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Brewers Third Baseman of the Future: Luis Jimenez?

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The Milwaukee Brewers have a notable weak spot within their farm system at the hot corner. Last week, the Brewers released troubled prospect Nick Delmonico, who had been playing third base for the Brevard County Manatees before a 50 game suspension for amphetamines abruptly ended his 2014 season. Delmonico was a highly rated prospect when he came to Milwaukee from Baltimore in the 2013 Francisco Rodriguez trade, but his ineffectiveness on the field coupled with his troubles off it led to an end to his 58 game stay with the Brewers. Subtracting Delmonico further weakens a nearly nonexistent pool of Brewers third base prospects.

Aramis Ramirez helped the Brewers avoid their looming third base problem for another year when he (somewhat surprisingly) picked up his side of a $14 mil mutual option shortly after last season ended. Aramis, however, is no longer a sure bet at third. Ramirez will be 37 this season, and he first began to show major signs of aging during last season. He missed several weeks during the season with hamstring issues, the second year in a row that he has missed time with leg issues. His power was almost nonexistent in the second half of last season, slugging only .392 with 16 extra base hits in 251 plate appearances. Given his age and health history, it’s unlikely that the Brewers will be able to rely on Ramirez on an everyday basis in 2015. Ramirez will probably get off one or two days during the week, specifically day games after night games. Indeed, Steamer projects Ramirez for 122 games played; RtB projected Aramis to appear in 117 games in 2014. The Brewers will likely have around 40 starts to be had at third base this season.

Given this uncertainty, as well as other perceived depth/platoon issues around the infield, many speculated (myself included) that the Brewers would pursue a veteran bench bat this offseason. I was personally rooting for an Emilio Bonifacio signing, but Gordon Beckham or Daniel Descalso could have been fits as well. The Brewers, however, were content not to pursue any free agent utilitymen, instead making some under-the-radar waiver claims to strengthen their bench depth. Though the move was met with little fanfare at the time, the claim of third baseman Luis Jimenez from the Los Angeles Angels could have a major impact on the Brewers not only in 2015, but for the next several years.

Luis Jimenez came to the United States by way of the Domincan Republic, an amateur free agent signed by the Angels at the tender age of 17 in 2005. Jimenez made his debut stateside in 2008, and represented the Angels in the 2010 All-Star Futures game. He has twice been a top 20 prospect in the Angels organization, after the 2011 and 2012 seasons. Jimenez made his major league debut in 2013, hitting .260/.291/.317 in 110 plate appearances, covering 34 games.

Jimenez’s role in the Angels organization was thrown into a major flux on November 22nd, 2013, however, when the Angels acquired former playoff hero David Freese from the Cardinals and handed him the everyday third base job. Jimenez struggled in limited major league playing time in 2014, managing only six hits in a meager 41 plate appearances. Despite a strong year in AAA, Jimenez was placed on waivers following the season, and the Brewers welcomed him with open arms when they claimed him on October 27th. Brewers manager Ron Roenicke sees Jimenez as a viable backup option at both corner infield spots, and stated that he could even see time at second base, a position that he has never played before as a professional.

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The Brewers are clearly pretty high on Jimenez as someone who can contribute to the team in 2015. However, with a very weak third base free agent market following the 2015 season, what sort of value could Luis Jimenez provide to the Brewers in the future?

As I stated above, the cupboard is pretty bare as far as third base prospects go within the Brewers system. Soon to be 27 year old Jason Rogers played third at AA and AAA last season, however it was his first season at the position after appearing mostly at first base and playing some outfield in his first four minor league seasons. Rogers struggled greatly while trying to adapt to the hot corner, making 21 errors in 338 chances across the two levels. With questions about whether his bat can play in the majors as well, Rogers falls a distant second to Jimenez as the other in-house option the Brewers have at third.

Jimenez has a strong track record as a minor league hitter, including the last three seasons at AAA. He has never been a very patient hitter, walking in only 4.5% of his 3243 career plate appearances. Despite this, he is very adept at making contact, striking out in just 13.8% of his 1236 plate appearances at the minor league’s highest level. Jimenez has solid pop in his bat, with a .485 slugging percentage and 129 extra base hits in 287 games in AAA. His 21 homer, 34 double campaign for Salt Lake in 2014 no doubt caught the Brewers eye last season. With a career .292/.329/.490 slash line in 767 games, Luis Jimenez has little left to prove at the plate in the minor leagues.

According to the Baseball Cube‘s 100 point scale, Jimenez rates as an 82 for contact, 73 for hitting, and 67 for power. Though Jimenez’s bat may not be of all-star caliber, he still should prove to be a solid major league hitter. While he will never be a very good on base threat, his high contact profile means he should be able to post solid batting averages. Given his power potential, Jimenez should be able to produce an OPS near league average, which was .730 last season. Indeed, despite never having posted an OBP higher than .333 or  a walk rate better than 5.5% over the past four seasons in the minors, Jimenez has still managed OPS marks of .775, .798, .762, and .826.

