The Brewers have lost quite a few players this offseason, but they’ve done a great job of surrounding super-duper-star Christian Yelich with a combination of youth and solid veterans to push them to a level above a simple stars-and-scrubs lineup. Keston Hiura has a real shot at jumping into stardom this year. Lorenzo Cain, Justin Smoak, Ryan Braun, and Avisail Garcia are all players who can get the job done. Finally, if Luis Urias can start to figure things out and Omar Narvaez can continue his breakout, they might not have a truly weak hitter anywhere in their lineup. The NL Central is shaping up to be a really competitive division this season, and this lineup should be able to keep the Brewers in most games. If nothing else, they should be pretty fun to watch as they look in line to score a pretty solid amount of runs with an interesting assortment of hitters and hitting styles to work with.
(Last Updated: 2/12/20)
- ADDITIONS: Omar Narvaez (Trade with the Mariners), Luis Urias (Trade with Padres), Eric Sogard (Free Agent), Justin Smoak (Free Agent), Avisail Garcia (Free Agent)
- SUBTRACTIONS: Trent Grisham (Trade with Padres), Yasmani Grandal (Free Agent), Jesus Aguilar (Free Agent), Eric Thames (Free Agent)
Omar Narvaez (C | Batting 6th)
2019: 63 R, 22 HR, 55 RBI, 0 SB, .278/.353/.460 | C #8
2020 ADP: 218 (C #12)
Many folks were in on Omar Narvaez coming into last year as a sleeper choice at catcher, and he definitely did not disappoint, contributing 22 HRs with a .278 AVG and good on-base skills. In case you’re curious, here’s where he ranks amongst catchers in those categories:
So he’s in the top ten in three of the four categories and just outside the top 50% in RBIs (which consider he played for the Mariners isn’t that surprising). Of course, the question is, can he repeat his numbers again in 2020? Right off the bat, it seems pretty reasonable that he will repeat his AVG. Since the start of 2017, he’s gotten at least 295 PAs and hasn’t had an AVG below .275. He also had a 26.3 LD% along with a near league average .306 BABIP, so it all lines up nicely. I’m not too worried about the .254 xBA since he has outperformed his xBA every season of his career, so there’s no reason to assume that will suddenly change.
What about the HRs though? There’s no arguing that Narvaez took a huge leap in terms of HRs last year, but I’m actually going to argue he made that leap in 2018 and that 2019 validates his new power.
|Year||Plate Appearances||Launch Angle||FB%||HR/FB%||ISO||PA/2B||AVG DIST of HR + 2B|
When you consider these numbers it certainly seems like he started increasing his power in 2018 as his ISO, HR/FB%, PA/2Bs, and AVG DIST of HR + 2Bs greatly increased. A bump in doubles can often indicate that a leap in HRs could be on the way. In 2019 we see that happen. Launch Angle, FB%, HR/FB%, ISO, and DIST all increase greatly and those newfound doubles become home runs. All the signs seem to point to most of the power being here to stay. It’s also worth noting that the Brewers represent a huge upgrade in lineup and likely in terms of home ballpark, so we might even see some HR and RBI fortune break his way.
I do briefly want to address the one fantasy elephant in the room, and that’s the fact that Narvaez will likely be a part of a platoon, since he can’t hit an LHP to save his life. I think you have to look at catchers a bit differently. Most catchers represent negative value for most part on a per PA basis especially since there are so few elite hitters at the position. Sometimes, it’s better to have your catcher have no impact than negative impact so if he only plays on days that he’s in the best position to succeed that perfectly fine. It’s also worth noting that even the best catchers don’t play every day, so it’s not like you were going to get 650 PAs from the position anyways. If you’re really worried about it in daily leagues, it might be worth rostering Manny Pina, as he hits LHP to the tune of .319 AVG. Either wa,y I think you can expect something around 400-500 PAs from Narveaz with something around a .270 AVG and 18-22 HRs with above average counting numbers for a catcher.
