The Brewers had one of the worst offensive infields in baseball in 2023. Milwaukee failed to compile a wRC+ above 91 at any of the four infield positions, with the worst output coming at first and second base.
Willy Adames remains locked in at shortstop, but nearly every other position on the dirt is unsettled.
Corner infielders Rowdy Tellez, Carlos Santana, and Josh Donaldson are now free agents. The only external addition to that mix has been Jake Bauers, a potential post-hype breakout candidate the Brewers acquired from the New York Yankees in November.
Bauers is currently the leading candidate to play first base. Prospect Tyler Black will likely receive significant time at one or both corner infield positions in 2024 after advancing through Double-A and Triple-A last season. From there, the Brewers have an unexciting hodgepodge of players like Brice Turang, Andruw Monasterio, Owen Miller, Vinny Capra, and Oliver Dunn, all of whom are best suited as bench pieces.
The Brewers should be active in the infield market over the next few months. Here are some players who could interest Matt Arnold and company.
Free Agent Targets
The middle infield free-agent market is lacking, but there are a few first base options that fit the Brewers’ needs and budget.
The Brewers acquired Santana at the trade deadline with the hope that he could tap into the remaining pop in his bat. He did just that, hitting 11 home runs in 226 plate appearances while posting a 107 wRC+. He also played strong defense at first base and was a Gold Glove Award finalist.
Arnold told Adam McCalvy at the Winter Meetings that the Brewers are open to re-signing Santana. Beyond his on-field production, he became a leader in the clubhouse. He should also be available on a one-year deal worth less than $10 million. From those perspectives, a reunion makes sense.
Santana’s plate discipline remained strong last year, but there’s reason to be skeptical of his power output moving forward. He’ll turn 38 years old next season and saw a downturn in his quality of contact metrics in 2023. Despite Santana’s affordability and clubhouse fit, the Brewers may be better served going in another direction.
The longtime San Francisco Giant signed with the Toronto Blue Jays last year and gave them 404 highly productive plate appearances, slashing .254/.369/.490 with 19 home runs for a 138 wRC+.
Belt’s strikeout rate jumped to a career-worst 34.9%, but that was due to being overly passive, an issue he can correct with a slight approach change. His called strike rate jumped to 17.3%, but his swinging strike rate and contact rate on pitches in the zone remained consistent with his previous two seasons.
Like Santana, Belt is well past the wrong side of 30. 2024 will be his age-36 campaign. However, he may have more power left in the tank. He’s two years younger than Santana, posted an excellent 15% barrel rate last season, and consistently pulls the ball in the air.
Belt’s drawbacks are his lack of flexibility and durability. He has appeared in just 278 games over the past three years, with last season’s 103 games constituting his healthiest showing since 2019. At this stage of his career, he is closer to a full-time designated hitter than a consistent option at first base. He must also be shielded from left-handed pitching.
Still, Belt may be the Brewers’ best choice for adding pop and strong on-base skills on a cheap one-year deal this winter. Don’t be surprised if they get involved in his market.
Signing Cooper would be a reunion of sorts, as the Brewers drafted the 32-year-old in the sixth round in 2013 but traded him in 2017 before he made his MLB debut.
Ironically, Cooper has become one of the more successful former Brewers farmhands of the last decade. In parts of seven seasons, he has slashed .268/.337/.435 (110 wRC+).
The veteran is coming off a down year in which he hit a career-worst .251/.304/.419 (96 wRC+). His plate discipline took an alarming step in the wrong direction, as his contact rate plummeted and his chase rate spiked. However, he still mashed against left-handed pitching, slugging .529 and posting a 145 wRC+.
Cooper could be a solid platoon partner for Bauers, Belt, or another left-handed first baseman. After a replacement-level season, he should be available for a couple million dollars on a one-year prove-it deal and may not even fetch a guaranteed contract. It might be a worthwhile play for the Brewers.
If the Brewers want to add at any of the other three infield positions, the trade market is the way to go. There could be several young players available in exchange for established pitchers, meaning Milwaukee could line up well with a few teams in trades.
Mayo is the Baltimore Orioles’ No. 4 prospect. He’s ready to play in the big leagues, as evidenced by his .290/.410/.564 line and 29 home runs between Double-A and Triple-A last season. However, Mayo is blocked in Baltimore by Gunnar Henderson, Ryan Mountcastle, and Jackson Holliday at various infield positions.
Mayo is a third baseman by trade and has a strong throwing arm that suits the position, but some scouts believe first base will be his ultimate destination. His elite power plays well at either corner and would make him an immediate long-term cornerstone in the Brewers’ infield.
The Orioles need pitching and appear a fitting trade partner for Corbin Burnes. They may not be willing to part with such a highly-regarded prospect for a rental, but the Brewers have a high asking price. There’s no harm in seeking Mayo as the centerpiece in a deal.
Whereas Mayo is a possible but improbable target, Duran may be more attainable.
The 24-year-old entered the 2022 season as the Texas Rangers’ No. 4 prospect and debuted that summer. 2023 was his first full season in the big leagues.
Duran has started his career with a .262/.309/.417 line (98 wRC+), including a performance of .276/.324/.443 (107 wRC+) in 2023. His underlying metrics have not been all that impressive, and his plate discipline needs significant development, but Duran has big power. His 115.2 mph max exit velocity placed in the 96th percentile of MLB hitters last season.
Duran has experience at all four infield positions and left field, with his cannon throwing arm playing well at third base and shortstop. He’s blocked at all those positions in Texas, where things are more tumultuous on the pitching side.
Burnes could be of interest to the Rangers, as could Devin Williams. Things are also getting a bit cramped in the Brewers’ bullpen, and they could opt to sell high on other relievers in that group. Duran won’t be cheap but could be more available than Mayo, and the Brewers have the pieces to make a deal happen.