Jimenez’s greatest value lies in his strong defense. In 247 innings at third base for the Angels in 2013, Jimenez posted a ridiculous 30.6 UZR/150 with four defensive runs saved. Despite an OPS+ of 72 in his abbreviated 2013, Luis was still worth 0.7 fWAR on the strength of his great defense. While his numbers in the field weren’t quite as impressive in 2014 in a much smaller sample size (2.8 UZR/150 in 100.2 innings), Jimenez strong arm and good range should ensure that he is a plus defender at the major league level.

Jimenez has long been a strong baserunner, as well. He has stolen 107 bases in his minor league career with a 73% success rate, which would have been above last season’s MLB average. Jimenez has posted double digit stolen base totals in seven of his eight minor league campaigns, swiping as many as 21 bags in a single season.

So while all of this may sound positive, what would it mean to the Brewers? It’s been no secret that the Brewers farm system has long been considered below average; go-for-it trades in 2008 and 2011 saw many of the Brewers top prospects find new home, and poor first round draft picks from 2009-2012 did not help the Brewers replace any of that lost value. The team has been able to stay competitive by scouring for and extracting as much value as possible from their players. Low round draft picks Scooter Gennett (16th round), Khris Davis (7th round), and Mike Fiers (22nd round) combined for nearly 6 wins above replacement last season. Forgotten free agents signed to manageable contracts like Kyle Lohse, Matt Garza, and Francisco Rodriguez all have provided or continue to provide solid value. Zach Duke, arguably the team’s most effective reliever last year, was brought into camp on a minor league deal. Luis Jimenez, under team control for a full six seasons, could be the next guy that Doug Melvin has struck gold with.

Of course, finding value at third base on the waiver wire is nothing new for GM Doug Melvin. Following the 2008 season, the Brewers plucked a guy by the name of Casey McGehee off waivers from the Chicago Cubs, who parted with the then 26 year old third baseman after he struggled in his nine game major league debut. McGehee would go on to post OPS+ marks of 126 and 114 over the next two seasons for the Brewers, providing nearly five wins above replacement (according to Fangraphs) while making only the major league minimum.

It’s very likely that the Brewers could get similar value from Luis Jimenez. Let’s say that Luis tops out as a player that can hit around .270, walks at roughly a 4.5-5% clip, and can hit between 15-20 home runs with a slugging percentage around .430-.450, slightly better than the MLB average of .420 last season. These hypothetical numbers seem pretty consistent with what Jimenez has produced in the minor leagues and reflect what his tools ratings are. So, let’s say for 600 plate appearances, Luis posts a line of .265/.300/.435. If the MLB average OPS was around .750, then the projected .735 OPS would grade out at roughly a 94 OPS+, only slightly below league average. Using the simple WAR calculator we used for our player projections, we’ll conservatively rate Jimenez as a solid defender at third base, and say that he’s an above average baserunner. Using these parameters, Luis Jimenez would be valued a 2.3 wins above replacement. If we jump his defense up to “great,” Jimenez becomes worth another half a win at 2.8 WAR.

According to Fangraphs, a 2.8 WAR value would have ranked Jimenez 12th among qualified major league third baseman last season. That number would have outperformed highly compensated players like David Wright, Martin Prado, and even the Brewers’ own Aramis Ramirez. The prize of the free agent position player market, Pablo Sandoval, signed a $95 mil deal after posting fWAR values of 2.6, 2.3, and 3.0 in the last three seasons. Dave Cameron published an article on the cost of a win last year, settling on a value around $6 mil per win above replacement. Were he to turn into a 2-3 WAR player, Jimenez’s true value could be somewhere in the area of $12-$18 mil per season. Wouldn’t it be great to get that kind of production from a guy you only have to pay around $507K in each of the next three seasons?

Third base is definitely the biggest question mark the Milwaukee Brewers currently face at any position within their franchise. Their incumbent major league starter is entering his age-37 season, has battled health issues over the last two years, and showed strong signs of an offensive decline last season. Their top third base prospects, guys like Tucker Neuhaus, Gilbert Lara, or Jake Gatewood, are all probably at least four years away from contributing at the major league level, as none have played above rookie ball. Luis Jimenez, a waiver-claim who has a strong track record in three seasons at AAA, should be getting his first taste of at least semi-regular playing time at the major league level this season. Luis is likely to serve as the primary backup to Ramirez at third base this season as well as get some at bats at first base, joining Jonathan Lucroy in spelling Adam Lind against lefties, finally giving him a more regular opportunity to establish himself in the bigs.

The Brewers have a solid track record of finding value in less than obvious ways, including dipping into the waiver wire for a two year starter at third base named Casey McGehee. In a similar fashion, Luis Jimenez is someone that the Milwaukee Brewers found as a cast off who could end up being a boon to the franchise.  Though his offensive stats don’t jump off the page at you, the value that Jimenez can provide in the field and on the base paths could help him become a perennial 2-3 WAR player at third base for the Brewers. He may not be what Brewers’ fans think of when they hear “third baseman of the future,” but there is a very strong chance that Luis Jimenez can at least become a valuable, stop-gap starter at the hot corner for a few years while the Brewers give their prospects a chance to establish themselves.

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