How will Brewers' shortstop battle shake out?

February 7th, 2020

MILWAUKEE -- The Brewers’ most compelling position battle will have to wait.

Luis Urías vs. Orlando Arcia for Opening Day shortstop duties was supposed to be Milwaukee’s marquee battle when Spring Training gets underway Wednesday. That changed after Urías underwent surgery Jan. 28 for a broken hamate bone in his left hand, a procedure expected to sideline him from games for eight weeks.

With Opening Day set for March 26 against the Cubs at Miller Park, and Urías certain to need some exhibition games to get ready for Major League competition, it’s unlikely he will be active to start the season. So, Arcia will get a head start on what was expected to be an intriguing matchup of young players with much to prove.

“We’re certainly going to give Urías every shot to prove he can play shortstop for us,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said in January, before the ill-timed setback. “That’s why we traded for him.”

The Brewers traded steady starter Zach Davies and rising outfielder Trent Grisham to the Padres on the day before Thanksgiving for Urías and left-hander Eric Lauer. The deal came amid a slew of moves that had the effect of cutting payroll, and it gave Milwaukee a starting pitcher with additional contractual control.

But it also represented a shake-up of the shortstop position, which has been held by Arcia since he arrived in the Major Leagues to much fanfare in August 2016, when the Brewers, coincidentally, were in San Diego. More than three years later, Arcia has yet to reach his potential.

Of the 258 players who have logged at least 1,000 regular-season plate appearances since Arcia’s Major League debut, he ranks 249th with a .652 OPS. Last year, his .633 OPS, .269 weighted on-base average and 45 weighted runs created plus made Arcia the least productive of MLB’s 135 qualifying hitters, while his defensive metrics also took a dip.

Meanwhile, Arcia’s cost went up in his first year of arbitration eligibility. He and the Brewers settled at $2.2 million, up from $565,700 last year.

In Urías, the Brewers acquired a player who is three years younger (he is 22, Arcia is 25) and likely three years of Major League service away from qualifying for arbitration. Urías mostly played second base for San Diego, but Milwaukee believes he is a Major League shortstop. Offensively, the jury is out. Urías has logged just 302 MLB plate appearances, slashing .221/.318/.331. But in the Minor Leagues, he was a .308/.397/.433 hitter, including .305/.403/.511 in 887 Triple-A plate appearances over parts of three seasons.

“Look, we did not have good shortstop production last year, and we have been open about that,” president of baseball operations David Stearns said. “For us to ultimately do what we want to do, and be the type of team we want to be, production from that position has to improve. Having competition at that position is not a bad thing.”

At the Winter Meetings, Counsell said, “You have to prove it. For Orlando, I think what we said is we just haven't got the offensive production at that position that we've needed. We've been close to the bottom of the league for a couple years now, and we're trying to do better.”

The Brewers had hoped to give Urías an opportunity to win the shortstop job in Spring Training, presumably pushing Arcia into a utility role. That changed after Urías developed discomfort while playing winter ball in Mexico, ultimately leading to surgery late last month in Arizona.

Assuming no setbacks, Urías should be getting into game action right around the time the Brewers open their season against the Cubs. The club’s medical staff does not expect the injury to hamper Urías long term, according to Stearns, who believes Milwaukee has enough options in the system to cover a short-term absence.

If Arcia doesn’t claim the job, it would probably go to one of the other infielders on the roster with shortstop experience, like Eric Sogard, Jedd Gyorko, Ronny Rodríguez or Mark Mathias.

Eventually, however, Urías will get his chance.

“He's been a very good offensive player at a really young age throughout his professional career,” Counsell said. “And it's a really solid foundation of lots of contact, low strikeouts. Extra-base hits have started to come as he's aged a little bit and gotten stronger and learned himself as a hitter. So as much as anything, it's just a very good foundation as a player.”