Luis Urias was a top prospect coming up in the Padres’ system at a time when San Diego had one of the best farm systems in baseball. The Padres avoided overtures to deal Urias for more established talent year after year. After intermittent opportunities in 2018 and 2019, Urias was shipped to Milwaukee in one of the more interesting challenge trades in recent memory: the Padres sent Urias and southpaw Eric Lauer to the Brewers for outfielder Trent Grisham and righty Zach Davies.
At the time – late November of 2019 – Grisham was at a low point, fresh off ending the Brewers season with an unfortunate bounce on a Juan Soto single that knocked Milwaukee out of the wild card game. Grisham had played admirably in a 51-game stint mostly standing in for the injured Christian Yelich – not at all an easy task, given his legendary status at the time. But the way the season ended definitely left a poor impression about Grisham’s future. Of course, Grisham would go on to win a Gold Glove Award as a centerfielder the next season, reminding us that a single moment in time cannot define a player’s career. The now-25-year-old has grown his well-rounded game enough to place him among the most promising centerfielders in the sport.
A similar lesson might be taken from the first few seasons of Urias’ career. His first season with the Brewers looked a lot like his first few years in San Diego. Following the 2020 season, Urias’ career triple-slash line was a punchless .226/.315/.320, a performance 24 percent below-average. The lack of pop wasn’t shocking, as power was never his calling card. His offensive potential was built on a keen eye at the plate and bat-to-ball skills that routinely produced batting averages of .290+ while in the minor leagues.
Urias, who’s still just 24, turned it around in the 2021 campaign, posting a 111 wRC+ while slashing .249/.345/.445 with 23 home runs. Oddly, it was his power that drove the improvement as his isolated power jumped to .196, an above-average mark that helped sustain a move to the more power-expectant position of third base. If last season’s output represents a new baseline for Urias, our typical understanding of the aging curve suggests that Urias ought to have at least another 5-6 seasons of being a very good baseball player.
If the high-average, high-on-base-percentage player that Urias had been throughout his minors career re-animates for the Brewers in 2022, the Brewers might really have a star player on their hands. They might need one, too, because, somewhat ironically, where once Grisham stood in for an injured Yelich, an improved Urias helped pick up the slack for a lessened Yelich in 2021. With Yelich no longer performing at the superhuman levels of his MVP seasons, and Lorenzo Cain beginning to show his age, the Brewers had to rely on a more egalitarian approach at the plate in 2021. Urias was a big reason why the Brewers were able to weather Yelich’s decline from a 170 wRC+ superhero in 2018-19 to an all-too-mortal 105 wRC+ in 2020-21. Willy Adames carried much of the load after his arrival from Tampa, but even his transformation into a middle-of-the-order bat (135 wRC+) didn’t come close to matching the firepower of Yelich in his heyday.
Manager Craig Counsell mixes-and-matches to maximize the production of an imperfect offensive roster, and he’s done so dating back to Yelich’s MVP years. The Brewers scored 754 runs in 2018 when Yelich won the MVP, 12th-most in the Majors, then 769 runs in 2019 when Yelich finished second, 15th-most in MLB. They scored just 247 runs in the truncated 2020 season when Yelich’s production first dipped, a mark that fell to 26th overall and resulted in a 29-31 season that barely qualified them for an expanded playoffs. Last season, they made the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season while scoring 738 runs, which landed them back at 12th overall in the Majors. In other words, the Brewers offense was about as good as it’s ever been with Yelich on the roster, despite Yelich himself producing barely better than average.
The Brewers under Counsell and GM David Stearns have always been a pitching-first organization, and that’s likely to continue in 2022 behind a rotation that’s among the most well-rounded in all of baseball. Brandon Woodruff, Corbin Burnes, and Freddy Peralta boast mind-bending pure stuff, but they’re buttressed by a pair of steady-eddies in Adrian Houser and Lauer, Urias’ traveling mate from San Diego. When healthy, Josh Hader, Devin Williams, and Brent Suter make up the core of a formidable bullpen, not to mention Aaron Ashby, the hard-throwing, bespectacled southpaw who appears to be the next big arm to establish himself on Counsell’s staff.
