Is Keston Hiura’s Roster In Jeopardy With Brewers?

Not long ago, the future looked bright Keston Hiura and the Brewers. The former No. 9 draft pick (2017) was a universally recognized top-25 prospect in the sport because of a high-probability hit tool that overshadowed concerns about his glove. He came through the minors, torching opponents in Rookie ball, Class-A, High-A, Double-A and Triple-A before reaching the Majors in 2019 and breaking out with a .303/.368/.570 batting line and 19 home runs in just 348 plate appearances at age 22.

Hiura’s long-term position has been something of an open question due to an elbow injury that required surgery in college and left questions about his arm strength even at second base. However, his bat was so advanced and his professional record so strong that it didn’t seem to matter much. That rookie production and his minor league history suggested a player whose offensive profile would fit any position on the diamond.

Granted, Hiura’s 30.7% strikeout rate as a rookie was a red flag, but strikeouts weren’t much of an issue until he reached Triple-A and the big leagues. There was reason to believe that with more experience, he could return to the swing-and-miss in his game. Additionally, given his 91.4 mph average exit velocity and 48.1% hard-hit rate, he boasted that season, the impact when He made contact was essential. Even with a .402 BABIP that shows some regression in the batting average department, Hiura looked the part of a slugger who could produce an average or better batting average with enough power.

This is now like a distant memory. In the three seasons since then, Hiura has not improved his hitting, but rather seen the problem worsen. He struck out at a 34.6% clip in his sophomore season while posting a disappointing .212/.297/.410 line. Optimists could perhaps chalk it up to a relatively small sample size (59 games) and the strange Covid-shortened 2020 season, but Giura hit just .168/.256/.301 with an even worse 39.1% slugging percentage. strikeout in 2021. The bottom lines were better in 2022 — .226/.316/.449, 14 homers in 266 plate appearances — but Hiura hit a career-worst 41.7% last year.

Along the way, defensive metrics have regularly sorted his fielding abilities. Defensive runs saved (-16), final zone rating (-14.1) and strikeouts above average (-12) all offer resounding negative reviews of his 1204 career innings at second base. Those metrics rate him as an average defender in 603 innings at first base. He also logged 40 innings in left field, but those days are likely behind him given the number of intriguing outfield prospects on the horizon in Milwaukee. Garrett Mitchell, Sal Frelick and Joey Wimmer everyone could participate Christian Yelich and the injured at this time Tyrone Taylor in the 2023 outfield (as well as third baseman/outfielder Brian Anderson). Uber-perspective Jackson Hurio is also fast approaching the Majors.

With Hiura’s struggles at second base both Bryce Turang and Luis Urias presenting options at the position, he is unlikely to spend much more time there. A move to third base seems out of the question given concerns about his arm strength. Both Urias and Anderson are more experienced options at the hot corner anyway. At first base, Hiura’s right-handed bat would seem like a natural pairing with the left-handed Rudy Tellez … except for the fact that Hiura has thrown back-to-back splits in his big league career. He’s hit .253/.332/.508 against righties but just .201/.283/.323 against lefties. Even that solid production against righties comes with a 34.5% punchout rate and a .342 BABIP, suggesting the regression could be in order.

As it stands, Hiura looks like a right-handed bench bat who will work primarily at first base and designated hitter, perhaps with very occasional appearances at second base and left field. It’s a limited role to begin with, and it’s a role further complicated by a woeful showing this spring. Obviously, spring results don’t carry much weight, but hitting .174/.269/.217 with nine hits in 26 plate appearances (34.6%) after a rough three years in the big leagues doesn’t inspire much confidence in a rebound.

Additionally, the Brewers have multiple right-handed first base options in camp that simply outpace Hiura’s production this spring. Again, we’re dealing with the smallest samples, so everything should be taken with a pinch of salt, but each of Mike Brosseau, Owen Miller and non-roster invitee Luke Voight they have posted better numbers so far.

Brosseau hit .255/.344/.418 last season — comparable overall production to Hiura’s. He has a monster spring showing and can play first base, second base, third base and the corners out. Unlike Hiura, he’s a right-handed bat who has more traditional platoon splits: .276/.338/.485 vs. lefties (127 wRC+), .207/.295/.356 vs. righties (84 wRC+).

Miller, acquired from Cleveland over the winter, got off to a solid start with the Guardians in 2022 before wilting and finishing the year hitting .243/.301/.351. Hiura’s 115 wRC+ from last season easily beats Miller’s 85%, but Miller’s 19.8% is less than half of Hiura’s 41.7%. Miller is more adept at second base and is even working in center this spring.

Voit surpassed Hiura’s production at the major league level last year, but his 31.5% punchout rate — while still unsightly — was still 10 percentage points lower. Voit has the longest hitting record in MLB, having led the Majors with a 22-homer appearance in 2020. Injuries have dampened his production since 2021.

Perhaps the biggest thing that works in Hiura’s favor is that he’s out of sub-par options. The Brewers can’t ship him without first exposing him to waivers. It’s possible the $2.2 million salary he agreed to when he avoided arbitration over the winter would allow him to clear waivers unclaimed, but Milwaukee may not want to risk giving up a former top- 10 and top-25 just to see him break. out elsewhere. Brosseau and Miller both have minor league options. Voight is not on the 40-man roster after signing a minor league deal, though he will reportedly have an opportunity to opt out of tomorrow’s deal if he is not added to the roster.

To Hiura’s credit, he is a career .299/.400/.600 hitter in 508 Triple-A plate appearances. Even last year, while he was hitting at a nearly 42% clip, he averaged 91.7 mph off the bat and put 45.2% of the balls he hit in play at 95 mph or better. His contact quality is elite. His strikeout rate is among the worst in MLB. Hiura’s strikeout rate was the worst of the 317 hitters who had at least 250 plate appearances. His 62.3% overall contact rate and 71.2% contact rate on pitches inside the strike zone both ranked third-worst on the same team.

It all leaves the Brewers with a dilemma. They have at least three right-handed alternatives in camp capable of filling the first base/designated hit spot. Brosseau has more defensive versatility, comparable recent production and is a more natural complement to lefties like Tellez and DH prospect Jesse Winker. Voit has similar power, though he’s limited to first base/DH and is two years removed from being a legitimate middle-of-the-order threat. Miller doesn’t have the same offensive upside, but he might have the most defensive versatility and certainly has the best bat-to-ball skills on this team.

Milwaukee has several alternatives to Hiura, whose trade value is minimal at this point in his career. There is an understandable risk of parting ways with him and allowing the possibility of another club claiming him on waivers. But, at the same time, hanging on to him leaves the Brewers with limited roster flexibility while just hoping to finally improve his approach at the plate after years of not being able to do so. And since he can’t be optioned to Triple-A, he’ll likely be left with sparse playing opportunities as he’s currently projected as a bench player should he crack the Opening Day roster.

It’s a tough spot for Brewers to find themselves in, and there’s probably no solution that will make them feel really comfortable. However, Opening Day is just two weeks away, so one way or another this will come down to a tough choice for the team to make.

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