Whether they did it by design or responded to the market forces at work, the Milwaukee Brewers found an intriguing way to try gaining an edge over their NL Central rivals.
Rather than focusing on an offense that slumbered for much of last season, they added position players better known for fielding prowess. By signing former St. Louis Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong and ex-Boston Red Sox center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr., the Brewers have four former Gold Glove winners on their roster.
“One of the ways we’re going to prevent runs this year is with defense,” manager Craig Counsell said. “We’ve invested in that this year. There is scoring runs and there is preventing runs. We’re going to try to be really good at preventing runs this year.”
Wong was a Gold Glove second baseman each of the last two years. Bradley won a Gold Glove in 2018 and was a finalist in 2014, 2016 and 2019.
They join a lineup already featuring 2014 Gold Glove left fielder Christian Yelich and 2019 Gold Glove center fielder Lorenzo Cain, who played just five games last year before opting out of the 2020 season.
Milwaukee also returns Omar Narvaez, who was regarded as a suspect defensive catcher when the Brewers acquired him but emerged as one of the game’s top pitch framers last season.
“There’s a lot of defensive stalwarts out there – guys who have won Gold Gloves, guys who have the potential to win Gold Gloves,” Bradley said. “And I think that can only benefit our team, the pitchers, and we can kind of feed off that.”
The Brewers’ major weakness last year was offense. Milwaukee ranked 27th among 30 major league teams in runs per game.
But the Brewers didn’t field particularly well, either. Milwaukee was 23rd among all MLB teams in defensive runs saved, according to The Fielding Bible.
“We weren’t a good enough defensive team last year,” president of baseball operations David Stearns said. “Part of that improvement needed to come through some personnel change, and part of it needs to come from players who were here last year having better defensive years. And then part of how the offseason unfolded, the best opportunities for us to improve our team largely revolved around defensive-oriented players.”
Wong has a two-year contract worth $18 million and Bradley agreed to a $24 million, two-year deal that enables him to opt out and become a free agent again at the end of this season.
Wong and Bradley are left-handed hitters who should balance Milwaukee’s lineup. Wong posted an on-base percentage of at least .350 each of the last two years. Although Bradley’s career batting average is just .239, he hit .283 with an .814 OPS last season.
Even so, there’s little doubt both will make their greatest contributions in the field. Wong believes improved defense indirectly can boost the Brewers’ hitting as well.
“When you can hold teams to low numbers during the games, usually it keeps confidence in the clubhouse, keeps the confidence in guys knowing that one swing can give us a lead or tie the game,” Wong said. “We’re never out of it. That’s the beautiful thing about defense.”
Wong represents a defensive upgrade from Keston Hiura, who is moving to first base as the Brewers experiment at the infield corners.
The Brewers believe Hiura’s range will compensate for his relative lack of height and make him a quality first baseman. Orlando Arcia, the Brewers’ starting shortstop since 2017, is working at third base this spring along with Travis Shaw as the Brewers give Luis Urias a chance to compete at shortstop.
Bradley’s addition gives the Brewers a surplus of talent in the outfield.
When Cain opted out last season, the Brewers used Avisail Garcia in center, even though the vast majority of his prior experience had come at right field. Now the Brewers have Cain, Yelich, Bradley and Garcia.
If Cain is slow to recover from a quadriceps injury, the Brewers can replace one Gold Glove winner with another by putting Bradley at center. If the Brewers are at full strength, they can start an all-Gold Glove outfield of Bradley, Cain and Yelich.
“That’s huge,” pitcher Brandon Woodruff said. “As a pitcher, it’s like, `Bring it on.’ Let’s throw to contact and let these guys go do what they’re good at.”