Brewers’ Playing Time Battles: Hitters

A few weeks ago, we introduced depth chart discussions in the form of playing time battles. RotoGraphs staff have discussed and assessed noteworthy battles for playing time and/or starting gigs for position players and, separately, pitchers, and such analysis will continue until the season’s commencement. Here, specifically, this author will investigate the Milwaukee Brewers‘ position player situations.

This post would have been a lot less interesting had the author written it four weeks ago when he originally considered doing so. But after what can be conservatively described as a favorable offseason, the Brewers have some playing time battles with peculiar fantasy implications, especially for prospectors.


The departure of Jean Segura leaves a vacancy for either a (perceived-to-be) flash-in-the-pan speedster or a consensus top-100 prospect.

The former, Jonathan Villar, has seen barely more than a season’s worth of plate appearances across three of the. During the latter two, he burned on the base paths — 35 in 530 plate appearances, good for 40-plus in a full season — but exhibited woeful plate discipline.

Cue 2015, when Villar added roughly 8 percentage points to his contact rate led by massive gains on contact on swings outside the zone. Even a 25% strikeout rate will fly in 2016 when his batting average is buoyed by a high BABIP (batting average on balls in play) thanks largely to excellent speed and ground ball propensities that help it play up. As such, the author respectfully takes the way-over on Steamer’s projected .307 BABIP.

The stolen bases will wane, as stolen bases are wont to do along any player’s aging curve, but Villar should still be good for at least 30 steals in a full season’s worth of playing time. Moreover, he is only 24 — a fact that induced a double-take from this author — and is perfectly capable of continued growth. Villar’s fair amount of pop makes something like a 8-30-.260 line a very reasonable outcome for 2016.

If he sees full playing time, that is. Orlando Arcia lurks in the shadows with an arm and glove that could quickly put Villar’s below-average defense out of a job. Arcia has yet to see a game above Double-A, but he has demonstrated solid contact skills, proficient baserunning and non-zero power at all levels. Only 21, he will likely be a captain of the Brewers’ talented youth movement, ETA: the next few years.

Only thing is the Brewers, who have no plans to contend, ought to have no plans to rush Arcia. And it appears they don’t, with general manager David Stearns having declared Arcia will begin the 2016 season in the minors. So while Arcia is an intriguing sleeper play in redraft leagues or short-term keeper leagues, he may not pay the kind of dividends fans might hope to see from him in 2016. (To attest: he’s going 29th among shortstops, per NFBC ADP, which isn’t great, but it’s ahead of J.J. Hardy, Jose Ramirez and Danny Santana.)

Should Arcia debut, I can see a modest line — five homers, 20 steals, .250/.300/.350 over a full season. I’m severely ballparking it, but I also don’t think it’s too relevant. Villar should dominate shortstop reps, possibly until September, with occasional spells by Yadiel Rivera, whose general lack of tools make him an unappealing fantasy option.

Third Base

The hot corner is significantly less exciting but, alas, must be discussed. After disappointing in recent seasons, both Aaron Hill and Will Middlebrooks have journeyed their ways to new teams and, for the former, a new defensive position.

Since an injury-shortened 2013 season, Hill has disappointed, exhibiting marginal declines in plate discipline alongside a fairly sharp dip in power. The 20-homer power is no longer, and almost 900 plate appearances of a sub-.270 BABIP has made a low batting average appear to be the new norm. Manning a more offensively-inclined position than his former home makes his offensive outlook ever bleaker.

If there’s a silver lining, it’s that Hill’s hard-hit rate (Hard%), despite a couple of bumps in 2011-12, has stayed remarkably consistent, even throughout his recent power outage. The fly balls (FB%) and pull rate (Pull%) are down slightly which will cut into his home run rate (HR/FB), but there’s a chance Hill could bounce back to something like mid-teens power and a respectable batting average (read: .260) at a position that really starts to tail off outside the top-10.

(Also, despite all this talk about him playing third base, he will still qualify for second base, so this same outlook applies to that shallower position.)

Hill’s primary competition is Middlebrooks, who looks set to record his fifth-straight lackluster half-season at the game’s highest level. Some of his peripherals — putrid walk rates (BB%), basement batting averages — have led to similarly putrid outcomes. But, like Hill, there exists a silver lining: Middlebrooks continues to hit the ball hard and, like, Villar, took a big step forward in his strikeout rate.

Unfortunately, such gains are betrayed entirely by his plate discipline peripherals — his swinging strike rate (SwStr%) peaked at 12.1%, spiking alongside his chase rate (O-Swing%). If the author had to wager who would more probably record a 25% strike out rate between Villar and Middlebrooks, he would take the latter.