Strengths: AVG, HR, RBI (for a catcher)
Weaknesses: SB, PA/AB
Narvaez continues to improve his power and while serving on the strong side of the platoon, and he hits upwards of 25 HRs and being in a better lineup gets him to 75+ RBIs.
The AVG drops back down to around .260 and the power comes crashing back down into the 10-15 range, with mediocre counting numbers.
2020 Projection: 40 R, 11 HR, 43 RBI, 1 SB, .260/.343/.414
Justin Smoak (1B | Batting 5th)
2019: 54 Runs, 22 HR, 61 RBI, 0 SB, .208/.342/.406| 1B #61
2020 ADP: 439 (1B #44)
First base is a bit of a mess for the Brewers. After trading Jesus Aguilar last season, declining Eric Thames‘ option this offseason, and letting Yasmani Grandal walk in free agency, the Brewers went from having too many options at first base to having just Ryan Braun and his 15 career games at first. Back in December, Brewers manager Craig Counsell had already stated that Braun wouldn’t be the primary option at the position in 2020. This meant the Brewers had to find a solution from outside the organization. As of early January, that answer seems to be Justin Smoak. There’s no question about the value of his bat. He hasn’t had a sub 100 wRC+ since 2016 and he’s hit 20+ HRs each of those seasons as well.
Seems pretty solid right? That’s Smoak in a nutshell. But wait, Daniel, what about about Smoak’s 38-homer 2017? It’s a bit of a mystery, honestly. His Statcast numbers have all been roughly the same or improved. It’s mainly been playing time that has held him back from returning to those lofty heights. Smoak saw 137 fewer PAs in 2019 than he did in 2020. He gets those PAs back, and he’s hitting closer to 28 or 29 HRs. The other thing that has hurt him (in terms of batting average) is an inability to hit the high fastball for power the last two years. Check out how he’s fared against the high heat in 2018 and 2019 versus 2017.
|Year||# of Pitches||# of Whiffs||BA||xBA||ISO||SLG||xSLG||wOBA||xwOBA|
There’s plenty of interesting things to take away from this, and you’d be forgiven if you went straight to the plunging ISO and lower SLG and wOBA compared to 2017. But, as you can see from his expected stats, he might have a had a much better season in 2019 than we realize. If Smoak gets back up to around 550-600 plate appearances, I could easily see him ending up back above 25+ HRs with good RBI totals. I expect the AVG to improve, as well.
One last note on Smoak: In OBP and Points leagues, Smoak becomes a truly legit starting option at first base thanks to his absurd 15.8 BB% in 2019. In fact he hasn’t had a walk rate below 11.0% since 2015. Suddenly, his biggest weakness becomes an asset. It’s all just going to come down to playing time.
Strengths: HR, RBI, OBP, Points
Weaknesses: PA/AB, R, SB, AVG
Smoak gets around 600 PAs as the Brewers’ starting first baseman and hits 30 HRs with a .250 AVG and good RBI totals.
Smoak regresses back to 2018’s struggles against the high fastball and the AVG stays in the lower .200s, surrendering the starting job.
2020 Projection: 63 R, 22 HR, 68 RBI, 0 SB, .239/.349/.472
Keston Hiura (2B | Batting 4th)
2019: 51 R, 19 HR, 49 RBI, 9 SB, .303/.368/.570 | 2B #23
2020 ADP: 43 (2B #5)
I think it’s important to acknowledge that there is no way on earth Hiura replicates his 2019 production, especially his AVG. In order to hit .303 last season, it took a .402 BABIP and he had to overcome a .266 xBA, 30.7 K%, and a 17.5 SwStr% in order to do it. I just don’t see that as being repeatable. One way he could maintain his AVG is through better batted-ball outcomes. Last year, he put up a 3.8 Infield Hit%, and, while he isn’t exactly fleet of foot (sprint speed of 26.9 ft/s), you would still expect that number to be closer to 7-8%, which could prevent that AVG from falling as far as we would expect.
