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Projecting Nick Franklin

Another day, another roster move for the rebuilding Milwaukee Brewers.

On Wednesday, the Brewers claimed INF/OF Nick Franklin off waivers from the Tampa Bay Rays and designated reliever Michael Blazek for assignment. Blazek was a dominant piece of Milwaukee’s 2015 bullpen but really struggled to find any success in 2016 (5.66 ERA/5.71 FIP). Franklin, on the other hand, was once a top prospect, although he has failed miserably to live up to that billing in the major leagues. He did, however, enjoy a career year last season with the bat, creating 10 percent more runs than league average — by far his highest wRC+. But even with that, he posted a 0.0 WAR — the definition of a replacement player.

Franklin enticed the Brewers due to his versatility, as he’s similar to Hernan Perez by being able play multiple infield and outfield positions. He doesn’t have much power and his on-base skills are limited, but general manager David Stearns believed he was worth a flyer, though it may be an expensive flyer if another team ends up claiming Blazek.

Franklin is expected to join the Brewers on Friday, so let’s see what RW23 thinks of the 26 year old.

PA AB AVG OBP SLG OPS ISO wOBA K% BB% BABIP HR
RW23 181 167 .229 .285 .390 .674 .161 .294 27.6% 6.1% .291 5

It’s not all that pretty. Other projection systems like Steamer and ZiPS aren’t as pessimistic as RW23, but the difference is extremely small. They all believe Franklin won’t make much of an impact.

But because the Brewers are rebuilding, they need to take chances on guys like Franklin. They have very little to lose, and if one of these dart throws sticks, it will only increase the speed of the rebuild.

Introducing The First Out At Third’s new projection system: RW23

For the first time in its two-and-a-half year existence, The First Out At Third will feature real projections rather than educated guesses. I’m very excited to announce the creation of RW23.

RW23 is named after my favorite (and greatest) baseball player of all time, Rickie Weeks. I’ve loved him from the moment he made his Brewers debut and I shed many tears during his final game in Miller Park, although he wasn’t even given an at bat. I own a banner of the legend that used to hang up in the stadium, and his is the only autograph I truly cherish. Naming my projections after him was a no-brainer.

Now, RW23 isn’t a scientific or mathematical, computer-based model. It relies on relatively simple formulas that I entered into Excel. I’d be remiss if I didn’t give Mike Podhorzer and his book “Projecting X 2.0” credit, though, as I purchased his book to aid me. I made a few small changes and added a bit of my own sauce to it, but there’s no way I would’ve been able to do this without Mike’s book.

I’ve run about 16 projections so far, and I’ve teased a few on Twitter, but I won’t be completely finished until about a week before Opening Day. I hope and plan to release the debut of RW23 then.

I hope you’re as excited as me for not only my projections, but for the 2017 season as well!

Take two on Domingo Santana

Last year I wrote this. And in case you don’t want to click on the link, I basically said that I believed Domingo Santana would be Milwaukee’s best player in 2016. That clearly didn’t happen. In fact, it didn’t even come close. Santana finished worth -0.1 WAR or the 16th most valuable position player on the Brewers roster.

To be fair to Santana — and more importantly to me — he only played in 77 games, as he was on the disabled list for a solid chunk of the season. When he was healthy, he hit. He posted a 110 wRC+ and reached base 34 percent of the time, despite striking out in every third at bat. It was his defense (-10 DRS) that killed his WAR, but the offense was there the whole time.

And that’s why I am once again on the Domingo train. I am, however, altering my stance a bit due to his defensive inefficiencies. In 2017 Domingo Santana will have the highest wRC+ of any qualified hitter on the Milwaukee Brewers. Boom. There it is. Instead of being the best player on the team, I’m predicting he’ll be the best hitter.

I suppose I should explain why I’m so high on a guy who has yet to be more than a replacement-level type player.

In 2015, Santana had a hard-hit rate of 32.3 percent split across the Astros and Brewers. Decent but nothing to write home about. Fast forward to last season and it ballooned to 38.5 percent. His exit velocity skyrocketed like Matt Damon in The Martian (phenomenal movie) to the tune of an average of 91.0 mph. Only Nelson Cruz and Miguel Cabrera can say they hit the ball harder in 2016. That’s some good company. Santana had the second-largest jump of any major league player in exit velocity over the past two seasons, and deservingly demolished the ball. (Jeff Sullivan over at FanGraphs went over this in more detail if you’d like to check it out.) Because he hit the ball so dang hard, his HR/FB ratio (27.5 percent) ranked second in MLB behind only teammate Ryan Braun, and he finished with 11 home runs and 14 doubles for a .191 isolated slugging in just 281 plate appearances. His ability to hit for power to all fields in a place like Miller Park suits him extremely well

The only thing that’s really holding him back at the plate is his strikeout rate. He strikes out too much, plain and simple. He has a patient eye (11.4 BB%), but sometimes it’s a little too patient. Of his 91 strike outs a year ago, 36 of them came looking. It’s not like he even whiffs that much. His swinging strike rate was 12.1 percent, meaning the holes he has in his swing are few. That’s not a high rate at all. He just needs to be more aggressive at the plate and maybe attack earlier in the count.

