MILWAUKEE -- The first baseman’s mitt arrived Friday, the same day Keston Hiura learned his position switch was officially a go.
Hiura is moving from second base to first base after the Brewers finalized a multiyear deal with two-time Gold Glove Award winner Kolten Wong. The club views it as win-win, since Wong fortifies its up-the-middle defense and Hiura, a good hitter who’d struggled with throws, fills the club’s hole at first.
“It’s going to be different, it’s going to be a challenge,” said Hiura. “But I’m ready to take it on.”
Especially if it meant adding Wong to Milwaukee’s roster.
“You put him in our lineup and automatically our team is that much better,” Hiura said.
First things first: Hiura needed a mitt, and there isn’t time to break in a brand-new one with Spring Training about two weeks away. He got one from Nestor Corredor, the former Brewers Minor League manager who was added to the big league coaching staff this winter as a bullpen catcher.
That in itself is a change for Hiura, who has played the middle infield all his life and is used to a much smaller glove. Listed at 6-foot even, the extra inches on the glove are a good thing.
When asked if that listed height was legit, Hiura joked, “You put the cleats on and I’m up there.”
“He's up for this challenge,” Brewers president of baseball operations David Stearns said. “Both [Brewers manager] Craig [Counsell] and I have spoken to him. We believe he can do this. We believe he can be a very skilled first baseman with his skill set, and he's ready to do what he can.
“This doesn't completely close Keston off from second base with the right matchups or later in his career. But for now, it fits best with our team at first, and he understands that.”
The Brewers have had a different Opening Day first baseman every year since Prince Fielder departed via free agency following the 2011 season. In Fielder’s stead came Mat Gamel in ‘12, Alex Gonzalez in ’13, Lyle Overbay in ’14, Adam Lind in ’15, Chris Carter in ’16, Eric Thames in ’17, Ryan Braun in ’18, Jesús Aguilar in ’19 and Justin Smoak in ’20.
Hiura, though, isn't closing the door to a return to second base later in his career, and said he was eager to learn from Wong, a finalist for the Rawlings Gold Glove Award each of the last three seasons, and a winner the past two years.
The Brewers stayed patient despite deficient defensive numbers because Hiura’s bat had the potential to make him a weapon at second base. After blowing through Milwaukee’s Minor League system, Hiura hit 19 home runs in only 314 at-bats in 2019 (only Ryan Braun and Fielder hit more as Brewers rookies) before struggling in the shortened '20 season to a .707 OPS and a National League-worst 34.6 percent strikeout rate.
Hiura couldn’t rule out that he played first base in a pickup game during his childhood, but he knew for sure he’d never manned the position in competition. Still, the idea wasn’t totally foreign. During last year’s shortened season, as Smoak and Logan Morrison struggled to produce, Counsell mentioned Hiura as a possibility for first base because the Brewers were deep in middle infielders. The idea never translated to a game, however.
“Once or twice I went over there [before games] to get a feel for it, but it wasn’t anything too crazy,” Hiura said. “It was more during batting practice, getting ground balls, getting throws from some of the guys. Just learning the footwork and getting some familiarity, just in case it would happen during the season.”
Now, it’s really happening.
“We think this makes our team better,” Stearns said. “It really changes the composition defensively of our entire team, and that's something that we also think is important. I know a lot of attention has been -- understandably -- placed on the offensive side of the ball, but one constant around some of the better teams in baseball is really solid, consistent defense.
"When we've had our most successful seasons here, we've had very good defensive teams, and that's something that is a focus of ours. It's something we think we can and should accomplish, and this move allows us to move in that direction.”