Another way I could see Hiura maintaining his AVG is by making an adjustment to his batted-ball profile.
|Batted Ball Direction||%||BA||xBA|
Based on his BABIP, no one is surprised to see a gap between his BA and xBA across the board, but the chasm between his BA and xBA when he went to the opposite way goes a long way to helping explain that elevated number. I could see finding his overall BA becoming much more reliable if his approach shifted closer to a 40.0 Pull%. Lorenzo Cain and Mike Moustakas were the only qualified Brewers hitters that had an OPPO% higher than 26.5% so you have to imagine the team might try to shift his approach in a Pull heavy direction, which should keep his BA elevated.
Now, on to the power, which looks like the real deal. Check out his absurd Statcast numbers:
|BBL%||Launch Angle||Exit Velocity||Hard Hit %||AVG Home Run Dist|
|13.90%||16.0||91.4 mph||50.00%||402 ft.|
All of those numbers are simply incredible. In fact it reminds me of a few other hitters.
|Player||Plate Appearances||BBL%||Launch Angle||Exit Velocity||Hard Hit %||AVG Home Run Dist||HRs|
|Keston Hiura||348||13.90%||16.0||91.4 MPH||50.00%||402 ft.||18|
|Eugenio Suarez||662||14.00%||17.8||89.4 MPH||40.80%||400 ft.||48|
|Matt Olson||547||14.50%||18.3||91.9 MPH||50.30%||400 ft.||36|
|Josh Donaldson||659||15.70%||13.3||92.9 MPH||50.00%||406 ft.||37|
|Jorge Soler||679||16.90%||15.4||92.6 MPH||49.90%||414 ft.||47|
They’re not perfect comparisons by any means, but it does give you a rough idea for what we could get from Hiura over a full season. It’s not crazy to expect close to 30 HRs in 2020.
Finally, Hiura is a really interesting stolen-base threat because he doesn’t really have the speed you’d expect out of one, but it’s not that unusual. We’ve seen other second basemen such as Brian Dozier, Jason Kipnis, and Starlin Castro find success stealing 12-17 bags per year, and I think that’s a pretty good expectation for what Hiura is capable of. I’d bank on around 15, and I’d be ecstatic to get that along with the massive power.
Strengths: HR, RBI, R, SB, Points
Hiura makes some second year adjustments and continues to hit the ball as hard as in 2019 resulting in 35 HR with another near .300 AVG, 20 SBs, and good RBI numbers, hitting in the cleanup slot.
Hiura runs into a sophomore slump and we see something closer to a .260 AVG with 25-30 HRs and 10 SBs. Still has decent RBI numbers but doesn’t break 100.
2020 Projection: 81 R, 30 HR, 94 RBI, 13 SB, .271/.330/.497
Eric Sogard (3B | Batting 1st)
2019: 59 R, 13 HR, 40 RBI, 8 SB, .290/.353/.457 | 2B #30
2020 ADP: 570 (2B #56)
2020 will be a reunion of sorts for Eric Sogard. He was a member of the Brewers organization in 2017 and 2018 before signing with the Blue Jays in 2019 where he had himself something of a breakout season putting up a career high in nearly every major statistic. The thing is, there doesn’t seem to a distinct explanation for the breakout. He improved from his previous seasons, but most of his Statcast numbers still sit at the bottom of baseball.
|Year||BBL%||Launch Angle||Exit Velocity||Hard Hit %||AVG Home Run Dist||HRs|
|2017||1.40%||12.8||83.5 mph||18.70%||395 ft.||3|
|2019||2.10%||18.3||84.7 mph||20.10%||378 ft.||13|
I have a difficult time buying into the idea that his 2019 numbers are sustainable. Is it possible? Of course. It’s just going to take a lot to break the right way for Sogard to be a .275+ hitter when he’s making so much weak contact. Very few hitters make as a full time player in the majors with such a weak Hard Hit %, but it’s always players such as Mallex Smith, Dee Gordon or David Fletcher, who are able to use their legs to compensate for their weak contact. Sogard just can’t. If I were a betting man, we’ll see one of two things happen here: Sogard comes crashing back down to earth and Jedd Gyroko or Ryon Healy are manning the hot corner by years end, or Sogard struggles but hits well enough to stay in the lineup (albeit toward the back).
