As with the vast majority of the Brewers’ roster, their outfield presents few question marks in terms of roster construction. Ryan Braun will transition to right field after the organization shipped Norichika Aoki to Kansas City to clear room for 26-year-old Khris Davis, who took the NL Central by storm with a .406 wOBA in his brief major-league debut last season.
Braun and Davis will anchor the corners, while Carlos Gomez projects to roam center field once again — a year after his breakout +7.6 WAR season in which he hit .284/.338/.506 with 24 home runs and 40 stolen bases. Such a tremendous season helped catapult Gomez into elite fantasy-status. He was the sixth-best fantasy outfielder in 2013, according to Zach Sanders’ end-of-season rankings.
The Brewers should have Logan Schafer on the bench once again, providing a left-handed bat off the bench and above-average defense at any of the three outfield positions. He hit .211/.279/.322 last season, and while he’s certainly a better hitter than those numbers suggest, he doesn’t project to be relevant in any leagues, due to both a lack of playing time and a lack of impact tools with the bat.
The fifth outfielder role isn’t set in stone, but Caleb Gindl will stroll into camp this month with the inside track. His overall .242 batting average won’t impress anyone. However, his 12.9% walk rate and .197 ISO helped compensate for the low batting average, likely impacted by his low BABIP in such a small sample size, and suggest he could be a solid bench bat. And if Khris Davis proves to be nothing more than a platoon guy in left field, Gindl could become a useful platoon partner at the league minimum.
But before we dig our teeth into Khris Davis and Carlos Gomez, the elephant in the room must be addressed. What should fantasy owners expect from Ryan Braun next season?
Braun will return from a lengthy PED suspension in 2013 to be the everyday right fielder for the Brewers. I’m not concerned his overall numbers will be significantly impacted by removing performance-enhancing drugs from the equation, but that’s not a universal opinion. Our own Eno Sarris illustrated how Braun’s future performance could be negatively affected by the lack of PEDs, and the lower-end of the spectrum provided by Sarris certainly makes one pause and consider the potential decline.
Furthermore, some have suggested his 2013 numbers portend the future decline. After all, his ISO dropped dramatically from the 2011 and 2012 seasons, and those who assume he was clean last season after the original positive test and subsequent appeal cause (which is a wholly unverifiable assumption) have wondered whether the lower power numbers are a product of abandoning the PED edge.
I’m not convinced by that line of reasoning. Ryan Braun hit for less power in 2013 because he failed to get the baseball off the ground. His 51.8% ground-ball rate was the highest of his career. His second-highest rate came in 2010 (48.3%), when he compiled the lowest power numbers (.197 ISO) since breaking into the big leagues in 2007. Furthermore, his 1.60 GB/FB was significantly higher than his career 1.15 GB/FB ratio. I don’t see a PED issue. I see a batted-ball profile issue.
With that said, it seems safe to assume Braun’s batted-ball profile will revert toward his career norms, which should result in more fly balls and greater power numbers. Also, his swinging-strike rate and contact numbers don’t suggest anything unprecedented. That makes me comfortable projecting Braun’s power numbers will rebound and he’ll continue to produce at an elite fantasy level.
The real question is whether Braun will run, as he only stole four bases in 61 games last year. Much of Braun’s appeal has stemmed from his 30+ stolen bases in 2011 and 2012. That’s not guaranteed to happen once again.
Moving on to Khris Davis, he’s one of the many risk-reward flyers available in the late rounds, and with Norichika Aoki out of the picture, he should receive the bulk of playing time in left field. I wrote on Davis earlier this winter:
His 22.2% strikeout rate doesn’t immediately raise red flags. However, he did have a 13.1% swinging-strike rate last year, and he possesses a relatively long swing that could be exploited at the big-league level. Some scouts have also wondered if he’ll be able to handle right-handed pitching enough to be anything more than a platoon option. Those concerns — along with his defensive limitations — are why Baseball America failed to rank him in the Brewers’ top-10 prospects and why our own Marc Hulet didn’t even mention him in the Brewers’ top-15 prospects a year ago.
A year later, though, some scouts appear to be coming around on Davis. One scout told me that he’s excited to see what the 25-year-old can do with regular at-bats and thinks he can be a legit 20+ HR guy, while Ben Badler of Baseball America said Davis is one of his breakout candidates for the 2014 season.