If you follow me on Twitter, you know that I’ve recently learned how to run baseball player projections (I’m very excited about this). I’ve run a few so far, and Santana happens to be one of them.

AVG OBP SLG OPS ISO wOBA HR BB% K%
Domingo Santana .247 .346 .477 .822 .230 0.354 21 12.3% 32.3%

My projections — which still need a name, by the way — really like Santana. The batting average sucks but so does batting average. According to this, Santana will have a very powerful year, just look at his ISO. I’m still in the process of learning how to project wRC+, so until that comes to fruition, we’ll have to make do with what I have.

Santana is going to get his. His exit velocity isn’t a fluke, and if he manages to stay healthy, he could be a star. He needs another high BABIP and needs to start hitting more balls in the air, though, but it’s something he can learn to do. I think he has 25+ home run potential.

Some people think Keon Broxton will breakout in 2016. Others love Eric Thames. But me? I’m driving the Domingo train. Care to hop on board?

Martin Maldonado’s future

Martin Maldonado has been the backup catcher for Jonathan Lucroy and the Milwaukee Brewers since 2012, but now that his former catching mate has a new home in Texas, Maldonado’s role is a bit undefined. Will he start for the rebuilding Brewers in 2017? Or will Craig Counsell go with the newly acquired Andrew Susac or will the 29-year-old Manny Pina — who put up an impressive .346 OBP in limited action last season — get the job?

Before we go into who Maldonado is as a player, we first need to look at his contract. In 2015, the Brewers signed him to a two-year, $1.9 million deal. After that finishes up this year, he still won’t be eligible for free agency until 2019, which means the Brewers have some flexibility with what they decide to do with him.

If I were a betting man, I’d be willing to bet that Maldonado will assume backup duties once again this season. Because the fact is, he’s just not that good. The 30 year old has produced a 71 wRC+ and .299 on-base percentage, and his 2.7 career WAR is mainly a product of his defense, as his skills behind home plate are continually above average (he ranked 12th in pitch framing last season, according to Stat Corner). We know what we’re going to get from Maldonado offensively. Some pop, but low on-base skills. We’ve seen that every year from him. His ceiling has already been reached, and his floor keeps lowering with each turn of the calendar. With that said, though, he did manage to tie a career-high with eight home runs during the 2016 campaign, yet expecting that kind of offensive output again — especially if he remains the backup — is a little asinine.

Maldonado’s future in Milwaukee looks like it may be coming to an end. The Brewers are high on the aforementioned Susac and really, really believe — despite his down year in the minors — in Jacob Nottingham. After Maldondao’s contract runs out, it wouldn’t surprise me if the Brewers moved on from their backup catcher. In all likelihood, he’ll still be a cheap player, which is something that is important to David Stearns, but there’s no value left in him. He is what he is. 2017 could be the last time Brewers’ fans root for Maldonado.

Assuming Maldonado is on the bench to start the season, Susac should get the Opening Day nod from Counsell. He’s not the youngest player (he’ll be 27 on March 22), but he’s proven he can hit in both the minors and the majors. By no means will he be the catcher when the Brewers are ready to compete, but he would at the very least be a better filler than Maldonado.

Milwaukee has already seen a plethora of veterans leave the club, and it’s only a matter of time before it says goodbye to one more in Maldonado.

 

Two unlikely stars

The title of this post has the word “stars” in it, leading you to think I’m going to be writing about two players on the Brewers whom are performing at All-Star caliber levels. I’m not. However, I will be writing about two players whom were projected to be no more than replacement-level performers, but have so far greatly exceeded expectations.

The aforementioned “stars” are Jonathan Villar and Kirk Nieuwenhuis.

Let’s first start with the projections. Below are two of the most popular projection systems we have at our disposal, ZiPS and Steamer. FanGraphs features them on its website, and they are both highly regarded. The third projection in the table is The First Out At Third’s.

Jonathan Villar WAR Kirk Nieuwenhuis WAR
ZiPS 0.7 ZiPS 0.5
Steamer 0.2 Steamer 0.4
FOAT 0.5 FOAT 0.3
Actual 0.7 Actual 1.0

The projections were underwhelming, but by all means fair. Villar was never much of a hitter in the minors, and Nieuwenhuis was just a 2.5-win player coming into the season. Nothing was expected from them; yet they’ve been the third- and fourth-most valuable players for Milwaukee.

Villar has not only been an above-average hitter (114 wRC+), he’s also been a savage on the base paths (15 SB) and a surprisingly average defender at shortstop. He’s already surpassed Steamer’s WAR projection and could be playing his way out of Milwaukee. A player the Brewers acquired in exchange for a minor-league pitcher has turned into an interesting trade chip. How about that? The Brewers are most likely motivated to move him, too. With Orlando Arcia patiently waiting for his time down in Triple-A, Villar is no more than a shortstop filler, although having him replace Scooter Gennett at second base in the future should at least be discussed.