Weaknesses: AVG, HR, R, RBI, OBP, Points
Sogard continues to defy the Statcast gods and hits for good average and cracks double-digit home runs. He ends up with something around a .280-.290 AVG with 10 or so HRs and 85+ runs scored, largely repeating 2019.
Sogard’s soft-hitting chickens come home to roost and he loses the third base job early on the season.
2020 Projection: 45 R, 8 HR, 35 RBI, 5 SB, .256/.335/.475
Luis Urias (SS | Batting 9th)
2019: 27 R, 4 HR, 24 RBI, 0 SB, .223/.329/.326 | SS #103
2020 ADP: 300 (SS #30)
So far in his young career, Luis Urias has had a rough go of it. After tearing through the minor leagues, Urias was praised for how advanced his batting eye and pure hitting ability was for being just 22 years old. Given how well he had played the Padres called him up from AAA and like most 22 years old he struggled mightily, hitting a mere .223 in 249 PAs, which was good for an 81 wRC+ and a .294 wOBA. In the offseason the Padres traded Urias to the Brewers, where he will likely take over at shortstop. SSo what can we conclude from Urias’ 2019 campaign? What can he do to improve? Is there still hope for the young man to figure it out?
It’s worth noting that it wasn’t all bad in 2019 for Urias. The advanced batting eye that made him such a touted prospect transferred over pretty well to the majors.
Those are all really encouraging numbers for such a young player. Pay attention to that last statistic, though. I wonder if Urias is perhaps being too selective at the plate. His Swing% would have been the 16th stingiest in the league last year. That’s not a bad thing by itself, but there’s such a thing as waiting too long for the perfect pitch.
|Early in the Count||36.20%||0.349||0.332||0.547||0.568||0.198||0.403||0.397|
|Late in the Count||52.90%||0.140||0.160||0.178||0.207||0.039||0.233||0.249|
It’s not unusual for a hitter to do worse as they get deeper in the count, but it shows that when Urias is more aggressive early on in at-bats, good things happen. We’ll have to wait and see if an adjustment happens.
Urias might miss the start of the season due to surgery on his hamate bone, though there’s still a shot at him being ready by opening day. There’s little evidence that hamate injuries sap power, so if anything slows him down early on, it will be rust. Should he miss some time, I’d anticipate seeing Orlando Arcia fill in, who offers many of the same fantasy stats but with a lower ceiling and walk rate.
Weaknesses: AVG, HR
Urias starts the year healthy, fixes his approach when he’s behind in the count, and becomes a solid contributor at the bottom of the Brewers lineup with power in the high-teens and a handful of stolen bags.
Urias can’t shake the rust and his approach doesn’t improve, leading to another sub-.230 AVG season, with minimal counting stats.
2020 Projection: 65 R, 12 HR, 50 RBI, 4 SB, .250/.340/.400
Christian Yelich (OF | Batting 3rd)
2019: 100 R, 44 HR, 97 RBI, 30 SB, .329/.429/.671 | OF #1
2020 ADP: 3 (OF #3)
After spending much of his young career as a high-average, low-power hitter, Christian Yelich transformed himself into a powerhouse, the sort of batter that challenges perennially for the title of the best player in baseball. How has he accomplished this? The first big step was getting out of Miami and it’s offense suppressing stadium and getting to hit in the numerous NL Central bandboxes. But it’s more than that. I don’t think any hitter has seen a greater improvement thanks to the fly-ball revolution than Yelich has.
|Year||Exit Velocity||Hard Hit %|
Once he started elevating the ball in 2018 after getting traded to the Brewers it shouldn’t be surprising that Yelich started hitting bombs. Yelich actually started making big changes in how he hit the ball the year before he was traded, as his 4.7 degree launch angle in 2018 matched 2017. To see the difference, you need to see Yelich’s launch-angle charts. Here’s 2017:
And then 2018:
And then 2019, when Yelich’s launch angle rose into the double digits.
