To escape February cold and rain, many college programs head to Phoenix for their early-season games. While the weather is often quite perfect there during the day, the winter nights are still quite cold, especially once you’ve become accustomed to the heat. This creates a hilarious visual contrast among fans, as the locals are layered — a hoodie and beanie at least — while out-of-towners from Michigan, Illinois, or the Pacific Northwest are sleeveless. But there are evenings that we’d all agree are frigid — unbearable for the locals, and a source of disappointment and disgust, especially among the shivering unprepared, for those who hoped coming to Arizona in February would let them avoid the chill for a while.
San Diego’s early-season, midweek game at Arizona State was like this. I was up the third base line watching hitters, my teeth chattering, nose running. People walked past me with Styrofoam cups full of steaming hot chocolate, a ballpark rarity, and I wondered if I might eventually need one to get through what had, to that point, been a terribly played game.
My standards for cocoa are high. I’ve gone from being a double-packet Swiss Miss kid to an adult who prefers a single packet, with a teaspoon of baking cocoa and a dash of cinnamon and cayenne if I’m feeling frisky. Surely, at stadium prices, hastily mixed and diluted to meet the speed and volume of demand, it would fall short of what I wanted.
My nose kept running. I felt like I miss-timed two Adam Kerner throws down to second because my fingers had slowed down. I just wanted something warm. I turned to the napkin/condiment kiosk (my de facto box of Kleenex for the evening) and saw yet another person carrying a fresh cup of relief. As I looked to their face to ask how much it cost, I recognized Keston Hiura, who told me he had gotten the last cup of hot chocolate they had. He departed, walked down into the bleachers and sat, alone, attentive and focused on a random, local, college game on a miserable night in the middle of the week.
For all players, baseball is a job. For a lot of them, it clearly and justifiably feels that way. But then for others, it’s a vocation. They love it and go out of their way to watch and be around it when they’re off the clock. It’s not possible to know whether or not every prospect we like and talk about on this site has this trait, which I believe to beneficial. But it seems like Hiura does.
He’s also exceptionally talented. Dominant immediately as a freshman at UC Irvine, Hiura hit .331 that year and .375/.466/.581 throughout his college career. He faced early-career questions about quality of competition (Irvine does play the bigger SoCal schools, but they don’t often face weekend pitching) and, later and more severely, about an elbow injury moved him off of second base and mostly to the outfield or DH for his summer with Team USA and his junior spring. Here is our draft blurb on Hiura, who we ranked as the No. 2 college hitter in that class:
Hiura has had elbow issues for much of his college career and has seen Dr. Neal El Attrache in Los Angeles. He’s not throwing right now, taking grounders at second base during batting practice but lobbing balls away to teammates after fielding them. He has the feet and actions for second base but there’s uncertainty about his future defensive home because of the arm. He rakes though, with one of the draft’s quickest bats and above average raw power. If his arm gets healthy he could hit and hit for power while playing an up the middle position.
The gap between the offensive bar at second base (an 88 wRC+ is the 2019 average at the position) and at DH (111 wRC+) is vast. Drafting Hiura was somewhat risky, because it was not widely known (at least, I never found out) exactly what was wrong with his elbow or if he’d need surgery, or ever be able to play a passable second base (where he might be a star) or if he’d need to be a DH/LF type (where it’d be harder to clear that offensive bar).
After the Brewers drafted him, Hiura predictably crushed lower-level pitching while playing DH until the final few games of the year, when he finally saw time at second again. He had no balls hit to him that required him to throw during that span. During instructional league in the fall, scouts finally saw what it looked like and were encouraged. We moved Hiura from a 45 FV on draft day, to a 55 FV based on confidence that he could indeed play second. He ranked No. 1 in Milwaukee’s system and 24th overall.
In 2018, Hiura reached Double-A and was, in my opinion, the second best offensive prospect in the Arizona Fall League behind Vlad Guerrero, Jr. His hands are so explosive and violent, but precise and deft, that he’s likely to hit for contact, hit for power, and play a premium defensive position better than who Milwaukee currently has shoe-horned there. Here’s what we wrote about Hiura on this offseason’s Top 100 prospect list, where we had him as the No. 13 prospect in baseball, a 60 FV player.
Hiura reached Double-A in his first full pro season, and then was clearly one of the top five or six talents in the Arizona Fall League, where he won League MVP. Most importantly, his arm strength is once again viable at second base. An elbow injury relegated Hiura to DH-only duty as a junior at UC Irvine, and he may have gone even earlier in the 2017 draft if not for concerns about the injury and how it might limit his defense. That’s no longer a concern, as Hiura has an average arm and plays an unspectacular second base. This is an incredible hitter. He has lightning-quick hands that square up premium velocity and possesses a rare blend of power and bat control. Hiura’s footwork in the box is a little noisier than it has to be, and if any of his swing’s elements are ill-timed, it can throw off the rest of his cut. This, combined with an aggressive style of hitting, could cause him to be streaky. But ultimately he’s an exceptional hitting talent and he’s going to play a premium defensive position. We think he’s an All-Star second baseman.
And now he’s a big leaguer. Hiura has been hitting .333/.408/.698 at Triple-A San Antonio. The new baseball and the PCL hitting environment has probably helped, but this is a middle of the order talent who’s ready to hit for all-fields power right now. I’m not totally buying the 2019 uptick in his walk rate. Hiura hunts early-count fastballs and I expect him to have a proactive approach, bordering on aggressive (he did beat me to that cocoa, after all), which is more palatable at second base even if it means his OBPs are closer to average, especially if it helps him hit for power by attacking pitches he can drive. He’s an entertaining, homegrown hitter who’s poised to hit in the middle of Milwaukee’s order for most of the next half decade.
Eric Longenhagen is from Catasauqua, PA and currently lives in Tempe, AZ. He spent four years working for the Phillies Triple-A affiliate, two with Baseball Info Solutions and two contributing to prospect coverage at ESPN.com. Previous work can also be found at Sports On Earth, CrashburnAlley and Prospect Insider.