Pitching dominance, however, now more than ever, is prone to whims of injury and year-to-year variance. Less length from starters means spreading the innings load to more pitchers than in days’ past, and that means spreading the potential for variance around as well. There are plusses and minuses to meting out that responsibility to so many arms. The Brewers pitching staff has ranked among the game’s best by fWAR the past two seasons, but nothing is guaranteed on the hill. The offense will need to carry their own water.
There are paths to Milwaukee scoring enough runs to cover even an unforeseen letdown from the pitching staff, but as of right now, they’re gambles. Obviously, a bounceback season from Yelich would do wonders. A rejuvenated Cain in his age-36 season would be amazing, however unlikely. Even another season from Adames at his Milwaukee potency would register as a pleasant surprise.
The list goes on. They need Keston Hiura to find the form that made him a top prospect bat. They need Hunter Renfroe and Tyrone Taylor to make up the production left behind by the departed Avisail Garcia. They need Rowdy Tellez to maintain his role as a power force, though year-to-year consistency has eluded the southpaw slugger in the past.
Urias, now stationed at the hot corner, might be the safest best of them all. Heading into last season, the sheen had worn off of Urias, and the prospect of his realizing the potential that was once heaped upon his 5’9″ frame was as unlikely as any of Milwaukee’s annual offensive gambits, and yet here we are. The Brewers not only need Urias to be a star, but it’s not wholly unfair to expect it.
The Brewers sure do have a lot of ‘what ifs?’ If they are to repeat as division winners? Their pitching is super good, but they definitely need consistency from someone in the lineup?
The time has come to add a real bat,
I wonder if they match up in a Matt olson trade. He’d fill brewers need for first base. I
Actually they should coast to a division title regardless of how those “what ifs” turn out – the Cubs and the Pirates will be among the worst teams in baseball, the Reds might join them if they have a fire sale on pitching, and the Cards are aging and have even more questions than the Brewers – but the Brewers will need to add some offense if they have any hope of making it to a World Series.
The Cardinals won’t let them coast.
Cardinals, despite, an ungodly win streak still finished a massive 5 games behind the Brewers in 2020. Milwaukee pitching is too much and they will easily cruise to another division title w Burnes, Woodruff and Peralta.
The Cardinals had most of their SP hurt last season…Flaherty was hurt for the better part of the season…him being healthy easily makes up those five games…Hudson will be back…they signed Matz…keep thinking the Brewers will cruise lol
Absolutely agree.. and I’m a brewers fan. The crew is one pitching injury away from mediocrity especially if they don’t add any offense.
The cardinals are aging? Arenado is what 31…their outfielders O’Neill, Bader and Carlson are in their mid to early 20’s…Nolan Gorman will probably make his debut in the majors this season…even with the Cardinals aging players they have replacements waiting in the minors for them…Goldy can be replaced by Gorman and plus they have Jordan Walker who should be ready soon…Molina they have Herrera waiting to replace him…Wainwright they have Libetore waiting to replace him…You might see Libetore replace any injured pitcher this year…I think maybe you, smooveb, just think about Molina and Wainwright and assume the Cardinals “are aging” but that is far from the truth
Bud Selig Fan
The Cardinals, Brewers and Braves are the best teams in the NL, and post-lockout moves won’t change that fact. Dodgers, Mets and Giants are in the next tier. Miami is the sleeper team.
Your assessment seems to be hindered.
I can see Nelly Cruz fitting in nicely as the DH. Also a deal for Luke Voit to platoon at 1st with Rowdy would be interesting.
Bud Selig Fan
Like the potential Luke Voit acquisition. Add Jeff McNeil for Adrian Houser, sign Chad Kuhl as a 6th starter, add Jake Diekman to the pen and this team wins 100 games and contends for the WS.
McNeil doesn’t do much for the Brewers. Is a LH hitter like Kolten Wong and Wong plays everyday. He’s not bumping Yelich out of LF and i think they want to see if Urias’ power is legit. The only real hole is 1B. A Tellez/Hiura platoon while not necessarily optimum also doesn’t preclude the Brewers from going after a 1B in free agency or trade
Bud Selig Fan
Adding Voit & McNeil makes this team as deep as there is in baseball. That extreme offensive depth makes them as balanced as any team in the game as well. If they get a modest rebound from Yelich, look out.
lumber and lighting
I still think his future is in the middle infield.Scrappy Mgr wants defense so he plays third.