You can see how Yelich made huge, dynamic changes to not just how often he elevated the ball but how he elevated the ball. His GB% dropped 8.6% while his FB% leaped up 12.4%. Yelich’s barrel rate has also skyrocketed, culminating in an astonishing 15.8 BBL%. He’s become the perfect hitter.
Did I mention that Yelich hits for AVG as well? Or that he’s an elite base stealer? Over his six-year career, Yelich’s lowest single season AVG was .282 in 2017, with the last two seasons breaking the .320 mark. In 2019, his heightened on-base skills helped him pilfer a career-high 30 SBs. When you account for the time he missed at the end of the season, a 50-40 type of season was in play.
What about that injury though? Back in September, Yelich fouled a ball down and into his knee, fracturing his kneecap and ending his season. While he avoided ligament damage, it’s fair to be concerned heading into the new season. It could impact his stolen bases early on in the season. That being said, I don’t expect any long-term effects, and Yelich has a plenty of time to adequately heal and rehab before he’ll have to report for spring training.
Strengths: AVG, HR, R, RBI, OBP, Points, PA/AB
Yelich comes back healthy and stays healthy and we get our first ever 50 HR/40 SB season.
The knee hampers Yelich throughout the season, and we lose the SBs and some of the power, putting up closer to a 30 HR/15-20 SB season.
2020 Projection: 111 R, 36 HR, 99 RBI, 22 SB, .305/.400/.568
Lorenzo Cain (OF | Batting 2nd)
2019: 75 R, 11 HR, 48 RBI, 18 SB, .260/.325/.372 | OF #44
2020 ADP: 179 (OF #50)
Lorenzo Cain had a perplexing season. After becoming a career year in 2018, Cain fell back down to earth in spectacular fashion. His .260 AVG was his lowest since 2013 and he hasn’t stolen fewer than 2019’s 18 bases since 2013. His entire season was plagued by injury. Impairment after impairment seemingly piled up on Cain, beginning with a hand contusion in April after being hit by a pitch. Then, in May, he injured his thumb so thoroughly that it required cryotherapy. Right before June, he re-injured his thumb, and it continued to plague him all season. That doesn’t even account for recurring issues with his knee, oblique and ankle the rest of the way. That’s a lot of injuries for one season, yet he avoided the injured list the entire time. All while winning his first Gold Glove in center field. It’s not surprising that this took its toll on Cain’s performance at the plate.
It’s worth noting that Cain also had some pretty bad luck in 2019. Despite his .260 AVG in 2019, Statcast gave him an xBA of .290. Cain hasn’t had a BABIP below .340 since 2013 — until his .302 mark in 2019. A decent chunk of the drop in Cain’s BABIP may have been speed related, as his sprint speed dropped 0.8 mph from 2018. Much of that speed should return with renewed health, but it’s impossible at age 33 to know just how much. While everyone else will focus on how this impacts his steals, I actually think it hurt him most in infield hits. Cain had 21 infield hits in 2017 and 27 in 2018. What about 2019? Just 16. If you give him those 11 hits? That alone bumps his AVG up to .279.
So what does this mean for Cain in 2020? It will all depend on how he looks in spring. If he appears to have regained his speed and looks healthy again, then I am back all aboard the Cain Train. I anticipate he’ll return to form, just not all the way. FanGraphs’ Jeff Zimmerman wrote a great piece that suggests when players fight through injuries, it has a tendency to carry over to the next season, and I’m worried that will happen with Cain. But the underlying metrics barely changed at all from 2018, so there’s some reason to believe in a rebound in 2020. I expect an AVG around .275-.280 with 20-25 SBs and a good number of runs hitting second in the Brewers’ lineup.
