Sunday, January 29 2023

By Jordan Shusterman
FOX Sports MLB Writer

The MLB trade deadline presents a strange dynamic within major-league clubhouses. 

Above all else, players want to win. If the front office is going to add to the roster to help the team win, players generally appreciate that. At the same time, when teams don’t make big splashes at the deadline, it could be read as a vote of confidence for the guys already on the roster — which one might think would be appreciated by the players who have gotten the team where it is.

All of which is to say that the Milwaukee Brewers’ performance the next two months will come with additional scrutiny because the one big move the organization made at the deadline was a major subtraction in its decision to trade closer Josh Hader to the Padres.

Now, Hader hasn’t exactly looked great so far in San Diego, and the package Milwaukee received, which included another lefty closer in Taylor Rogers plus two promising prospects in outfielder Esteury Ruiz and left-handed pitcher Robert Gasser, might ultimately “win” them the trade at some point down the line. But Hader’s departure clearly shook up the clubhouse and reshuffled a bullpen hierarchy that had been so solid for manager Craig Counsell in recent years. 

Furthermore, GM David Stearns did not make any significant additions to the lineup. While the offense has performed much better than it did a year ago, when a severe lack of depth reared its ugly head in the playoffs, the Brewers still lack the star power of nearly all of their National League counterparts, some of whom, like the Padres, made major additions at the deadline. 

That’s not to say the players haven’t done their part: Milwaukee is one of four teams (along with Atlanta, Houston and New York) with three 19-plus-homer guys: Rowdy Tellez (23), Willy Adames (22) and Hunter Renfroe (19). Those names aren’t Juan Soto or even Josh Bell, but they have been strong contributors, and we generally know what to expect from them.

Then there’s Christian Yelich, the former MVP still trying to discover his superstar form, who is now merely a good-not-great hitter. At this stage, veterans such as Yelich and Andrew McCutchen are reliable contributors but don’t appear to be impact hitters on the level of division rivals Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado, for example.

As for the bullpen, in Hader’s absence, the one thing we know for sure is that All-Star airbender Devin Williams will be moving into a more prominent role at the end of games.

Who else is going to have to step up? Who are the players on the roster that GM David Stearns must believe in enough to have not made any other major additions?

Consider these the X-factors — players’ whose performances might tip Milwaukee’s season in one direction or another. We’ll focus on the offense and the bullpen, the parts of the team that remain most unsettled as the postseason approaches.

Keston Hiura

Hiura’s development as a hitter has completely fascinated me. This is a guy who was universally lauded for his ultra-advanced hit tool in college, and that’s what made him the ninth pick in the 2017 MLB Draft. His huge debut season in 2019 suggested he was on his way to living up to those lofty projections. 

Since then, however, Hiura has seemingly become a pure swing-out-of-his-shoes slugger with enormous raw power but terrifying contact concerns. His strikeout rate has skyrocketed for four consecutive seasons, up to a staggering 43.1% — highest among all players with at least 150 plate appearances

And yet … Hiura is still completely crushing the ball on a decently regular basis. His 93.1 mph average exit velocity ranks eighth in MLB among players with at least 50 balls in play, and he’s slugging .489 with 10 dingers in just 131 at-bats. He’s still walking a lot, too, which is what keeps him in the lineup more often than some other one-dimensional sluggers we’ve seen.

Still, Hiura’s plate appearances are among the most volatile in the league, and that’s practically the definition of an X-factor. I can see him launching five homers in a postseason series just as easily as I can see him whiffing so much in September that he doesn’t make the postseason roster. That’s pretty fun! And also terrifying!

Mike Brosseau

Brosseau’s career is already a fairytale of sorts, as he went from undrafted to delivering one of the most epic homers in postseason history in 2020. But after he fell too far down the Rays’ depth chart in 2021, Tampa Bay traded him to Milwaukee, where he has settled into a platoon role. 

Just as he mashed that fastball from Aroldis Chapman, Brosseau has continued to mash left-handed pitching this year, slashing .323/.389/.523 in 72 plate appearances against southpaws. With Jace Peterson still on the injured list, Brosseau has seen significant time at third base, though Luis Urias has recently started to get a bigger portion of the reps.

Urias looks like the more reliable every-day player, but as we know, Brosseau is more than capable of rising to the occasion in a big spot. 

Tyrone Taylor

Taylor’s ascent from second-round pick out of high school in 2012 to starting center fielder for the Brewers has been a gradual one, a decade-long slow burn en route to the big leagues. Now his job appears fairly secure, with Lorenzo Cain’s early-season DFA clearing the path for the 28-year-old to play every day. 

