Everybody wants to be the Milwaukee Brewers right now. They may have one of the smallest payrolls in baseball, but shrewd trades and waiver wire claims have made them one of the more fascinating teams in years. They ?re just four wins away from their first NL pennant. If they do reach the Fall Classic, expect to see the number of ?how can the Pirates be like the Brewers ? columns to explode. I ?m going to jump on that writing prompt hype train before it becomes way too overcrowded. I ?ve got an idea for a Brewers style move the Pirates could do that would help close the gap between the two clubs.
The Pirates could be on the cusp of contending if they acquired the right player or two. TPOP ?s elder statesmen Kevin and Steve have opined this week about shortstops and pitchers that could be that guy. Both make good points. You can never have enough pitching, and shortstop is the biggest hole on the team. Kevin Newman ?s major league cameo went about as poorly as it could have, and he may need more seasoning in AAA.
Like Kevin says, Jose Iglesias or Marcus Semien would be a major defensive upgrade, but they wouldn ?t help the offense much. Neither one is particularly exciting, but the Pirates desperately need a shortstop.
Or do they? Why not try upgrading second base instead? The market is far more abundant there. It would be a very- *gulp*- Brewers thing to do.
Brewers ? owner Mark Attanasio is Pittsburgh baseball’s girl next door of an owner. He ?s no Dodger or Yankee free spender, but dammit, he was willing to open the purse to land Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain. Sure, those splashes were possible because the 2017 Brewers had the lowest payroll in baseball, but they still got their men. Yelich is likely going to win the MVP and Cain deserves to finish in the top five, too.
But the Brewers didn ?t need Yelich or Cain. Obviously they wouldn ?t have won the division if they did not acquire both of them, but at this time last year, the outfield seemed to be the deepest part of the team. Domingo Santana had a solid breakout campaign last season. Brett Phillips was a universal top 100 prospect before graduating off the list in 2016, and Lewis Brinson was a universal top 20 blue chip minor leaguer. Both were major league ready, too. Keon Broxton had a 20 homer, 20 steal season in 2017. Eric Thames was an outfielder originally, and that Ryan Braun guy was still around. Milwaukee probably could have stood pat and still had one of the better outfields in the NL.
But the Brewers operate under the mindset that building on a strength can be just as good as trying to fix a weakness. Playoff teams usually need at least 40 combined team WAR (see: last week ?s revisiting of the 40.9 rule). Here ?s the secret: it doesn ?t matter where that WAR comes from. It doesn ?t need to be equally distributed. A team of five Mike Trouts and 20 replacement level players would probably make the playoffs. Teams should focus on buying wins, not trying to just build ?complete ? teams. If you could replace a 3 WAR player with a 6 WAR guy even though they play the same position, doesn ?t that mean more than improving a 1 WAR player with a 2 WAR guy? Yeah, you bumped a solid ball player, but that ?s a three win improvement for your team instead of just one.
Let ?s say, for the sake of argument, that if the Brewers did not acquire Yelich or Cain, their outfield would have been worth a combined 10 WAR. That ?s pretty good. It may even be a little too generous. Only 8 teams (including the Yelich and Cain-led Brewers) reached that total this season. They had a more pressing need to rebuild the rotation, but starting pitching had a far higher acquisition cost. Instead, they read the market and bought two high ceiling outfielders that didn ?t have much demand. As a result, the Brewers finished with 18.4 outfield WAR — eight and a half more wins than the generous prediction I gave them earlier. That ?s over four more wins per move. Only one 2017 free agent starting pitcher was worth a full 3 fWAR this season: Japanese import Miles Mikolas. They made the right call.
Let ?s go back to Iglesias and Semien. They have both averaged 2-2.5 fWAR over the past three seasons. Semien finished with over 3 fWAR for the first time in his career this year (3.7). Iglesias has never reached 3. Both would be an upgrade over Jordy Mercer, but only by a win or two.
Meanwhile, the second base market is flooded with quality players that are well within the Pirates ? price range. Brian Dozier looks like the ideal bounce back candidate. An early season knee injury has bugged him all season, but he still duplicated his GB/FB ratio, hard hit rate and walk and strikeout percentages from the season before. This is going to be the first year since he was a rookie where he isn ?t a three-win player. He was worth 5+ WAR in 2016 and 2017. His ceiling is much, much higher than Semien or Iglesias.
Another potential impact infielder is DJ LeMahieu. LeMahieu won a batting title in 2016 and has averaged 2.8 WAR the last three seasons. He ?s also a vacuum in the field, leading all second basemen in DRS since 2016 (29), which includes 18 runs saved this season. He isn ?t just a product of Coors Field either, recording a respectable .729 OPS and 93 wRC+ on the road the last two seasons (compared to an 86 wRC+ at home).
On the trade market, Whit Merrifield ?s name is going to be brought up often this winter, and for good reason, too. How many 5+ WAR utility player trade chips come with four years of team control? He would require another arm and a leg to acquire, but it would be worth it.
So the second base market has plenty of impact players. Where does that leave Adam Frazier? For the short term, filling in for Gregory Polanco in right field seems like a good fit. Once Big Greg returns, why not go full Brewers and put Frazier at shortstop?
When the Brewers needed a second baseman at the trade deadline, they chose to bring in third baseman Mike Moustakas. They then booted the incumbent hot corner infielder, Travis Shaw, to second base. They also picked up Jonathan Schoop from the Orioles to move from second base to shortstop. The moves had admittedly mixed results, but nothing ventured, nothing gained. It worked well enough to not cost them the division, at least.
Obviously moving Frazier to shortstop would cost a lot on defense, but the amount could be made up. He was a shortstop in college and in his time as a Pirate farmhand, but he was weaned off the position after making 16 errors in 58 games in AA in 2015. That was the last time he got consistent playing time at the position. He did have a 4.8 Range Factor per nine innings that season though, so there were at least some signs he could hold his own, even with the mistakes.
Russell A. Carleton of Baseball Prospectus ran a story in August that said emergency shortstops would cost their teams, on average, 26 runs per season compared to a natural at the position. With Frazier ?s shortstop pedigree and his improved infield defense, I ?m inclined to believe that he would be better than that average, but I don ?t want to pick a fight. -26 runs it is. Take away Frazier ?s four defensive runs saved at second base last season and it ?s an even -30.
Are Dozier or LeMahieu going to result in 30+ more offensive runs created/defensive runs saved than Iglesias or Semien? A run is a run whether it ?s saved defensively or created offensively, so I ?ll weigh both equally. (I ?ll operate on the assumption that the change in position will not impact Frazier ?s bat one way or the other. His offensive output is the only constant in this scenario.) Over the last three seasons, Iglesias has had 148 combined weighted runs created and defensive runs saved. Dozier has had 280. That ?s a 44 run difference per season.
Semien was worth 225 runs from 2015-2016 and 2018 (I omitted an injury shortened 2017). LeMahieu has had 309 the last three seasons. That ?s a 28 run difference per season. Assuming Frazier doesn ?t take to his new position very well, this can still a net positive for the team. If he turns out to be better than expected, it could result in two or three extra wins over having him at second base with a traditional shortstop.
The only impact shortstop available is Manny Machado, while there are plenty of quality second basemen up for grabs. I didn ?t even touch on Asdrubal Cabrera, Daniel Murphy, Jed Lowrie or Ian Kinsler, all of whom have had at least one 3+ WAR campaign over the past three years. The Brewers are good because they can read markets and find inefficiencies. Building on a strength can be just as good as improving a weakness.