Baseball

Sorting Through The Brewers’ Outfield Options

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The Brewers’ outfield is going to have a different flavor this year compared to 2022. Lorenzo Cain was released in June of last year, Andrew McCutchen reached free agency at season’s end and has since signed with the Pirates, while Hunter Renfroe was dealt to the Angels. That leaves room for some fresh faces to step up and take over. Let’s take a look at some of the options.

The Lock

Christian Yelich

Yelich, 31, is the one constant in the Milwaukee outfield picture, as his contract runs through 2028. He was one of the best players in the league in 2018 and 2019, winning National League Most Valuable Player in the first of those two seasons. In each of those two campaigns, he posted a wRC+ of 167 or higher, stole at least 22 bases and was worth 7.2 fWAR or more. His production has dropped off from those incredible heights over the past three years, but he’s still a solidly above-average player. Last year, he hit 14 home runs, stole 19 bases and walked in 13.1% of his plate appearances. That led to a .252/.355/.383 batting line, a 111 wRC+ and 2.3 fWAR.

His contract and past performance ensure that he’ll be part of the team on a regular basis, though he’ll likely serve as the designated hitter a few times, leaving plenty of outfield playing time for others. The last time he played the field in more than 115 games in a season was 2019. Since the club is invested in Yelich for the long haul, they’ll want to continue giving him the occasional breather to keep him healthy. Advanced defensive metrics are also split on his glovework, with Defensive Runs Saved and Outs Above Average both grading him as subpar last year and for his career, while Ultimate Zone Rating is much more encouraged.

Short-Term Vets

Jesse Winker

Winker, 29, is looking for a bounce back after a down season. In 2020 and 2021 with the Reds, he hit 36 home runs and produced a batting line of .292/.392/.552. Of all the hitters in the league with at least 650 plate appearances in that stretch, his 145 wRC+ was one of the 10 best. His work was even stronger with the platoon advantage, as he hit righties to the tune of .321/.417/.619 for a 167 wRC+, with only Juan Soto and Bryce Harper ahead of him in that department. He was traded to the Mariners prior to 2022 but struggled, hitting just 14 home runs last year and slashing .219/.344/.344 overall for a wRC+ of 109.

The Brewers acquired him as part of the Kolten Wong trade and will hope that a second change of scenery will suit Winker better than the first. It’s possible that injuries played a role as Winker required left knee surgery and a second procedure to address a bulging disc in his neck in October, though Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times has also reported that Winker’s work habits were a concern in Seattle. Regardless of the cause, Milwaukee is considered to be a much more favorable offensive environment than Seattle, which should work in his favor.

It remains to be seen how much the Brewers want to rely on Winker as a defender. His glovework has generally been rated poorly in his career and his numbers declined in that department in 2022. That could have been impacted by his health situation, but it’s possible he spends more time as the DH than in the field. However, as mentioned, Yelich will likely see his share of time in the DH slot as well, which will likely require Winker to spend at least a bit of time in the field. Winker is slated for free agency at season’s end.

Brian Anderson

Anderson, 30 in May, is also looking for a bounceback like Winker. From 2018-20, he hit 42 home runs for the Marlins and produced a line of .266/.350/.436, 115 wRC+. But the past two seasons have seen injuries diminish his playing time and performance. He got into just 165 total games over 2021 and 2022, hitting .233/.321/.359 for a 93 wRC+. He was eligible for one more pass through arbitration but the Marlins non-tendered him instead, with Anderson then signing a one-year deal with the Brewers.

Anderson has a bit more time at third base in his career than the outfield, and he told reporters last month he expects to see more time at third base than in the outfield. Milwaukee has Luis Urías to man the hot corner, through. That should leave Anderson in the mix for some outfield time, perhaps in a platoon role. He hits from the right side while Yelich and Winker both his left-handed, as do some of the guys below him on this list. Anderson has modest reverse splits for his career but did hit lefties better last year. Defensively, in over 1,500 outfield innings, Anderson has a -8 OAA but 8 DRS and 9.3 UZR. Even though he was hurt last year, his arm strength was still considered to be in the 99th percentile by Statcast, which could serve him well at third base or in the outfield.

Controllable Guys With Some Experience

Tyrone Taylor

Taylor, 29, has been largely a part-time option for the Brewers in recent years but took on a larger role last year as Cain was gradually phased out. He got into 120 games in 2022 and provided enough power to overcome some lackluster work at the plate otherwise. He struck out in 25.2% of his plate appearances and drew walks at just a 5.4% clip, but he did hit 17 long balls in 405 plate appearances. The result was a .233/.286/.442 batting line and a wRC+ of 102.

That work at the plate was just above average but he was much stronger on the other side of the ball. He played all three outfield positions but mostly in center, earning 6 DRS, 6 OAA and 2.0 UZR overall. It wasn’t a superstar performance but was competent in enough areas to produce 2.1 fWAR on the year. He’s set to reach arbitration for the first time after this year and can be retained through the 2026 campaign.