Still, the legitimate 20-homer power — which, at one point, looked like 25- or almost 30-homer power — could make him an OK play were he to see regular reps.

But, like Arcia, he probably won’t. It’s Hill’s job to lose, and given the Brewers’ lack of urgency, there’s not a lot of pressure to push him out of a job. Should Hill truly suck, though, Middlebrooks could offer power, however empty it may be, in deep leagues.

The Outfield

With the departure of Khris Davis, one things seems certain: Domingo Santana will see playing time.

The official announcement of Ryan Braun’s move to left field paves the path for Santana, whom quite a few readers tabbed as a sleeper for 2016. The 75th outfielder off the board, Santana represents the right kind of upside to take at that point of a mixed-league draft.

Be warned, though: the upside comes with equally low downside. The power is legit, but so is the absolute lack of contact skills. We’ve seen this before — recently, too, in Chicago, by a kid named Javier Baez. This comparison comes with a trade-off — a tad fewer home runs for a handful more free passes.

With that said, the Baez comp alone warrants some tempering of expectations by the reader who plans to rely heavily on Santana. Don’t. Don’t make him your Plan A in a deep league. Unless you like risk. Then he’s all yours. If I had to haphazardly slap a ceiling on him, I’d say 30 home runs, but that’s empty power. That’s Mendoza Line downside. Actually, Santana’s small-sample 2015 line — a 28-homer pace, 33.7 K%, 10.7 BB% — adeptly illustrates all his perks and risks.

Rymer Liriano also populates the Brewers’ now-sparse outfield. Salvaged from the scrap heap, projection systems still like Liriano for his youth and power-speed combo (see Steamer’s 7-homer, 7-steal projection for less than half a season). The plate discipline could use some work, but the walk rate surged in Triple-A last year, giving Liriano a higher floor and affording him more room for error, especially in formats that employ OBP (on-base percentage).

Unfortunately, Kirk Nieuwenhuis will likely inhibit Liriano’s contributions. Middlebrooks’ outfield spirit animal, Nieuwenhuis hits the snot out of the ball — his 40.3% hard-hit rate ranks 8th among all hitters during 2014-15 with at least 250 plate appearances — but comes with the prerequisite swiss-cheese swing. And, somehow, despite the evident power, Nieuwenhuis has hit a mere 17 home runs in almost 700 career PAs.

At least Liriano offers a decent glove, and his offensive blend excites in ways Niewenhuis’ doesn’t. That doesn’t say a lot — such excitement is relative — but Liriano’s 2016 ceiling is Dexter Fowler circa last year, and that was good for 33rd among outfielders.

Liriano is safe — safer than his counterparts. Fortunately, he stands to see time spelling Braun and Santana. Most likely, he and Nieuwenhuis form a straight-up platoon in center field, with the latter stealing more reps due to the cruel nature of the game. But if Liriano can demonstrate proficiency against all types of pitchers, he could eventually earn the job outright.

Two-time FSWA award winner, including 2018 Baseball Writer of the Year, and 8-time award finalist. Featured in Lindy's magazine (2018, 2019), Rotowire magazine (2021), and Baseball Prospectus (2022, 2023). Biased toward a nicely rolled baseball pant.

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8 years ago

Honestly I think Nieuwenhuis might start the year on the team but might get cut when Flores is ready for a major league assignment. He was just cleared for all drills following the ankle injury and can’t be assigned to AAA once he’s done with a ML assignment for post DL (if he even gets one).

Milwaukee has a lot of OF that have to be on the 25 man this year. Braun and Santana are givens, Liriano and Flores, who knows? I just don’t see how someone like Nieuwenhuis gets significant playing time when they have to know what they have in the other players. Nieuwenhuis was signed when the team had Flores probably not an opening day option, Broxton had a minors assignment available, and they had not obtained Liriano.

For 3B it’s basically Hill’s job out of the gate. Anything past that is either Middlebrooks of Cecchini destroying AAA and getting a call up (long shot on Cecchini, I think he stays down all year). Their hope is to get basically anything for him in a trade if he plays well, which is doubtful. They don’t have any playing time concerns with anyone from the minors.

8 years ago
Reply to  Chickensoup

I agree. I can’t imagine Nieuwenhuis gets much playing time, maybe as a 5th OF. Liriano, Flores & Broxton are all more interesting options, not to mention Brett Phillips & Michael Reed.

8 years ago
Reply to  NaterJ

Honestly for fantasy the third OF/3B spots on the roster this year are probably NL only where playing time is so important. Other than that it’s deep dynasty targets in later rounds except maybe Phillips or NFBC cutdown players. Next year is the first if expect to see someone like Broxton and only if/when Flores/Liriano fail.