Mike Moustakas, Travis Shaw, and the Brewers’ Second-Base Experiment

Last year, the Brewers resurfaced after a rebuilding period that saw them purge basically all the top players from their last good season. With a strong pitching staff and a maturing crop of prospects, Milwaukee surged, presenting a threat to Chicago’s North Side club for the division crown. On this day a year ago, the Brewers were a half-game back of the Cubs. While they inevitably came up short, the Brewers started to see returns from a top-10 farm system they had spent years assembling.

During the offseason, they sought to address their weaknesses in the outfield, consolidating prospect gains for the inimitable Christian Yelich. They also signed Lorenzo Cain to an affordable long-term contract, providing them with greater protection from variance and much improved production. While those two acquisitions haven’t been the only factors to have propelled the Brew Crew to contention, such additions have led the organization to find themselves 1.5 games back of the Cubs for the division this season, holding the first Wild Card spot. FanGraphs’ own playoff odds give them (read: Milwaukee) a 60.2% chance to make the playoffs. Last night, David Stearns inched that figure a bit higher.

Late Friday evening, the Milwaukee Brewers moved to augment their roster for a postseason push, acquiring Mike Moustakas from the Kansas City Royals.

As reported first by a self-described Wisconsin sports fan, here’s the trade in its entirety:

Brewers get:

Royals get:

For the Royals, it’s a pretty bittersweet move featuring one of their longest-tenured players. Kansas City drafted Moustakas with the second overall pick all the way back in 2007. He’s spent his entire adult life with the organization, ascending the minor-league ladder, enduring growing pains, making a World Series, and then winning a World Series. Or, as Royals manager Ned Yost puts it:

Objectively speaking, the Royals are a bad team. I’m not sure I need to remind you of this. They achieved their objective within their small competitive window, but that window has closed emphatically and now they’re rebuilding, trading away an acceptable third baseman in an effort to (a) maximize their draft selection for 2019 and (b) garner assets for the future.

Before we fully evaluating the trade, let’s first consider the surplus value on Moose’s contract as a general guideline of what kind of return to expect.

Mike Moustakas, Surplus Value
Season WAR Value Salary Surplus Value
2018, PACE 2.7 $21.6 M $7.7 M $13.9 M
2018, ROS 1.1 $8.8 M $2.8 M $6.0 M
Assumptions: $8M/WAR, player salary includes incentives; prorated salary based on 120 days of service time through July 27. ROS WAR taken from Depth Charts.

I’m assuming above that Moustakas will reach 450 PA to unlock all incentives — an outcome which, barring very unfortunate injury, will almost certainly occur.

The longtime Royal returned a nice piece in Brett Phillips, a prospect who is almost certainly worth more than Moustakas’ rest-of-season surplus value. He’s a largely fringey outfielder whose inability to make contact (with a strikeout rate north of 30% since 2015) has limited him to a lesser role. Phillips has made it work in the high minors with wRC+ marks of 134, 120, 113, 139, and 92, but such a strikeout-heavy approach combined with a lack of game-power threatens his viability at the major-league level.

FanGraphs’ own Eric Longenhagen delved deep into such things during an offseason review of the Brewers’ system:

He has a clunky leg kick and weight transfer that prevent him from turning on balls consistently, and he is violent about the head during his swing, exacerbating Phillips’ whiff-prone stiffness…He projects as a 40 hitter, and his approach to contact will likely limit his game power output.

But he does lots of other things. Phillips is an above-average runner and high-effort player who makes it work in center field despite lacking great instincts. He has strong hands and is able to poke balls out the other way on occasion. Most notably, Phillips has elite, game-changing arm strength and uncorked a throw in excess of 104 mph, according to Statcast, this year. Some scouts think Phillips’ patience, raw power, and ability to play center field will make him an average everyday player, but most think his inability to hit will limit him to a lesser role.

It’s worth noting that Phillips accrued 1.1 WAR in just 37 games in a cup of coffee last year, a pace good for 4.8 wins despite the contact woes.

