If there is one type position player that David Stearns seems to love above all others, it would be outfielders. At least that is the easy conclusion to draw based upon his transaction history as top executive for the Milwaukee Brewers. Even though the President of Baseball Operations already possessed a talented (and expensive) starting outfield group of Ryan Braun, Lorenzo Cain, and Christian Yelich from left to right, the biggest outlay that Slingin’ Stearns made during this past offseason was on yet another player to roam the grass at Miller Park — 28 year old Avisail Garcia.
Garcia was dubbed “Mini Miggy” as a rising top prospect and young big leaguer with the Tigers due to his perceived offensive potential and physical resemblance to future Hall of Famer Miguel Cabrera, but it took awhile for his career to get off the ground. He debuted with Detroit as a 21 year old in 2012, posting a 90 wRC+ across 51 plate appearances. He got another brief run with the Tigers in 2013, but was dealt to the White Sox before the trade deadline (a trade that was, perhaps, due in part to this reported incident). He continued to flounder with Chicago for a few seasons as the club began to rebuild, receiving regular playing time but posting replacement level results. That is, until his age-26 season in 2017.
Garcia was an All-Star that season, finishing second in the American League batting race while hitting .330/.380/.506 across 561 plate appearances for a career-best 138 wRC+. But a little deeper digging reveals that some good fortune most likely played a major role in Avi’s long awaited “breakout.” He did shave nearly six points of his strikeout rate from the year before, but did so without making any real changes to his free-swinging ways; he still chased over 40% of pitches outside the strike zone, he simply did a better job of making contact on those pitches (53% O-contact rate). His line was buoyed by a .392 batting average on balls in play, the highest BABIP among qualified hitters that year and a mark that is 60 points higher than Garcia’s career average.
With that in mind, maybe it isn’t surprising then that Garcia’s production fell back closer to his career line in 2018 when his out-of-zone contact rate dropped back below 50% and his strikeout rate jumped back nearer to his career average. He was non-tendered by the White Sox after posting a .236/.281/.438 slash line (93 wRC+) in 385 plate appearances and landed with the Rays on a one-year deal for 2019. Garcia wound up topping 1.0 WAR in a season for the second time in his career during his lone campaign in Tampa Bay, batting .282/.332/.464 in 530 plate appearances for a 112 wRC+. He was valued at 1.8 wins above replacement by Fangraphs and 2.1 WAR by Baseball-Reference while playing most of his games in right field in addition to appearances in center field and designated hitter.
Garcia hit the open market with as a career .273/.323/.428 hitter with 96 home runs across 763 career games, good for a 103 wRC+. He’s accrued 8.0 bWAR and 6.2 fWAR, but with almost all of that value (6.6 bWAR/6.0 fWAR) coming during the 2017 and 2019 seasons, meaning that he performed essentially at replacement-level in six of his eight MLB campaigns. Those numbers don’t exactly scream “multiyear contract” or “biggest Brewers free agent signing of an offseason spent slashing payroll” But Stearns and company gave Garcia a two-year, $20 mil guarantee (with a $12 mil option for 2022), apparently feeling confident enough in the franchise’s ability to accomplish what the Tigers, White Sox, and Rays could not — turn Garcia into the stalwart that scouts thought he could be as a prospect.
Much of that confidence comes from Garcia’s age and impressive physical tools. Avisail should theoretically be in the prime years of his career while under contract with Milwaukee — he’ll turn 29 in about three weeks — a range that Craig Counsell and David Stearns have previously referred to as the “sweet spot” of one’s career. He brandishes a strong arm in the outfield and has long drawn praise for his impressive athleticism despite his hulking build — Garcia stands at 6’4” and tips the scales at 250 lbs, yet he checked in at the 90th percentile in Sprint Speed in 2019.
In 2013, Baseball America wrote that “Garcia is loaded with tools and could become an average hitter with above-average power...Garcia has a surprising athleticism considering his size. He’s an average runner with good instincts who could be a 20-20 threat...he has the tools to be a solid regular with all-star potential.” But they also noted the exact issues that have wound up leading to Avi’s maddening inconsistency and inability to reach his upside. “[H]e’s overly aggressive at the plate and rarely walks. He has the brute strength to get away with hitting pitchers’ pitches...He’ll need to improve his plate discipline.”
Garcia has posted a career chase rate of 41.8% with six of his eight seasons coming in at over 40%. The league average rate for non-pitchers in 2019 was 31.5%. Garcia’s career swinging-strike rate is 17.1%, with seven years of 15% or higher. The MLB non-pitcher mean in 2019 was 11.1%. Avi has struck out in 23.4% of his MLB plate appearances while walking only 5.9% and his high groundball rates (51.5% career) have generally hampered his power production (.155 ISO), meaning that when he has had stretches of success as the plate, they have been largely BABIP-driven.
Another player who hit a ton of ground balls before coming to Miller Park is Christian Yelich, who has evolved into arguably the top player in the National League by adding some launch angle and becoming a legitimate power threat. No one expects Garcia to become a perennial MVP candidate and he will likely never be able to match Yeli’s plate discipline, but a similar adjustment to hit the ball in the air regularly could help him put more baseballs over the fence and create consistent offensive value. Garcia has started to lift the ball in the air a bit more in recent years, posting fly ball rates over 30% in 2018 and 2019 for the first time in his career, so perhaps it isn’t a coincidence that those two seasons have been his best power years at the plate according to ISO (.202 and .182).
Garcia’s presence will move Yelich back to his more natural position in left field, although despite the aforementioned physical tools, Avi has been inconsistent as a right fielder during his career. He’s accrued -11 Defensive Runs Saved and -3.0 Ultimate Zone Runs in nearly 5,000 innings at the position, but he did rate as better-than-average in 2019. He was graded at +3 DRS and +3.2 UZR with the Rays last season, and Statcast’s Outs Above Average metric placed him in the 80th percentile among outfielders. He hasn’t been able to consistently take advantage of his speed in the outfield or on the bases, either; he was in only the 48th percentile in Outfielder Jump last season and is 9.6 runs below average for his career according to Fangraphs’s baserunning metric, including a -3.5 BsR in 2019.
The Brewers are hoping that Garcia can become the best version of himself while patrolling right field on a mostly regular basis (as well as occasional cameos in center field when Lorenzo Cain needs rest), but he will be sharing some time — at least in 2020 — with veteran Ryan Braun before his contract expires. Ben Gamel and Brock Holt could also get some innings in right field in a pinch.
In the Minors
Milwaukee’s solid outfield depth has been mentioned in the last couple of posts in this series, but here is a reminder of the team’s potential near-term depth: Keon Broxton, Tyrone Taylor, Corey Ray, Cooper Hummel, Chad Spanberger, Tristen Lutz, and Alexander Palma. Further down the ladder you’ll find Carlos Rodriguez, Joe Gray, Thomas Dillard, Pablo Abreu, and Micah Bello, Eduarqui Fernandez, Luis Medina, and Hedbert Perez, among others.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs, Baseball-Reference, and Baseball Savant