LAS VEGAS – Suffice it to say that David Stearns has addressed most of the team’s roster needs during his three-plus years as the Milwaukee Brewers’ general manager.
You don’t go from a nearly complete tear-down to within a game of the World Series in a mere three seasons unless you made a slew of right decisions. And that’s exactly what Stearns did with the Brewers.
But what’s up with second base? Why has that position remained so difficult to solve? Once again, the Brewers are looking for help at that position this off-season, though most likely on a short-term basis until their No. 1 prospect, Keston Hiura, is deemed big-league ready.
“We’ve had multiple guys at that position over the last three years,” Stearns said. “We haven’t found a guy to hold it down for us. We think we’ve got a couple coming who have the ability to hold it down for us. In the interim, whether it’s our internal options or we bring someone in externally, we’ll need to bridge a gap there.”
Stearns’ odyssey at trying to fill second base began in earnest in the spring of 2017 with the decision to move Jonathan Villar there from shortstop. The Brewers wanted to open shortstop for their top prospect, Orlando Arcia, a defensive whiz at the position.
Coming off a solid offensive season, Villar was a talented athlete whom the Brewers thought would make the transition to the other side of the bag with relative ease. But, as it turned out, he was not up to the challenge, either offensively or defensively, in what became a year of regression.
As part of the decision to go with Villar at second, Stearns decided to waive the previous starter at that position, Scooter Gennett, whose $2.5 million salary was deemed excessive for the bench, or minors. The Cincinnati Reds claimed Gennett and made him their second baseman, and he has exceeded all expectations with two huge offensive seasons (.859 OPS in 295 games), including a National League all-star selection in 2018.
Desperate to shore up the position as the Brewers vied for a wild-card playoff berth in ’17, Stearns traded for New York Mets veteran Neil Walker in mid-August. But Walker left via free agency after the season and Villar was back at second base last year, but not for long.
Manager Craig Counsell began giving utility player Hernán Pérez more playing time at second as Villar continued to slide but Stearns eventually made two moves to try to get some offensive production from the position. First, he traded for Kansas City third baseman Mike Moustakas, freeing incumbent Travis Shaw to see action at second base, which he willingly did.
A few days later, to provide a right-handed-hitting option with pop at second, Stearns traded for Baltimore’s Jonathan Schoop. Alas, Schoop never got on track at the plate (.577 OPS in 46 games) and eventually forfeited playing time, leaving Shaw to see most of the action at second.
Schoop was so woeful at the plate that Stearns decided not to tender him a contract for 2019 to avoid going to salary arbitration, where the player figured to be awarded a salary of around $10 million (Schoop then signed with Minnesota for $7.5 million). With Moustakas on the free-agent market, the current plan is for Shaw to return to third base, leaving Stearns on the hunt for a second baseman once again.
Fortunately, it’s a good off-season to be in the market for a second baseman. Beyond any trade opportunities, there are many veterans available as free agents, including Daniel Murphy, Brian Dozier, Josh Harrison, D.J. LeMahieu, Jed Lowrie, Ian Kinsler and Walker.
“We’re certainly making sure we’re aware of what’s going on in that market,” said Stearns, who met with Kinsler at baseball’s winter meetings. “We’re also aware that there are options there, both in free agency and the trade market. We need to make sure we understand relative costs and ultimately what could make the most sense for us.
“Ideally, you’re looking for a player who (performs well offensively and defensively). We understand with certain players on the market, there are going to be trade-offs. So, it comes down to how strong is their strong suit, and what is the acquisition cost, whether it’s dollars or prospects.”
Striking a free-agent deal might not be that easy for Stearns because he likely doesn’t want to offer more than a one-year deal. With Hiura rocketing through the organization, including a strong showing in the Arizona Fall League that led to most valuable player honors, the hitting prodigy could be ready for the majors before the 2019 season is done.
“We’re open to a variety of different options,” Stearns said. “We’re open to free agency, whether that’s one year or more for certain players. And we’re certainly open to trades.
“The good news is a lot of players these days have positional versatility. Players can bounce around a little bit. If we need to do that, we’ll use it to our advantage. We’re not going to close the door on anything.”
At the least, Hiura figures to be the Brewers’ second baseman by 2020, so perhaps the revolving door at the position is on the verge of stopping. One possible option to hold down the position in the interim, prospect Mauricio Dubon, is off the table at present according to Stearns because he needs to get his feet back under him, literally, after suffering a torn ACL at Class AAA Colorado Springs early last season.
“Mauricio, we’re going to want to begin the year at Triple-A,” Stearns said. “There’s not a time frame for how long he has to stay at Triple-A. We’ll let his performance and development dictate that.”
Pérez is still in the picture but is considered more of a utility player, as is Tyler Saladino, another option on the 40-man roster.
As for his current approach to filling the void at second base, Stearns said, “My general thought is patience is always a good way to go about things. So, we’re going to be patient.
“Patience doesn’t mean if there’s a deal we like, we’re not going to act. But we are in no hurry to force anything. We don’t know what our second-base situation is going to look like right now. We will know when we get to opening day. Right now, we don’t know.”