A high-profile addition leads to a new direction.
The Milwaukee Brewers didn’t hit for average in 2020 (.223, 26th in MLB). The lineup collectively struggled to put the ball in play (26.6% K rate, 3rd) and get on base consistently (.313, 21st). They also had difficulties as a defensive unit, costing the pitching staff according to both Defensive Runs Saved (-9, 22nd) and Ultimate Zone Runs (-6.4, t-22nd). Often times during the pandemic-shortened campaign, they were a tough team to watch.
This offseason, the front office saw fit to target and acquire one of the few available players who should help shore up all of the weaknesses in one single package. After his team option was somewhat surprisingly declined by the St. Louis Cardinals, Kolten Wong signed a two-year deal with the Brewers in February that includes a 2023 team option and some significant deferred money to help ease the 2021 payroll burden.
Wong’s arrival displaced incumbent second baseman and former top prospect Keston Hiura, who shifted down the defensive spectrum to the cold corner in order to accommodate his new teammate at the keystone. The move should pay immediate and significant dividends for the Cream City Nine’s defensive alignment, though; Wong is a two-time Gold Glove award winner at second base and is considered to be one of the finest defenders at the position in all of baseball. He was graded at +5 DRS in 2020, whereas Hiura was a -8 DRS player last summer, the worst among qualified second baseman by 5 runs. He has never been well-regarded defensively as a prospect and big leaguer and has been dogged by questions about whether or not he can stick at the position.
Wong’s arrival will not only shore up the middle of the diamond, but his offensive skillset should serve the lineup in many ways that they’ve been lacking. True, the diminutive Wong has and will never be expected to be much of a power threat; he’s slugged above .400 only twice in his parts of 8 MLB seasons and has thrice hit 10+ home runs. But Wong is among the best in the game at putting the bat on the baseball, owning only a 15.2% career strikeout rate. Last year, he was in the 90th percentile in K rate and 94th percentile in whiff rate among MLB players. He’s a career .261 hitter who has walked in 9% of his plate appearances over the past five seasons while posting a .350 on-base percentage. He’s also a valuable base runner twice swiped 20+ bags in a season and has rated positively on the basepaths in every year of his career, generating 23.8 runs of value.
The Brewers have plenty of thump from other sources in their lineup, but too often in recent years they have struggled to make contact when the situation calls for it. Wong should provide a welcome change in direction on that front. He has done plenty of leading off for the Craig Counsell so far this spring and could continue in that role into the regular season, at least against right-handed pitchers; Wong, like many left-handed batters, does carry a somewhat significant split during his career, with a 79 wRC+ against same-handed hurlers versus a 101 wRC+ when holding the platoon advantage.
Wong has had high praise for the Brewers and their “newer” way of doing things since arriving in camp, but that “new” way could also mean plenty of playing matchups for Counsell when he puts together his lineups this season. Fans could see any of several other men manning the keystone at various times this season, including Hiura, Luis Urias, Daniel Robertson, and, when healthy, Tim Lopes and Mark Mathias. If he doesn’t win the starting shortstop job, Orlando Arcia could be moving around the diamond this year, and non-roster invite Pablo Reyes has made a strong impression during camp. Jace Peterson is back on a minors deal for depth, too.
In the Minors
The Brewers have some strong middle infield prospect depth throughout the lower levels of their system, but a lot of those guys are still over at shortstop right now. Brice Turang is someone to watch along those lines, he’s one of the top prospects in the org. Freddy Zamora, Hayden Cantrelle, David Hamilton, and Gabe Holt are talents added in recent draft classes, and Jamie Westbrook is an intriguing minor league signee who should provide depth with upside in Double-A or Triple-A.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs, Baseball-Reference, and Baseball Savant