The Milwaukee Brewers have pretty much had nonstop turnover at first base in the last decade.
A first baseman is supposed to provide a powerful bat. A first baseman is supposed to anchor a lineup. A first baseman should provide consistency. The Brewers have lacked year-to-year consistency at the first base position and this year, lack the powerful bat to anchor the lineup.
Since Prince Fielder left in free agency following the 2011 season, the Brewers have had a revolving door at first base. It started with Mat Gamel, then Corey Hart, Travis Ishikawa, Yuniesky Betancourt, Juan Francisco, Sean Halton, Mark Reynolds, Lyle Overbay (again), Adam Lind, Jason Rogers, and Chris Carter. That only takes us through 2016. Then the position was a mild strength with Eric Thames, followed by Jesus Aguilar, then Thames again, and then Tyler Austin showed up for a little bit, then all three were gone.
In 2020, Justin Smoak was next in line. He got off to a slow start and was DFA’ed a few days before being given his release on Tuesday. Now the Brewers have Jedd Gyorko, who was signed to play third base in a platoon, and Dan Vogelbach, who is a career DH, there to play the position.
The release of Smoak makes it 15 first basemen that have come and gone in the nine seasons since Fielder left, and the current group is not likely to provide the long term answer, which would make 17 first basemen in nine years and none of them could hold down the job.
From 2001 to 2011, the Brewers had three first basemen (Fielder, Overbay, Richie Sexson) in those 11 seasons, for comparison’s sake.
The Brewers have also said Keston Hiura could end up seeing some time at the position down the road and they’ve been teasing us for three years now about Ryan Braun potentially playing there, but that still hasn’t happened.
Finding A Future At First Base
Once again, the future is murky at first base for Milwaukee. While Vogelbach is under control for several years and provides plenty of power at the plate, he struggles to make consistent contact. The Brewers non-tendered Chris Carter in 2016 and he was a much higher performer that year than Vogelbach ever has been in his career.
Jedd Gyorko has a club option for next year which might get picked up if he continues to hit like he has this season. But still, the Brewers are going to be pushing for a World Series title and are likely going to need something better at that position going forward.
The problem is, they don’t really have anything better, at least not currently in the organization. There’s Ryon Healy but even in the Crew’s current situation, he’s not good enough to start at the big league level. David Freitas can play there but he’s a catcher by trade and he’s already 31 and is unlikely to be an everyday starter at the big league level.
Lucas Erceg and Jake Gatewood are third base prospects but could see a move to first base, but they both can’t hit the ball all of a sudden. Erceg’s batting average has dropped every single year since he got drafted and his bat is nowhere to be found. Gatewood, meanwhile, has shown the power but he strikes out way too often and had a sub-.200 batting average and a sub-.600 OPS last year, in his third season in Double-A.
The Brewers don’t have any solid first base prospects, and part of that can be attributed to valuing up-the-middle prospects in the draft with early selections and not going after strict first basemen because of their limited defensive versatility. Shortstops you can move anywhere, first basemen generally stay put.
The Next Free Agent Crop
Going into free agency to find your next first baseman is tricky, as well. The Brewers lucked out with Eric Thames, although he was returning from Korea and he also had his share of struggles and shortcomings.
The best first basemen, the ones that could stop the revolving door the Brewers have, usually don’t reach free agency or are incredibly expensive to sign. That was the case with Jose Abreu last winter.
This coming offseason has a small group of first basemen currently slated to be available. That list includes: C.J. Cron, Yuli Gurriel, Howie Kendrick, Brad Miller, Travis Shaw, Neil Walker, Mitch Moreland, and Ryan Zimmerman. That’s hardly an inspiring group of names. Gurriel might be the best of that group, but he’s also going to be 37 years old next season.
So what’s next? Are the Brewers just going to try another patchwork solution at one of the traditionally strongest offensive positions? The Brewers offense was at its best from 2017-2019 when they had one of Thames or Aguilar playing well at first base. When they didn’t play well, the Brewers didn’t play well.
This current Brewers offense is subpar and lacking in power, and not having a full-time, legitimate first baseman is a big reason why, although it’s far from the only reason.
The first base carousel has no end in sight. There aren’t any free agents that can lock down the job long-term, there aren’t any prospects that appear ready to take over, and barring a trade, the Brewers will continue to rotate through different options at the position in 2021.
Who knows, maybe Vogelbach can hold down the job moving forward? But unless he suddenly becomes a .250 hitter over a significant enough sample size, that’s unlikely to happen.
Round and round the Brewers first base carousel goes, when will it stop? Nobody knows.