That was an unfortunate error.
That was a bonehead play. I remember watching it.
The Orioles got the right Urias brother
The Orioles never do anything correctly
That’s why they will believe they did things right.
Anyone else think the current work stoppage plays into the Stearns tactic of waiting out the FA market and then picking up an impact bat with a one year/high AAV contract?
Like maybe Conforto?
Great article. That truly was a gutsy trade. One a GM could be viewed as letting a future star get away.
Be nice if both sides benefit a lot from it.
Also, TC got egalitarian in the article and used it fairly well. Using that term in an article on sports is a rarity. Nice work TC Zencka!
Could see the Brewers inking Conforto to a 1 year deal and surrendering a draft pick. Otherwise, would expect depth moves.
I saw Keston Huira win the Arizona Fall League MVP over Vlad Jr and Pete Alonso, I thought he was awesome, obviously I was wrong
He should and could be, but you can’t out-hit a bad K/W.
Hiura was about 2.7/1 in the minors, while Vlad had more walks than Ks. That tells the story an amazing amount of time.
I don’t think the Brewers should really do any trades. Go with an outfield of Yellich in left , Taylor in center , and then Renfroe/ Cain in right/DH along with Huira/ Tellez at first/ DH. Wong at second, ss is Adames, Urias at third , and Narvaez as catcher. Then your bench will be Felliciano, Brosseau and Dahl. Keep all your pitching that you have. Go with a starting pitching of Burnes, Woodruff, Peralta, Houser, Lauer and Ashby. Use Small and File in bullpen this year. See if we can maybe extend the pitchers. Use the money that will be coming off the books next year such as Cain, Wong, and Narvaez. Turang can then take over at second and Mitchell to center with Renfroe/ Taylor in right/ DH. Felliciano then taking over at cat her. Yes I know this is the perfect scenario.
Bud Selig Fan
Cain, if healthy, plays CF not RF. Taylor can spell Cain, Yelich when he DH’s and Renfroe when he DH’s.
At Cains age I think he is better suited for the fourth outfield spot may even drop to 5th outfielder if Dahl keeps returning to his normal self like he did in AAA.
They should use Urias as one of the main pieces for one of Oakland’s Matts. He’s got 4 seasons of team control left and won’t be eligible for arbitration until next winter, so he helps them cut costs. He can slide right into replace Chapman, or they can put him at 2B/SS and put Seth Brown at 1B if they trade Olson. Brewers can throw another 2 or 3 prospects to make a good package. Mitchell and/or Ashby should do it. I wonder if Oakland would take both of them without Urias for a Matt.
Urias was a super 2.
Think the Brewers should hang on to these guys. There window stays open a lot longer with these guys in our organization. I like Olson but he doesn’t move the needle for them like Sabathia or Greinke trade plus these prospects are better then what we sent Cleveland.
Disagree, I think either Matt would move the needle big time. Those moves were for pitchers, which the Brewers finally DON’T need. Their offense is crappy enough that either Oakland dude could be a big run producer at Miller Park or whatever they renamed it.
We don’t know if Mitchell will be a legit big-league player and the Matts definitely are. Urias I think overachieved last year. I think LaPorta maybe was a higher-rated prospect than Mitchell was. LaPorta certainly had more buzz around him.
Good points. All in all. As far as the Greinke deal. I didn’t like what gave up to get him and felt we didn’t get enough back when we traded him. I can see what your saying as far as the Matt’s but if Milwaukee realizes they can’t resign them at all then a year and half we are trading them at the trade deadline so we lose those players plus our pitchers will start leaving in free agency. I get it I believe there will be two directions the front office can go in. Either way I see it as a hard decision to make.
“They might need one, too, because, somewhat ironically, where once Grisham…”
Wtf kind of sentence is this?
Mmm good point. A lot of commas in there, most of them unnecessary. Just a really unwieldy sentence that needed either to be split up or just not be so wordy.
Holy unnecessary commas, Batman!
Brewers could sign Rizzo, solves first/dh issue. He would take as lefty at American family field. Costs no pitching.
I miss prince fielder. Crew hasn’t had a great everyday 1B since. This seasonal revolving door is getting really old. Especially with a NO DH looming again this off season. It hurts to see them in so much denial and relying so much on pitching and “Craig’s creative lineups” to get them through.