The Milwaukee Brewers have three options to start for them in centerfield next season and all of them bring something different to the table
The Boring Option: Kirk Nieuwenhuis
Nieuwenhuis started 68 games in centerfield in 2016 for the Brewers – the most of any player on the team. He also spent some significant time in right field. If you ask me, he got 68 starts too many for the Crew this past season. Nieuwenhuis, for his career, has been an average-at-best centerfielder. In 2016, however, he was absolutely atrocious.
The 29-year-old hit just .209 this season across 392 plate appearances. He was caught stealing more times (9) than he made it successfully (8). His WAR was a lowly 0.6 even though he appeared in over 120 games for Milwaukee. His only saving grace was his patience at the plate which led to an impressive 56 walks.
At this point in his career, Nieuwenhuis may not even be worth a roster spot for Milwaukee. Back to back seasons of hitting .195 and .209 don’t give much hope for improvement in the future. The only reasons I could see the Brewers hanging onto him for another year would be his ability to play all three outfield spots and his left-handed bat in a lineup congested with righties.
The Promising Option: Keon Broxton
In his first full MLB season, Broxton stood out on a Brewers team lacking talent. It took the 26-year-old some time to get used to Major League pitching but by the end of the season he had the look of a future superstar. In the first half of the season, Broxton hit only .125 with a pitiful .441 OPS. In the second half, however, the young centerfielder really turned things around.
After the All-Star Break, Broxton was a different player – mashing to the tune of a .294/.399/.495 slash line and an impressive .937 OPS. The speedy Broxton also swiped 23 bases in 2016 even though he only started 58 games for Milwaukee.
Known mostly for being a strong defender with good speed coming into the Majors, Broxton’s value increased immensely with his recently-discovered skill at the plate. He has the look of a do-it-all centerfielder. With only 82 MLB games under his belt, Broxton has plenty of time to develop as a player.
The Not Ready Quite Yet Option: Lewis Brinson
In exchange for Jonathan Lucroy and Jeremy Jeffress, the Milwaukee Brewers got two top prospects from Texas – Lewis Brinson and Luis Ortiz – at the trade deadline. The 22-year-old Brinson has since become the Brewers’ top prospect. He is without a doubt going to be a key contributor for the Crew in the near future, but is he ready to be the starter come April?
Even though Brinson has been in the Minors for five years now, he has played just 31 games at the Triple-A level. In those 31 games, however, Brinson has done some real damage at the plate – a .395 batting average to go along with a 1.036 OPS. Few players in the Minors possess Brinson’s combination of power and speed. He could be a 30-30 player when he is done developing. Defensively, Brinson has the speed to track down balls in the gaps but is still improving on his routes in the outfield. He projects as a perfect fit for centerfield but is also capable to slot in at a corner outfield spot if need be.
With all of that said, Brinson will likely still start the season in Triple-A. If he continues improving like he has been then he should be a midseason call-up for the Brewers, maybe even as early as late May.
So who will start the season in centerfield?
To open the season, the most likely scenario is one where Broxton is the starter, Nieuwenhuis is his backup, and Brinson starts the season in AAA. Broxton earned the spot with his play at the end of last season. Even though Brinson may be more talented he likely isn’t ready for the step up to the Major Leagues – at least not right away.
With Ryan Braun likely leaving Milwaukee this offseason, a hole will need to be filled in left field. Before Brinson is called up, the starting outfield will likely be Hernan Perez, Broxton, and Domingo Santana from left to right. After Brinson is deemed ready by the Brewers’ front office, he will likely take over in left and the hotter of Perez and Santana will get the majority of starts in right.
To open the season, the most likely scenario is one where Broxton is the starter, Nieuwenhuis is his backup, and Brinson starts the season in AAA.
Milwaukee currently has several top outfield prospects down on the farm besides Brinson. Corey Ray, Trent Clark, and Brett Phillips are all ranked as top 70 prospects according to MLB.com. Assuming they all develop like they are projected to, the Brewers will have quite the logjam in the outfield in a year or two.
While this will be an issue its obviously a great problem to have. This season will be crucial for the players already at the MLB level to prove their value and earn their spots. The outfield looks like it will be a very strong unit for the Milwaukee Brewers now and in the future.