Garrett Mitchell

Mitchell, 24, was only drafted in 2020 but has already cracked the majors. He hit .287/.377/.426 between Double-A and Triple-A last year for a wRC+ of 118. He was selected to the major league club in August and was somehow even better in the big leagues. He hit .311/.373/.459 for a wRC+ of 136 in his first 68 MLB plate appearances. That’s a small sample size, however, and he did strike out 41.2% of the time. His defensive work was also graded as above average and he stole eight bases in 28 games.

Mitchell is a real wild card in this bunch since his 2023 could seemingly go in many different ways. On the one hand, he’s shown impressive results in all facets of the game and could be an immediate center field solution, pushing Taylor into a corner role. On the other hand, he has played less than 50 games above Double-A, the strikeouts are a real concern and his .548 batting average on balls in play will require serious regression.

Skye Bolt/Monte Harrison

Bolt, 29, and Harrison, 27, are in a similar boat to each other. They have both posted some solid minor league numbers but struggled in the majors. They’re now both out of options and had to settle for minor league deals for 2023. Bolt has a career batting line of .156/.205/.266 while Harrison’s is .176/.253/.294. They’ll likely only get a shot if the club gets bit by the injury bug a few times. Neither has reached arbitration yet and could theoretically be retained well into the future if they carve out a role.

Infielders That Can Play Some Outfield

Brice Turang/Mike Brosseau/Keston Hiura

With Wong having been traded to the Mariners, the second base job is up for grabs. Turang is one of the club’s top prospects and had a strong season in Triple-A last year, making him the favorite to take the job at the keystone despite not having cracked the majors yet. He played a bit of center field in Triple-A last year but is primarily a middle infielder. Brosseau can play all over and will be in a super utility role, allowing the club to pencil him in for any regular that requires an off-day. Hiura’s not quite as versatile, having only played first base, second base and left field in his big league career so far. He has tremendous power but has struck out in 36% of his plate appearances thus far, which will make it hard for him to carve out meaningful playing time.

On The Cusp Of A Debut

Blake Perkins

Perkins, 26, has long been considered a glove-first player but his bat seemingly took a step forward last year. Splitting his time between Double-A and Triple-A in the Yankees’ system, he stole 21 bases, hit 15 home runs and slashed .246/.357/.456 for a wRC+ of 120. He wasn’t added to that club’s roster at any point but the Brewers were intrigued enough to sign him onto their 40-man roster in November. He’ll likely be in the minors waiting for an opportunity to get called up, but he should have a decent floor thanks to his defense and speed. If the power he showed last year was a real development, he could be a well-rounded contributor.

Sal Frelick

Frelick, 23 in April, was the club’s first round pick in the 2021 draft but has quickly climbed the minor league ladder. Last year, he went from High-A to Double-A to Triple-A, hitting .331/.403/.480 for a wRC+ of 137, stealing 24 bases in the process. He doesn’t have much power but he’s very tough to strikeout, hitting 11 home runs last year but getting punched out at just an 11.2% rate. He’s still not on the 40-man roster but he’s considered one of the club’s top prospects and could force his way into the picture soon.

Joey Wiemer

Wiemer, 24 this weekend, is the inverse of Frelick with big power but strikeout concerns. He hit 21 home runs last year between Double-A and Triple-A but went down on strikes 26.8% of the time. The result was a .256/.336/.465 batting line and a 109 wRC+. Despite being a power hitter, he has sneaky speed, swiping 31 bags last year. Like Frelick, he’s not on the 40-man yet but is on the doorstep. Both he and Frelick are considered capable of playing center field.

Top Prospect That Could Show Up This Year

Jackson Chourio

Chourio is arguably the most exciting of this whole bunch but he might require patience since he’s very young, still over a month away from his 19th birthday. Last year, despite being just 18 years old, he went through Low-A, High-A and Double-A, hitting 20 home runs and stealing 16 bases in 99 games. His .288/.342/.538 batting line resulted in a 135 wRC+ and he got strong reviews for his glovework in center field.

Based on those excellent results at such a young age, he’s now considered the #3 prospect in the league by Baseball America, #8 by MLB Pipeline and #5 at FanGraphs. Given his youth and the fact that he’s played just six Double-A games, he won’t be a solution for the Brewers in the short term. Even reaching the big leagues by the end of the season seems like a long shot, but it probably can’t be completely discounted given the tremendous talent he seems to possess.

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There’s a ton of young talent here, including about a half dozen plausible center fielders. That puts the Brewers in great shape for the long haul, though it might take some time to allow these guys to sort themselves out. Chourio isn’t close, while Wiemer, Frelick and Perkins still haven’t made it to the majors. Mitchell had a great debut but will need a longer stress test. Taylor should be solid for now but isn’t elite at anything and could be surpassed by the younger guys in time. Winker and Anderson will both be free agents after this year but it seems like the club could easily replace them from within.

In the future, it seems likely the Brewers will not only have a strong outfield but will likely have enough options to make trades that address other areas of the roster. We already saw one such move when they included Esteury Ruiz in the three-team deal that netted them William Contreras as their potential catcher of the future. Not all young players end up panning out as hoped, of course, but the quality and quantity both appear to be strong here. If the club can keep pace with the Cardinals in the division this year and there’s enough development from this group, perhaps the Brewers could be key players for deadline deals to help them push to return to the postseason after missing last year for the first time since 2017.

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