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2018-19 MLB Free Agency Preview: Infielders

MLB Free Agency has officially begun, and without a top-ranked farm system in place, it’s likely that our Milwaukee Brewers will have to survey the open market if they want to make any truly impactful additions this offseason. The Brewers treated us to their best season in a generation in 2018 and have quite an array of talent under control for next year, but there are still a few spots around the diamond where the team could use an upgrade or additional depth. With close to a projected $110 mil on the books already for 2019, Slingin’ David Stearns and company may have to get creative in their dealings this winter.

In the coming days we’ll be surveying the free agent market to get an idea of who the strongest available players are and at what positions. We’ll kick things off today with a look around the infield:

Catcher

The clear-cut number one option available behind the plate this winter is Yasmani Grandal, who just declined his Qualifying Offer from the Dodgers. Grandal had some struggles in the playoffs, most notably on defense, but those issues should not do much to impact his free agency. Grandal routinely grades out as one of the top defensive catchers in the game according to the metrics, specifically in regards to his pitch framing, which is a skill that Milwaukee’s front office values quite highly. He’s also bested the league average in throwing out runners in each of the last four seasons, catching between 28%-32% of attempted base thieves each year dating back to 2015. The two-time All-Star can hit a little bit, too; he has never posted a below-average season at the plate according to OPS+, and Grandal owns a .240/.341/.441 slash (115 OPS+) in 2,660 plate appearances at the games highest level. The switch-hitter has some power and has clubbed 113 career homers in 726 games; he’s topped 20+ dingers in each of the last three seasons.

After Grandal, Wilson Ramos is the other catcher who figures to do quite well in free agency. He’s not saddled with a Qualifying Offer, though his checkered health history – including a torn ACL in 2017 – may serve to limit his market a bit. Ramos is considered to be a strong defender in his own right and batted .306/.358/.487 (130 OPS+) in 416 PA between the Rays and Phillies this past season, enjoying the top offensive year of his career at age 30.

Other notable backstops available include some old friends in Jonathan Lucroy, Stephen Vogt, and Martin Maldonado, along with the likes of Matt Weiters, Nick Hundley, Brian McCann, Devin Mesoraco, Kurt Suzuki, and Robinson Chirinos, among others.

First Base

The cold corner is no longer much of a glamour position in today’s MLB, and there aren’t really any marquee first baseman available this winter. Perhaps Steve Pearce can turn his strong part-time campaign and excellent postseason performance into a nice deal; he hit .284/.378/.512 with 11 HR in 76 games between Boston and Toronto in the regular season before hitting four homers in the playoffs. Matt Adams, Mark Reynolds, Logan Morrison, and Lucas Duda are some other names you’ll probably recognize at the position, but none of those guys had particularly noteworthy contributions in 2018.

Second Base

The keystone may be of particular interest to our club in the Menomonee Valley, and there are no shortage of serviceable players available to man second base. The hottest commodity of all this winter may well be former Astro Marwin Gonzalez, who is already believed to be drawing interest from just about every team in the big leagues. The super-utilityman has experience at every position on the diamond besides pitcher and catcher and cut his teeth mostly in the middle infield. He’s a .271/.328/.438 hitter over the last five years (111 OPS+), popping 70 homers and swiping 28 bags in that time, and the switch-hitter comes with virtually no platoon split. Gonzalez won’t have a QO attached to his name, but the wide range of interest in his services could very well end up driving up his price to a guaranteed four-year deal.

Jed Lowrie is someone else who could pique the Brewers interest, another former Astro who played in Houston while David Stearns was there. Lowrie has a bit of an up-and-down offensive track record since debuting in the big leagues back in 2008, but he’s been outstanding for Oakland the past two seasons, hitting a combined .272/.356/.448 (120 OPS+) with 37 home runs in 310 games since the start of 2017. Lowrie (who can also play at third base) does turn 35 next season and figures to be available on a short-term deal.

There are quite a few interesting solid second base options available, including Asdrubal Cabrera, Brian Dozier, Logan Forsythe, Josh Harrison, Ian Kinsler, DJ LeMahieu, Daniel Murphy, Brandon Phillips, and Neil Walker. This might be the deepest position in this year’s free agent class.

Shortstop

Although he’s a better defender at third base, Manny Machado wants to be a shortstop. He moved from third base to short for the Orioles to begin this past season and continued manning the six after a midseason trade to the Dodgers, and though he graded out with a total of -13 DRS on the season, the metrics say he fared much better defensively in his smaller sample with Los Angeles (-18 DRS with BAL versus +5 DRS with LAD). In any case, Machado should be able to at least fake it at shortstop for another few years, which ought to help set the 26 year old up for a monumental payday. He’s a career .282/.335/.487 hitter (121 OPS+) who has hit 30+ home runs in each of the last four years. His youth, hitting prowess, and ability to play a premium defensive position have the prognosticators predicting a contract that lasts decade or longer (with possible opt-outs) that will guarantee Manny an excess of $300 mil.

Beyond Machado, most of the shortstops available fall into the “glove-first” category. There’s Jordy Mercer, Jose Iglesias, Freddy Galvis, Alcides Escobar, and Adeiny Hechavarria, among others. Marwin Gonzalez could slot into this group too as he’s played shortstop the most of any of his many positions, but he’s not great defensively at the six anymore and much of his value comes from his ability to move capably around the diamond.

Third Base

With Machado marketing himself as more of a shortstop than third baseman, Josh Donaldson becomes the most well-known name available to play the hot corner. The 2015 AL MVP has battled a spate of injuries the last two years that have limited him to 113 games in 2017 and just 52 games this past season, split between Toronto and Cleveland. He was merely ‘good’ in 2018 while batting .246/.352/.449 with eight home runs (119 OPS+), but was an elite hitter as recently as the season before (.270/.385/.559, 33 HR). Most believe that Donaldson will try for a one-year, high-AAV “prove it” deal this winter before hitting the open market again next year after his age-33 season. Given Travis Shaw’s newfound ability to play at second base, Donaldson could conceivably be a short-term fit with the Brewers if the price is right.

Adrian Beltre’s future is still up in the air as he weighs retirement, but he still swung the bat well enough in his age-39 season (.273/.328/.434) that he’d generate if he decides to keep going. Chase Headley, Luis Valbuena, and Mike Moustakas will be available, as well as previously mentioned names like Asdrubal Cabrera, Jed Lowrie, Logan Forsythe, Josh Harrison, and Marwin Gonzalez.

Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference

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