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.