Milwaukee Brewers: The Fourth Outfielder Competition

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Milwaukee Brewers: The Fourth Outfielder Competition

We all love him, but is he ready?

One of the major storylines entering Brewers camp this year is the competition to fill Gabe Kapler’s spot as the fourth outfielder.  The four competitors at this stage of spring training are Chris Duffy, Tony Gwynn Jr., Brad Nelson, and Trot Nixon

The two homegrown kids out of this group are Tony Gwynn Jr. and Brad Nelson. 

With TGJR, much of the issue rests with the fact that he is out of options, and will likely be put on waivers at the end of spring training if he does not break camp with the team. Unfortunately for the Brewers, they will likely not receive anything more than a C level prospect for him, if anything. 

Gywnn has not shown any ability to hit like his father, failing to post a batting average above .260 in either of his three short stints with the Brewers.  Gwynn’s best stint, in 2007, resulted in a .260/.331/.317 line.  Pro-rated over 600 plate appearances, this line comes out to 19 runs below the average hitter, or right around replacement level. PECOTA and ZiPS see Gwynn as a -16 run hitter, while CHONE pegs him at -18. 

Gwynn does have a history as a solid fielder in the minor leagues, posting a Total Zone (devloped by Sean Smith) score of 8 runs above average in AAA.  However, CHONE projections do not like Gwynn’s prospects as a CF, projecting Gwynn as 11 runs below average in CF and one run below average in the corners. 

Let’s be generous and assume Gwynn is +5 in CF (which is highly unlikely). 

Then Gwynn is worth -17 (offense) + 20 (replacement) + 2.5 (position) + 5 (fielding) = 10.5 runs above replacement over 600 plate appearances, or 1.05 wins.

That’s not bad.  However, pro-rated to the 200-300 plate appearances that Gwynn would be likely to receive, that pushes his value back to the .5 win range.  Still, all his value is dependent on if he is a +5 fielder.  If the CHONE projection is correct, he’s worth -.5 wins per 600 plate appearances, and has no value whatsoever.

Brad Nelson was the Brewers big first base prospect before Prince Fielder.  Now he may get a chance to break camp with the big club.  The big question here is his defense.  Can he play RF?  Also, if he plays and Cameron sits, that forces Hart to RF, because Big Brad is NOT playing center field. 

Let’s look at projections for Nelson. 

PECOTA has Nelson at -4 runs hitting, ZiPS has him at -8, and CHONE has him at -3.  The average of these projections is -5, so we’ll use that.  With fielding, it’s hard to say where Nelson will be. 

I find it unlikely that he will be average—I think he’d fall somewhere in the -10 to -5 range over a full season, at best. 

For our purposes, we’ll use -7.5.  This puts his value at -5 offense + 20 replacement - 7.5 position - 7.5 fielding = 0 runs above replacement, or 0 wins.

Nelson clearly needs another year to develop, because at this point, he has no value at all to the Brewers.  His hitting would be fine at a premium position, but it doesn’t work at any of the positions he plays just yet.

Next, we look at the veterans, Duffy and Nixon. 

Chris Duffy is a Pirates castoff who has speed and a good glove in the outfield, but not much of a bat.  Over his career with the Pirates (160 games), Duffy hit .269/.328/.361, but stole 41 out of 48 attempted bases (this is worth ~4.17 runs) and has a career UZR of +4.5 runs. 

Since fielding peaks early and Duffy didn’t play in the majors last year, let’s slot him in as a +2 CF. 

For hitting, CHONE has Duffy at -7.5 runs/600 plate appearances, and PECOTA and ZiPS don’t have him listed, so I’ll just use CHONE for Duffy.  This assumes he’d play most of his games in CF, but this assumption should work for the corners anyway because he’d be about 10 runs better in a corner, whereas the position adjustment is 10 runs lower.

-7.5 offense + 20 replacement + 2.5 position + 2 fielding = 17 runs above replacement, or 1.7 wins over 600 PAs.  Assuming 300 PAs, Duffy coming off the bench would be worth .8-.9 wins.

Trot Nixon is another veteran name, this time coming over from the Red Sox, where he patrolled right field for 11 years.  Nixon is the best hitter of this group, with a lifetime .841 OPS. 

PECOTA projects him as a +6 hitter, ZiPS has him at -2.5, and CHONE has him at +2.5.  The average of these 3 projections places Nixon as a +2 hitter. 

However, as the oldest, he is likely a liability in the field. 

For his career, Nixon averaged +6 runs per season in RF, but in his last stint with the Indians in ‘07, he posted a -6.6 UZR in 87 games.  CHONE projects him at -1 in the corners this year, which seems reasonable given his above-average track record - it’s likely the -6.6 was a fluke. 

So we have +2 offense + 20 replacement -7.5 position - 1 fielding = 13.5 runs above replacement or 1.35 wins above replacement, or roughly +.6-.7 WAR over 300 PAs.

Summarizing, in table form, we have:

Player Offense Replacement Position Defense Total WAR/600 WAR/300
Gwynn -17 20 2.5 5 10.5 1.05 0.53
Nelson -5 20 -7.5 -7.5 0 0 0
Duffy -7.5 20 2.5 2 17 1.7 0.85
Nixon 2 20 -7.5 -1 13.5 1.35 0.68

 

It appears that Duffy is the best choice, according to the numbers.  Just thinking about it, I agree. 

I prefer to have a fourth outfielder who has the ability to play all three outfield positions at a plus level, and I think that Duffy is the only one who is able to do that (I don’t think Gwynn is a +5 CF, or even an average CF). 

He doesn’t kill you with the bat like Gwynn does, either. 

However, if Nixon has a Kapler-esque resurgence, he wouldn’t be a bad choice either.  Nelson clearly needs another year in AAA.

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