Many good things came out of the Milwaukee Brewers’ strong stretch run that fell one game shy of the World Series, but none more so than Orlando Arcia re-establishing himself as the team’s shortstop of the present and future.
Arcia’s standing was in doubt when he was sent down not once but twice during the regular season for failing to hit. But he was one of the top offensive performers in September and stepped up even more during the postseason.
Arcia was easily the Brewers’ most consistent hitter during the seven-game National League Championship Series, batting .360 (9 for 25) with two home runs, three RBI and a .985 OPS. He became only the 12th player in LCS history to hit safely in all seven games and the first since Marco Scutaro for San Francisco in the 2012 NLCS.
Arcia, 24, looked completely lost at the plate in the first half of the season, batting .197 with a .231 on-base percentage and .482 OPS. But, after twice being demoted to Class AAA Colorado Springs, he regrouped and gathered momentum in September, batting .329 with a .360 OBP in 26 games.
Arcia capped his late-season resurgence with a four-hit performance in the game No. 163 showdown with the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field as the Brewers captured the NL Central crown.
“For Orlando, I think confidence plays a big part in this,” manager Craig Counsell said before Game 7, in which Arcia collected two of the Brewers’ seven hits. “The other thing is he just got to the point this season where he just gave away too many at-bats. There were just at-bats that he flat out gave away. That’s the best way I can say it.
“Really, since his recall or right around the trade deadline, it’s just been much better. It doesn’t mean the result is going to be a hit every time, but he’s been much better at minimizing those (bad) at-bats. Everybody has an at-bat that doesn’t look good, but he had too many of them (earlier).
“I think he’s done a better job of staying out of those at-bats, and that’s led to more success.”
Back to the drawing board: Arguably no player on the Brewers’ roster suffered a more precipitous fall this season than Eric Thames.
He opened as Milwaukee’s primary first baseman and was leading the team in home runs when he tore a ligament in his left thumb making a play in the field. He underwent surgery, forcing him to miss 41 games, and by the time he returned Jesús Aguilar had supplanted him in the lineup.
Most of Thames’ playing time after he returned came in the outfield, where he wasn’t a great fit. By late July he’d become a reserve, and then the toughest pill for him to swallow came in the postseason when he wasn’t included on either the NL Division Series or NLCS rosters.
To Thames’ credit he remained a good teammate and never pouted, and following the Game 7 loss he was asked about his expectations for 2019, when he enters the third year of the three-year, $16 million, free-agent deal he signed with the Brewers on Nov. 29, 2016.
The Brewers hold a $7.5 million team option for 2020 with a $1 million buyout.
“I have no idea what’s going to happen – trades, what we’re going to do. We have a lot of free agents. But for me, I have what I’m working on,” said Thames, who hit .219 with 16 homers and 37 RBI in 96 games after a .247/31/63 season in 2017.
“My mental approach and really focusing on what I can control, and not worrying about what happens if I don’t face lefties or whatever. I think I got too caught up in that stuff this year. Now it’s just the matter of getting back to the drawing board and coming up with what I want, what I visualize for myself next year.
“I can’t tell you everything, but I definitely want to hone in and help the team next year. It was torture for me to watch these games because I couldn’t compete, I couldn’t help. It was awesome watching these guys, but it was like, ‘Oh, I want to get in there.’
“Next year I’ll make it so I’m a big piece of the equation.”
With Aguilar now entrenched at first base for the foreseeable future and many options in the outfield, it’s possible the Brewers will look to trade Thames in the off-season. With his power, left-handed bat and an affordable contract it’s possible an American League team could have interest in him as a designated hitter.
Whatever happens, the soon-to-be-32 Thames believes another off-season of hard work can get him back to the heights he reached early in 2016, when he was the story of major-league baseball with his prodigious power display.
“This is definitely a steppingstone for next year,” he said. “I feel like I’m going to shock the world again.”
Learning experience: Another Brewers player who entered 2018 with big expectations only to fall victim to the injury bug was right-hander Zach Davies.
Coming off a 2017 in which he went 17-9 with a 3.90 earned run average in 33 starts, he struggled to a 2-7 record and 4.77 ERA in just 13 starts after separate stints on the disabled list caused by a shoulder issue and later a back issue. He missed a total of 90 games.
He also suffered an oblique strain in spring training but didn’t miss significant time because of it.
Davies returned to make five starts in September, going 0-2 with a 3.91 ERA in 23 innings. He wasn’t included on the NLDS roster, then was added to the NLCS roster after Gio Gonzalez sprained his ankle.
He finished out the Brewers’ Game 5 loss at Dodger Stadium with a scoreless inning, and now will seek to turn the page on a frustrating season personally.
“It was definitely frustrating,” said Davies, who’d never been on the DL in the majors previously. “From spring training on, having small things that kind of make you adjust is tough. But at the same time, I’ll take it as a learning experience.
“A lot of guys have to learn on the fly dealing with injuries, and I’ve had a little taste of it now and I’ll use it as learning for the future for when things come up like that and use it as a little bit of an edge.”
With three full major-league seasons under his belt, Davies won’t be eligible for arbitration until 2019. Thus, he’ll be part of one of the deepest and most talented young starting-pitching corps the Brewers have had in recent memory assuming Brandon Woodruff, Freddy Peralta and Corbin Burnes enter the rotation as expected.
Chase Anderson also will be under contract, and Jhoulys Chacín will be in the second and final year of his contract as well. Then Brent Suter should be back at some point after undergoing Tommy John surgery, and Jimmy Nelson will be a full 18 months removed from shoulder reconstruction.
“There’s a lot of guys who stepped up and have taken off this year,” Davies said. “It’s exciting to see from the standpoint of I was hurt for most of the year and I took a back seat and I saw the game from a different perspective.
“What some of the guys did and how they adjusted during the course of the year – some being sent up and down but also some going from one role to the next – they seamlessly fit in.
“It was fun to watch them, but I hope it’s even more fun to play with them next year.”