Hiura, Naquin won't make Brewers' Opening Day roster

March 24th, 2023

PHOENIX -- Friday didn’t mark the end of former first-round Draft pick and hotshot prospect ’s tenure with the Brewers, but it was certainly a fork in the road.

The Brewers informed Hiura about an hour before he was to start a split-squad game against the Dodgers that he won’t make the Opening Day roster. Hiura, 26, is out of Minor League options, so the Brewers will try to find him a Major League opportunity in the coming days, according to general manager Matt Arnold.

If they are unsuccessful, then the club would have to put Hiura on waivers. Any team could claim him and pick up his $2.2 million salary. Should he clear, Arnold said “it’s definitely a possibility” that the Brewers would keep Hiura in their Minor League system.

“We wanted to give him as much runway as possible, in fairness to him, to get an opportunity with another Major League team,” Arnold said.

“It’s not necessarily the end, but it certainly could be,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “Keston has been a good player. He handled himself like you’d want every Milwaukee Brewer to handle himself. It’s tough news you have to deliver, and we’ll just see what happens.”

The Brewers also informed non-roster invitee , an outfielder, that he would not make the Opening Day roster. Naquin has the right to opt out of his deal, but as of Friday he remained in camp and started the Brewers’ other split-squad game against the Rockies.

Conversations with both players were difficult, but particularly so for Hiura, who was the ninth overall Draft pick out of UC Irvine in 2017 and rose to baseball’s No. 20 prospect per MLB Pipeline entering 2019. That’s the year he hit his way to the big leagues, where he delivered a .938 OPS in 84 games and hit 19 homers -- third most for a Brewers rookie in franchise history, behind Ryan Braun (34 in ‘07) and Prince Fielder (28 in ‘06).

Always considered a hit-first prospect, Hiura added first base to his resume beginning in 2020 and then a little left field beginning in ‘21. But he never replicated the offensive production from his rookie season, slipping from a 139 wRC+ in ’19 to 88 in ’20 and 53 in ’21 before rebounding to 115 in selective playing time in ’22.

This spring, Hiura reported to camp without a clear position. has established himself as the primary first baseman, and the Brewers added as a non-roster invitee early in camp. Voit’s status was still unresolved as of Friday afternoon, but should he stay with the Brewers, then Voit, , and would probably command most of the at-bats from the designated hitter spot. And Hiura’s defense means he was only an occasional option for second base or left field.

“I want to make sure people know that he is available and we want to do right by him,” Arnold said. “We would love for him to have an opportunity in the big leagues if it’s not with us, because he’s earned that. He’s been a great Brewer and a great guy. It was a tough conversation. We have to make some tough decisions down the stretch here.”

Arnold also expressed optimism for Hiura should he remain with the organization, saying it wouldn’t be the first time a player was removed from the roster, found success in the Minor Leagues and then returned to thrive in the Majors.

“We have a lot of guys who think he can, he just needs the opportunity,” Arnold said. “He ran out of that runway here, unfortunately, in the near-term. But if he remains a Brewer, he would still get a runway at Triple-A. There’s always the opportunity to make an adjustment and come back.”

Hiura was trying to make adjustments this spring, adding a toe-tap to his swing in order to properly distribute his weight. That led to some timing issues, he said. He is slashing .156/.229/.219 in 12 Cactus League games.

Possible path to roster for top prospects
Naquin was slashing .207/.294/.276 in his first 11 Cactus League games but was playing on as of Friday, when he started in right field against the Rockies in the Brewers’ home game. The Brewers were in discussions with Naquin’s agent about a Triple-A opportunity.

“Tyler has been a good Major League player,” Counsell said, “but we made a choice to go in a different direction there.”

His absence from the Opening Day mix was significant because it opens a spot for an outfield prospect beyond starting center fielder , who is No. 4 on MLB Pipeline’s Brewers prospects list. Candidates include (No. 2) and (No. 3), though Wiemer may have an upper hand by virtue of a strong arm perfectly suited for right field, and the fact he bats right-handed -- a need as the Brewers are currently constructed.

“Those guys have played really, really well,” Arnold said. “They’re definitely in play.”