Nieuwenhuis was one of the last players to make the Brewers’ roster after being claimed off waivers in December 2015. He now has the third-highest WAR on the team, thanks to league-average hitting (100 wRC+) and good defense (2 DRS in centerfield). Nieuwenhuis will never be a power guy, but his walk rate has skyrocketed this year, and that, along with a high .356 BABIP, has led to a .351 on-base percentage. He’s been the only competent centerfielder for the Brewers, as Keon Broxton (-0.2 WAR) and Ramon Flores (-0.2 WAR) have been abysmal.

ZiPS now projects Villar to finish with 1.6 WAR and Nieuwenhuis to finish with 1.7 WAR. Steamer is a little less bullish on the two, predicting a final WAR of 1.0 and 1.5, respectively, but nonetheless, the Brewers have found two diamonds in the rough, which is something a rebuilding team needs to dig for.

Prince Fielder traded back to the Brewers

In a strange and rather wild move, the Milwaukee Brewers have acquired Prince Fielder from the Texas Rangers in exchange for Jimmy Nelson, Matt Garza and Tyrone Taylor. Fielder returns to the organization that drafted him and for which he played from 2005 to 2011.

Nelson was slated to be Milwaukee’s No. 2 starter in 2016 with Garza slated right behind him, but General Manager David Stearns says Zach Davies and Michael Blazek will get the first crack at the rotation spots. Taylor, once considered one of the organization’s top outfield prospects, is also headed to Texas.

Fielder hit 23 home runs and was worth 1.6 WAR for the Rangers last season.

This move comes as quite a shock for a Brewers team in the midst of a major rebuild. Some in the baseball industry have been quoted as saying the trade is “ludicrous” and “simply outrageous.” An anonymous GM claimed that it makes “zero sense for either team.”

Stearns, however, is very excited to bring back “one of the best Brewers of all time.”

“Prince is a decorated veteran of this league, and a hero in Milwaukee,” Stearns said. “We are thrilled to be reunited with him.”

Stearns also isn’t listening to the criticism surrounding the move.

“People can say whatever they want,” Stearns said. “But the fact of the matter is, we didn’t trade for Prince because of his offensive skill. No. We got him because he will be a huge help to the young players we have on our club. He’ll be more of a mentor than anything.”

Incumbent first baseman Chris Carter will be moved to center field, according to manager Craig Counsell, despite having zero experience in the outfield. This most likely means Keon Broxton and Kirk Nieuwenhuis will not make the team.

When told about the trade, Fielder didn’t mince his words.

“This is [expletive] unbelievable,” Fielder said. “Can Milwaukee even afford me? Have they seen my contract? [Expletive] this. I don’t want to go back. Not after the way they treated me and Rickie [Weeks] during our last years there. [Expletive] this.”

Fielder’s agent, Scott Boras, declined to comment, but a source inside the Commissioner’s Office says he is actively trying to get Rob Manfred to negate the trade.

Reports out of Milwaukee are claiming that Brewers’ Owner Mark Attanasio didn’t sign off on re-acquiring Fielder. Some are even saying that he is irate with Stearns, and that termination is “definitely on the table.”

It was already going to be a lousy season in Milwaukee, but this trade takes it to even greater depths.

***

Happy April Fool’s Day, everyone. Ruin someone’s day by sharing this.

Grade the game (July 2, 2015)

After each (most, at least) weekday game, I’ll write a short but of course exciting recap of said game. Then, you the reader, will have the opportunity to give the Brewers a grade based on their performance. Simple enough, right?

Free baseball! Matt Garza (5.52 ERA/4.99 FIP) and the Milwaukee Brewers went for a four-game sweep against Chad Billingsley (6.75 ERA/5.21 FIP) and the Philadelphia Phillies on Thursday. Garza gave up his 17th home run of the season, but even though he allowed double-digit hits (10) and four runs, he still managed to finish six innings. Plus, he fared a bit better than Billingsley, who was pulled after five. Jean Segura (2.7 BB%) knocked in two runs while collecting two hits. The Brewers bullpen blew a 7-4 lead in the seventh inning as Jonathan Broxton‘s high BABIP (.373) plagued him again. He managed to get just one out and was pegged for two runs. The game played 11 innings, but the Brewers squeaked out an 8-7 victory.

The play that made the game worth watching: Gerardo Parra makes a terrific sliding catch to rob Maikel Franco of a hit.

Stat of the day: Carlos Gomez was the only starting position player on the Brewers without a hit.

My grade: C

Garza wasn’t on his game (again) and Broxton struggled, but the offense never let up. It was a nice four-game sweep.

 

 

Grades so far (beginning on June 29)

A: 1

B: 2

C: 0

D: 0

F: 0