided it was time to bring in a legitimate candidate to unseat the incumbent shortstop. Like Arcia before him, Luis Urias arrives in Milwaukee at a young age and with a lot of prospect hype to try and fulfill.

Urias — who came over in a multi-player swap with San Diego — doesn’t turn 23 until June and was considered a top-50 prospect before both 2018 and 2019 by MLB Pipeline and Baseball America. He’s been most lauded for his hit tool, which some services have graded as high as 70 on the 20-80 scale. Urias has compiled a .308 batting average across his six minor league seasons, along with a .397 OBP and .433 slugging percentage. His stock was arguably on the decline at the time that the Brewers picked him up, however (it will certainly be interesting to follow and compare his career to Trent Grisham’s).

The diminutive native of Mexico is listed at just 5’9” and 185 lbs and had never shown much semblance of hitting for power until adding a leg-kick to his swing. That increase in power output has been accompanied by a boost in strikeout totals, and last season, was surely aided by the juiced ball in the Pacific Coast League — he bashed 19 home runs in 73 games for El Paso after hitting only 17 combined in the five seasons prior. Though Urias has shown strong bat control skills at times throughout his career (most notably before the swing change), he doesn’t make a ton of loud contact.

He hasn’t been as bad as Arcia, but Urias has been far from a “good” or even “average” hitter so far during his few big league stints. Luis has just barely exhausted his prospect eligibility by appearing in 83 games and accruing 302 plate appearances over the last two seasons, but he has done so only to the tune of a .221/.318/.331 slash line, or a 79 wRC+. More of a second baseman by trade, Urias is projected as an “an offensive upgrade but a defensive downgrade from Orlando Arcia” by Eric Longenhagen. He was graded at -2 DRS and -1.2 UZR at shortstop across 341.2 innings in 2019.

If and when games do begin, the battle between Arcia and Urias for the future of the shortstop position will be one of the top storylines to follow throughout the season. Will Orlando finally take legitimate steps towards becoming an MLB-caliber hitter in his age-25 season? He was off to a great start in Spring Training. Or will Luis outdo him and usurp his spot in the starting lineup?

If both of those two fail, Craig Counsell has other proven options to turn to. Brock Holt has been a nearly-average hitter across parts of eight MLB seasons, and though he hasn’t made a ton of starts at short during that time (44), he saw a lot of action at the six during Cactus League play. Eric Sogard, too, could see some at-bats at the position, although he’s ticketed for the strong side of a platoon at third base.

In the Minors

Waiver claim Ronny Rodriguez will start the year in the minors but provides some additional 40-man roster coverage at short. MLB veterans Jace Peterson and Andres Blanco will also start the year in Triple-A. CJ Hinojosa, Yeison Coca, Felix Valerio, Antonio Pinero, David Hamilton, Cam Devanney, Eduardo Garcia, and Daniel Castillo are other names to keep in mind at the position throughout the minors. And then of course, there is current top prospect Brice Turang. Seen as Milwaukee’s lone top-100 level talent, Turang is another player praised for his hit tool but with questions about his power potential. He struggled following a midseason call-up to High-A last season, so he’s likely to return to Carolina when/if baseball does begin.

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