Taylor has already filled Cain’s shoes effectively in one way, making some jaw-dropping plays in the outfield.

But the much bigger question is how much he can contribute at the plate. His overall line of .224/.276/.422 remains pedestrian, but he has shown flashes of game-changing power. If Milwaukee isn’t going to have any 1.000 OPS mega-stars in the lineup, the more guys who can change the game with one swing of the bat, the better.

Taylor surely fits that criteria. 

Brent Suter

It’s easy to look only at Rogers and focus on how he’s going to replace Hader directly, but I’m much more curious about what Suter’s role is going to be moving forward. Ever since he became a full-time reliever in 2019, Suter had been Milwaukee’s go-to lefty out of the bullpen (beyond Hader), with excellent results. 

That said, his strikeout and ground-ball rates are both down, and his walks have been slightly up, likely contributing to an ERA (4.22) that isn’t as pretty as it was the previous three seasons (2.70). 

Hoby Milner’s emergence has already cut into some of Suter’s usual duties this season, and now Rogers is in the mix for lefty matchups in innings five-through-eight – especially if the majority of ninth innings are handed to Williams. I’ve loved watching Suter do his thing with limited velocity for years now, but his slight dip in performance in 2022 has me curious how Milwaukee’s lefty reliever pecking order will shake out come October — if the Brewers make it, of course.

Trevor Rosenthal

Rosenthal, the former All-Star Cardinals closer who hasn’t pitched in an MLB game since 2020, signed with San Francisco in July, only to be traded to Milwaukee before appearing with the Giants (he has been on the injured list due to a strained hamstring).

I wouldn’t be surprised if Rosenthal, somehow just 32, is still throwing super hard, just as he was two seasons ago, when he was regularly touching triple digits. He must’ve looked good on the Giants’ backfields for the Brewers to trade an actual prospect in Tristan Peters (who had an .871 OPS in High-A) for a player who hadn’t thrown a big-league pitch in two years.

 The other thing to remember is that while he was dynamite in the regular season, Rosenthal was a mess in four games for San Diego in the 2020 postseason. My big question here is how much do the Brewers believe in this guy? Is this a lottery-ticket whiff-machine that they are going to mix in the middle innings, or do they see him getting serious, high-leverage innings?  

We’ll find out soon enough, assuming Rosenthal can get healthy. 

Hobie Harris

If you’re not familiar with this name, don’t sweat it; Harris is a 29-year-old right-hander who has never pitched in MLB. But I’m going to throw his name in the mix as one to watch. The Brad BoxbergerTrevor Gott-Hoby Milner triumvirate has been solid if unspectacular as the go-to bridge guys to get to Williams (and Hader) this season, and Rosenthal and Bush have seemingly been brought in to bolster that unit.

With Bush struggling already and Rosenthal’s return from injury remaining a question, I’m curious if Harris — who’s posted a 1.93 ERA in 37.1 IP with Triple-A Nashville — could be an intriguing alternative.

Granted, Harris’ elite run prevention is somewhat misleading. His sky-high walk rate (17.1%) and BABIP against (.226) suggest that he has been getting a little lucky keeping runs off the board; his FIP is 4.91. But it seems he has turned a corner recently control-wise, walking just one batter in his past nine appearances while continuing to strike out a batter per inning.

Most importantly, the stuff is not in question with Harris; it’s an upper-90s fastball with a dastardly splitter. If he has indeed figured out how to limit the walks, I could see him being one of the first guys called up in case of further injuries or poor performance from the current bullpen group.

Plus, Harris finally reaching the big leagues would be a satisfying culmination to a wild baseball journey. He started his career at Paris Junior College, not far from his hometown of McKinney, Texas, before transferring to the University of Pittsburgh for his final two collegiate seasons. At that point, his fastball was only 90-94 mph. 

A 31st-round pick in the 2015 draft by the Yankees, Harris has spent the past seven years slowly climbing the minor-league – and velocity – ladder, the first five years with New York, then with Toronto last season and now with Milwaukee. He has spent the past two seasons in Triple-A, just a phone call away, but that call has eluded him thus far. 

The path to the majors might still be somewhat cloudy, but it’d be cool to see Harris get his call-up and pitch some important innings for this Brewers team down the stretch.

Jordan Shusterman is half of @CespedesBBQ and a baseball writer for FOX Sports. He lives in D.C. but is a huge Seattle Mariners fan and loves watching the KBO, which means he doesn’t get a lot of sleep. You can follow him on Twitter @j_shusterman_.

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Source: FOX Sports


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