Thus, he’s not a legitimate sleeper candidate until he has a path to playing time in Milwaukee, but assuming that works itself out this winter, he could offer 20+ home run power for cheap on draft day. He could even swipe double-digit bases if manager Ron Roenicke continues to be aggressive on the base paths, though that’s not really Davis’ strong suit. With Braun, Ramirez and maybe even Hart coming back for the 2014 season, the Brewers’ offense should be improved. That could give Davis the opportunity to post solid run and RBI totals with regular playing time, though he’ll likely bat further down in the Brewers’ order.
As mentioned numerous times throughout this article, the playing time issue for Khris Davis has worked itself out this winter. He should be the everyday guy. What we’re left with is a player who clearly has above-average raw power, but the question still exists as to whether that power can be consistently usable at the major-league level. He possesses legitimate swing-and-miss in his game. If that becomes exploited, especially by right-handed pitchers, he may slide back into a platoon role before the summer months roll through.
To the center of the diamond, though, Carlos Gomez put on a show in Milwaukee last season. He dazzled with the glove — which wasn’t unexpected — but his performance at the dish surprised almost all fantasy owners. His .363 wOBA ranked 12th among qualified outfielders, higher than Carlos Beltran, Hunter Pence, Justin Upton and Jay Bruce, all of whom enjoyed very productive seasons with the bat. Furthermore, Gomez was the only player in baseball to swipe at least 40 bags and hit over 20 home runs, and Mike Trout was the only other player to hit over 20 homers and steal at least 30 bases.
Gomez put together a special season. He was the sixth-best fantasy outfielder in 2013, though some have questioned his season’s legitimacy because his numbers declined a bit in the second half. He hit .265/.339/.460 with 10 home runs. Certainly nothing about which fantasy owners should complain, but still, the numbers fell from his blistering-hot start to the year.
I’m not overly concerned about Gomez’s second half. I still believe he’s a top-20 fantasy outfielder and has the potential to be a top-10 outfielder yet again. This belief stems from two key points: (1) despite scuffling in the second half, his walk rate increased dramatically, and (2) his batted-ball profile didn’t change in the second half, which suggests the changes in his overall approach the past couple years have solidified.
The 28-year-old outfielder has never walked much. His career 5.4% walk rate bears that out, and more generally, his plate discipline has always been suspect. Even when he compiled a stunning .372 wOBA in the first half, he only walked 4.4% of the time. So it was big news when he hit .256 and .197 in July and August, respectively, but saw his walk rate jump to almost 10.0%. In fact, his second-half walk rate was 9.2%, which marks his career-best stretch by a wide margin. That’s extremely encouraging to see a guy like Gomez experience struggles after setting the league on fire, yet improve his overall walk rate and make strides in that area.
Now, one immediately assumes pitchers adjusted to Gomez and started pitching around him more often, especially with the absence of Ryan Braun and Aramis Ramirez to provide protection in the middle of the order. That wasn’t the case. Gomez saw 49.2% fastballs in the first half last year, and that number increased to 59.0% in the second half. The percentage of pitches in the zone remained steady at 49% in both halves. Thus, it doesn’t appear we can simply write off the dramatic increase in his walk rate to merely being pitched around or seeing more breaking balls. The numbers suggest neither of those. For those in OBP leagues, that could be a huge development for Gomez owners.
As for his batted-ball profile, it’s been written numerous times on RotoGraphs that Gomez’s power spike the past couple years has coincided with a conscious decision to get the baseball off the ground more often. A lower ground-ball rate has resulted in more fly balls and more opportunity for Gomez to utilize his above-average raw power. He now has 43 home runs in his last 1,042 plate appearances and has an ISO north of .200. That power is for real and here to stay.
But even when delving into his second-half decline — even if it wasn’t a large decline — fantasy owners should be encouraged to see his ground-ball rate remain low. His 36.5% ground-ball rate may even be a little too low, but his 26.3% line-drive rate mitigates that worry a bit.
Gomez showed many positive attributes last year, even during his second-half decline that had many doubters raising their hands. With his speed and power, he should be a good bet to be a top-20 outfielder once again, and if he can balance that combination with a .280+ batting average, he could once again be a top-10 option.
Overall, the Milwaukee Brewers have an exciting core outfield for fantasy owners. Ryan Braun will likely do his thing yet again, while Carlos Gomez has become a top-echelon option. And if Khris Davis can build off his tremendous rookie campaign, the Brewers will have three fantasy starters, with Braun and Gomez being top-20 options. Not many fantasy outfields can boast such a wealth of talent.
J.P. Breen is a graduate student at the University of Chicago. For analysis on the Brewers and fantasy baseball, you can follow him on Twitter (@JP_Breen).