The moment Brewers fans were waiting for all offseason finally took place Wednesday when the team finally pulled the trigger on their first major free agent signing for the 2021 season. It just wasn’t the one that many fans had in mind.
Milwaukee reportedly came to terms with ex-Cardinal Kolten Wong on a two-year, $18MM deal that comes with a third year club option. It gives the team an infielder with Gold Glove defense and the ability to get hits and get on base, a quality the Brewers lacked on offense in 2020.
There’s just one catch. While many expected the Brewers to go searching for a corner infielder, Wong is primarily a second baseman with 785 games at the position under his belt compared to 16 games, all in the outfield, played anywhere else.
In case you haven’t noticed, the Brewers already have a pretty decent second baseman by the name of Keston Hiura. And he has played all of his 130 career games in the field at his primary position.
While Brewers president of baseball operations David Stearns has brought in multiple players to fight for a position in the past, those were usually ones who had the ability to play at more than one spot. So how does a situation like this end up shaking out?
The Brewers may have two second basemen in Kolten Wong and Keston Hiura, but it’s the latter who will likely be shifting to a new home on the diamond.
Under many circumstances, it’s the newcomer who has to try to pry away a starting spot at a position from the incumbent. That likely won’t be the case here.
While both players add to the team’s offense in their own ways, it’s Wong who would be much more valuable, defensively, at second. Throughout his career, he has been good for a combined 55 defensive runs saved with 41 coming over the last three seasons alone. That could explain the two Gold Gloves he earned in 2019 and 2020.
As Brewers fans have seen in his short career so far, Hiura’s defense at second base has been, well, less reliable.
So then what happens with Hiura? If the league and MLB Players’ Union would just agree to give the National League the designated hitter for the 2021 season, it would be easier to shuffle things around. But so far it’s looking like the universal DH isn’t happening this season.
So the logical choice, one that was actually brought up last season in the wake of Justin Smoak’s DFA, is shifting over to first base. That sentiment was echoed by MLB.com’s Adam McCalvy on Twitter earlier today.
Though a pairing of Hiura and Daniel Vogelbach at first base might not be pleasing to the eyes, defensively, a righty-lefty platoon would make a lot of sense on the surface. That’s before you look at their actual splits.
Vogelbach’s make sense. As a lefty, he has a career .225 average and .801 OPS against right-handers but just a .143 average and .537 OPS against fellow lefties.
Unfortunately, Hiura, a right-hander, somehow has similar splits. He has a .240 average and .679 OPS against left-handers, but actually improves to a .274 average and .896 OPS against righty pitchers.
It’s worth noting that Wong, a lefty, has much more even splits – .261 average, .736 OPS against righties versus .259 average, .652 OPS against lefties – making him much more of an everyday player.
Also noteworthy is the fact that Vogelbach was signed to a non-guaranteed contract when the Brewers retained him just ahead of the non-tender deadline. So if he doesn’t put up an impressive enough performance in Spring Training, the decision on Hiura becomes clearer.
In the end, fans can probably expect a first base platoon regardless of the splits, at least to start. At worst, you have a player capable of putting up a 20+ homer season no matter which one of the two are in the lineup.
Even with this signing there’s a good chance the Brewers aren’t done making moves. Regardless, it’s good to see that a couple more positions are rounding into place.