Strengths: AVG, Rs, SB, OBP
Weaknesses: HRs, RBI, Points
Cain finally gets an extended period of time off to heal and gets back most of his speed. Now healthy he get back to hitting for AVG and stealing bases with a baseline of .280 and 25 SBs.
Playing through the injuries takes too much of a toll and Cain never rebounds. He continues to hit around .250-.260 and never gets out of the teens in SBs.
2020 Projection: 81 R, 15 HR, 62 RBI, 19 SB, .277/.349/.414
Avisail Garcia (OF | Batting 7th)
2019: 61 R, 20 HR, 72 RBI, 10 SB, .282/.332/.464 | OF #38
2020 ADP: 250 (OF #67)
Avisail Garcia is the perfect player for the strong side of platoon. He flourishes against RHP to the tune a .291 AVG/.805 OPS with a .180 ISO and a 114 wRC+. The interesting thing is for the first time in his career Garcia put together a pretty solid season against LHP as well. In 165 PAs, he hit .265/.778 OPS with a .185 ISO and a 107 wRC+. If he can continue to hit for power off of southpaws than we might see him take on more and more of the ABs against them instead of being platooned. If this happens, the sky could be the limit for Garcia, especially in fantasy.
It’s also worth noting that of the 20 SPs currently predicted to open up the season in NL Central rotations, only four of them are LHP. In fact a mere 17 of the 70 SPs projected for starting rotations in the NL are lefties. If he can even get 1/4 to 1/3 of those starts against LHP that could be enough to get him over the 25-HR mark. If he can get up to around 600 PAs, then we may have to start paying way more attention to Garcia as a fantasy asset.
Strengths: AVG, HR, RBIs (In daily leagues)
Weaknesses: PA/ABs, Runs, OBP, Points, non-daily leagues in general
Garcia gets his shot against LHP and earns the full-time position. With 600-650 PAs we get something like a .270 AVG with 25+ HRs, and good RBI totals.
Garcia goes back to struggling against LHP and ends up losing all his PAs against southpaws, losing his fantasy value.
2020 Projection: 61 R, 21 HR, 72 RBI, 7 SB, .269/.324/.462
Ryan Braun (Outfield/1B)
2019: 70 R, 22 HR, 75 RBI, 11 SB, .285/.343/.505 | OF #32
2020 ADP: 239 (OF #63)
The other side of the Brewers’ projected left field platoon, Braun may also see some time at first base, according to Brewers manager Craig Counsell, but he’ll mostly serve as a LHP specialist in the outfield. While Braun is still a solid enough hitter against righties (106 wRC+), but he absolutely mashes lefties to the tune of a .933 OPS with a .287 ISO and 136 wRC+. At 36 years old, it’s a big question as to how much Braun can play without breaking down, hence the Brewers shifting him to the short side of the platoon. It’s hard to get a real idea of his playing time until the season starts, but, for now, Braun is really only useful in really deep daily leagues and DFS.
Strengths: (Against LHP) HR, AVG OBP, Points, RBI
Weaknesses: PA/AB, R, RBI, AVG, RBI (in non-daily leagues)
Braun is able to stave off Father Time and stays healthy. Between the corner outfield positions and first base, he gets plenty of PAs in spots to succeed. This allows him to replicate his 2019 success.
Age and injuries catch up to Braun, and instead of being in the rotation, he becomes an afterthought.
2020 Projection: 70 R, 25 HR, 81 RBI, 9 SB, .268/.329/.488
Batting Order vs LHP
It’ll be truly fascinating finding out whether the Brewers lineup ends up being merely good or great. If Hiura makes the leap, along with a rebound from Cain and Smoak, this could easily be one of the best lineups in the NL Central. There’s even a potential for more if Urias figures things out and Narvaez continues to improve. That’s a lot of things that would need to go right, though. I’d say invest in Brewers hitters knowing there’s a pretty solid floor, with plenty of potential for more.
Featured image by Justin Paradis (@FreshMeatComm on Twitter)