The Milwaukee Brewers are losing the opportunity to upgrade at second base with the depletion of free agent options in recent weeks. The run on the top tier of Brian Dozier, DJ LeMahieu, and Jed Lowrie all within a week passed with the Brewers signing none of them.
Now, the Milwaukee Brewers are left to choose from mediocre second basemen for what may be a slight upgrade. The two most prevalent names are 31-year old Josh Harrison and 33-year old Asdrubal Cabrera.
Although it was recently rumored that the Brewers aren’t necessarily in on the Harrison chase, things can always change. That’s why we’ll be looking at the two choices and evaluating which would make the most sense for David Stearns to go after. Let’s start with their performances at the plate.
Asdrubal Cabrera has always been consistent with the bat. Having played exclusively at shortstop for most of his career, the switch hitter provided good offensive production from a position that lacked it. His power was rarely seen from a middle infielder. That, paired with passable to elite on-base skills, contributed to Cabrera posting an above average weighted runs created plus (wRC+) in seven of his eleven seasons in the majors.
Cabrera hasn’t slowed down since entering the wrong side of 30. The middle infielder has ranked in the top 10 in wRC+ among second basemen the last two seasons and just barely missed that mark in 2016 (ranking 11th with 120, right behind Dustin Pedroia with 121). The bat is still clearly there for Cabrera and could provide production at second for the Brewers.
On the other side is Josh Harrison, the former second baseman for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Harrison doesn’t hold a candle to Cabrera at the plate. He has consistently been a net negative offensively, only posting two seasons with an above average wRC+ in his career.
He looked to be on the verge of a breakout in 2014 when he would’ve tied for first among second basemen with a 137 wRC+. Now that season has proved to be the outlier when evaluating his career, and he shouldn’t be getting much better as he enters his age-31 season.
Clearly, Asdrubal Cabrera is the better choice offensively. His consistent play at the plate is superior to Harrison’s irregular production, even with Harrison’s advantage in steals. However, unlike in fantasy baseball, defense is also a concern when deciding between options.
Not naturally a second basemen, Asdrubal Cabrera would be forced to continue the move over from short if signed by the Milwaukee Brewers. Cabrera had been up and down while playing shortstop in his career yet most recently posted a 7.1 in FanGraphs’ defensive rating in 2016. He has never impressed with his range, but maybe that’s fine in moving to a position that requires less of the sort.
In the two seasons since he relinquished the shortstop position, Cabrera has been a negative defensively. In 2017, Cabrera had his worst defensive season since 2012 when nearly evenly splitting time between second, short, and third base. That’s understandable given those positions were relatively new to the former shortstop.
Once given a more defined role in 2018 (he logged 71% of his innings at second base), Cabrera improved his defensive rating from -3.1 to -1.4. Still not great, but Cabrera’s noticeable improvement offers hope that maybe all he needs is time to adjust.
Josh Harrison, on the other hand, is more of a natural second baseman than Cabrera, splitting time between second and third base. However, he struggles when defending at second, varying between a below average to average player in the field. Harrison was much more effective as a third baseman defensively, inflating his overall defensive rating with productive innings from the hot corner.
When evaluating the defensive talent of these two players, it’s tough to separate the signal from the noise. Ironically, the natural second basemen may be the worse option in the field for the Milwaukee Brewers given Cabrera’s defensive improvement at the position.
While the organization can’t count on the continued progression by Cabrera, a more natural question would be does it really matter? With the increase in shifts, there’s less of a focus on getting the Gold Glove caliber second baseman. Look at the experiments with Travis Shaw in 2018 (268 innings at second after having never played there). The intention is to go after the better hitter and figure out the rest later, devaluing Harrison’s marginal superiority in the field.
Asdrubal Cabrera versus Josh Harrison is the most “it’s January in the MLB” debate of all time. And yet, these are the kinds of conversations that could change when the Brewers end their season.
Asdrubal Cabrera is clearly the better option offensively and it isn’t close. The combination of resume and recent production puts him far above Josh Harrison at the plate. Although he is going to be 33 this upcoming season, he hasn’t showed too drastic signs of slowing down.
While not as productive at the plate, Josh Harrison does have his positives. His defense at second base are superior to what Cabrera has shown thus far at the position. Along with that, Harrison’s best quality is his versatility. He has played both corner outfield spots, along with contributing at every infield spot save for first base.
Unfortunately for Harrison, Milwaukee doesn’t really need versatility. They have multiple players that can contribute in utility fashion already on the roster. The focus should be on finding a productive player that can give them 550+ plate appearances at second base.
As for contracts, my best guess is Cabrera would cost Milwaukee more than Harrison. Cabrera is coming off more productive seasons than Harrison with the Mets and Phillies, forecasting a promising pay day for the infielder. His average contract value the past two years was just over $8 million while producing a wins above replacement in the $20 million range three of the past four seasons.
If Milwaukee can convince Cabrera to take a contract similar to his last (a short term bargain), that would clearly be a win for David Stearns and company. The chances of that happening are more likely the further we get into free agency and would serve the Brewers well.
Considering everything mentioned above, Cabrera is the clear front runner for what should be an upgrade for the Milwaukee Brewers. His consistency, along with potential defensive improvement, give him the edge over the versatile Josh Harrison. For the right length and price, the aging Cabrera would be a key addition to this organization.