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Milwaukee Brewers 2021 preview by position: Shortstop

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Is this finally the year Orlando Arcia breaks out?

MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at Chicago Cubs Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

Overall, the nearly six-year tenure of David Stearns as the lead executive for the Milwaukee Brewers has been a success. But if there is one sore spot during his time in the Cream City, it has been the franchise’s ability to develop and graduate impact position player prospects. Maybe Keston Hiura winds up breaking that mold, but the jury is still out after a tough summer in 2020 and defensive switch to first base. Other than Hiura, the only other “homegrown” player in the projected starting lineup is shortstop Orlando Arcia, who is now entering his sixth year with the team.

Arcia was a prospect holdover from the previous regime who isn’t technically a Stearns “guy,” and the front office and management has not held back at times when it comes to expressing dissatisfaction with his play. Orlando was highly touted coming up through the minors but has struggled at times, sometimes mightily, on both sides of the ball at the big league level. He was one of the league’s worst regular hitters during a two-year span in 2018-19 and though his reputation is as a highly-skilled defender, he has often displayed a lack of concentration and has failed to consistently display the elite glovework that was advertised as he climbed up the ladder.

After a 62 wRC+ and below replacement level season in 2019, the Brewers acquired Luis Urias from the Padres during the following offseason specifically to come in and compete with Arcia as the everyday shortstop. That didn’t exactly work out as planned, as Urias was slowed by a hand injury during the original Spring Training, then dealt with COVID-19 during Summer Camp and the start of the 2020 campaign. But the ploy did seem to light a fire under Arcia anyway, as he enjoyed the strongest offensive season of his career driven by some legitimately improved advanced metrics.

Never before had Arcia finished in even the 10th percentile or better in terms of expected weighted on base average during any season of his career, but in 2020, he was in the 61st percentile of the league. After finishing below the 10th percentile in expected batting average in both 2018 and 2019, Arcia was in the league’s 81st percentile in xBA in 2020. His expected OBP and slugging were both at career highs, due in large part to the best quality of contact numbers the now-26 year old has ever posted. He finished in the top half of the league in exit velocity (53rd percentile) for the first time and posted a career-best hard hit ranking (46th percentile). In fact, Arcia’s hard contact rate and exit velocity have now increased each year for four consecutive seasons.

Arcia’s approach has continued to improve as he’s matured, as he once again lowered his chase rate significantly; he has now decreased his o-swing rate by 10% over the past two seasons. His swinging strike rate was below 10% for the first time in his career, leading to a career-best 16.9% K rate; he was in the league’s 79th percentile in strikeout rate and 66th percentile in whiff rate in 2020, two number that once again, have drastically improved over the past few years. Arcia has never been one to walk much, but his BB rate has settled in between 7-8% during the past two seasons.

All of this led to a .260/.317/.416 slash line for Arcia in 2020, for a career-best .734 OPS and 96 wRC+ across 189 plate appearances. He hit five homers, drove in 20, and stole a pair of bases without being caught. His xwOBA suggests that he was even more effective than that based on the quality of his contact last summer. Additonally, Arcia improved defensively to above-average at the six in the eyes of both UZR and Statcast’s OAA, though DRS still saw him as a negative with the glove.

If it feels like he’s been around forever, it’s because Arcia is now the organization’s longest-tenured player. But it’s easy to forget that he’s still only 26 and should conceivably be entering the prime age range of his career. Arcia has displayed a refined approach at the plate and has always flashed the capability of brilliance in the field; could 2021 finally be the year he puts it all together for a true breakout season?

If so, he’ll still have to get past Luis Urias, who was once again put in competition with Orlando for the starting shortstop gig even after the incumbent’s career-year. Urias eventually got on the field but limped to a .239/.308/.294 slash line (67 wRC+) while striking out 26.7% of the time in 120 plate appearances. Urias was already something of a post-hype player with his stock trending downward when the Brewers picked him up; one could even say he’s on a similar path to the one Arcia followed early in his career. Still just 23 (24 in June), Urias will be given every opportunity by the organization to figure it out moving forward, though there has been speculation that he could begin the year in the minor leagues if not as a utility man roving around the infield at American Family Field, rather than as the team’s starting shortstop. Neither Urias nor Arcia have been particularly impressive at the plate so far in camp, and both have moved around the diamond at multiple positions. Utilityman Daniel Robertson is another player who could factor into the mix at shortstop over the course of the season, too.

In the Minors

Shortstop is arguably the strongest position for the Brewers down on the farm. Many of these guys were mentioned in the second base preview, but there is top prospect Brice Turang, high draft picks like Freddy Zamora and Hayden Cantrelle, and noted international signees like Eduardo Garcia, Daniel Castillo, and the recently-inked Jackson Chourio. Turang is likely to begin the year in Double-A, but otherwise those other names are all multiple years away and will be players to watch in the coming summers as they begin their professional careers in earnest.

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