It’s also worth noting that the Royals are a club that presently ranks 23rd in strikeout rate, ranked 26th by that measure in 2017, and 21st in 2016. In the last half-decade, KC has always been in the bottom-third. The Royals naturally select for contact-oriented hitters. It’s highly probable they will attempt to alter Phillips’ approach — by removing his leg kick, for example — just as they have done with Jorge Soler.

It seems curious that the Royals chose to select a package featuring nearly ready talent, given that they very well may be a 100-loss team. (Lopez is a converted bullpen arm with a mid-90s fastball and above-average curveball, though his inability to locate made him expendable.) The logic here, I think, is to fix and flip players, turning smaller pieces into bigger, more meaningful pieces for the future. Phillips is a relatively young, raw talent who the Royals can mold and trade to accelerate their rebuild.

From the Brewers’ side of things, it’s clear that Milwaukee needed second-base help; they ranked 28th in net output at the position, good for a -0.7 WAR and a wRC+ of 68. Moustakas’s 107 wRC+ mark is a noted offensive upgrade over that abomination, and our Depth Charts have him hitting even better than that the rest of the way. One finds, of course, that Mike Moustakas is not a second baseman — nor is Travis Shaw, who presently mans the hot corner for the Brewers.

Shaw is slated to switch to second base, an interesting move considering he has no professional experience at the position. At 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds, he doesn’t feature a typical profile, either. There are, however, signs that the temporary position switch could be viable. For one, Shaw has always been a positive defender and has recorded 3.8 Range Runs Above Average (UZR) this season, suggesting the middle infield may not be as much of a stretch as one might think. UZR also has his Error Runs Above Average at -1.7 this year and below average in every season he has manned the hot corner. Perhaps moving him to second base, where throws are shorter and shifting has become increasingly common, will actually increase his defensive effectiveness.

While the Brewers will see an uptick in second-base production, a Moustakas acquisition that may lower Shaw’s defensive capabilities may still not be ideal for a team that can’t afford to lose ground in a close playoff race. Asdrubal Cabrera (2.1 WAR), who was traded to Philadelphia yesterday, might have provided more versatility. Ian Kinsler (1.7 WAR) provides better defense, and Brian Dozier (1.1 WAR) represents a potential bounce-back opportunity. Although it would run through 2019, Starlin Castro (1.6 WAR) likely would be made available if a contender absorbs most of the salary.

Milwaukee has improved their club for the playoff push, there’s no question about that. But could they have improved their odds by acquiring an alternative option, avoiding a Travis Shaw defensive experiment? That is an open question.

A finance student in the lovable armpit of Orange County, Rahul Setty spends his time following the Angels, writing for Halos Heaven, and derives joy from Mike Trout's on-base percentage which is, thankfully, always high. You can reach him on Twitter @RahulSetty_.

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3 years ago

Can Phillips pitch? Poor Jorge Lopez received nary a text mention.

Dave K
3 years ago
Reply to  Ivan_Grushenko

Lopez pitched 3 hitless low leverage innings this past Wednesday against the Nats and looked very good doing so. He’s been part of Brewer’s system of revolving 4 guys through the last spot in their pen, replacing a guy after an extended outing with a fresh arm. Lopez, Adrian Houser, Brandon Woodruff and Alec Asher have all generated frequent flier miles between Colorado Springs and Milwaukee. With the return of Albers and addition of Soria, for now Taylor Williams assumes that role.

Lopez looked like a very good prospect after posting a 2.26 ERA in 24 starts at AA as a 22 year old in 2015. At the time, he was Brewers number one pitching prospect. He even got 2 starts after a September call up that year. He regressed in 2016 however, struggling at AAA Colorado Springs, a tough environment for pitchers, and in 2017, he started transitioning to the bullpen.

He’s a guy who’s on the edge of being a useful bullpen piece for a contender right now. Given the Royals have Wily Peralta closing games, I would think he’s ready for an expanded bullpen role on a rebuilding club. Guys like Lopez emerge every year. He’s no sure thing, but he’s got enough stuff to have a chance.

3 years ago
Reply to  Dave K