The Brewers have informed infielder Keston Hiura he will not be on the active roster, general manager Matt Arnold told reporters (including Curt Hogg of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel). Since he’s out of minor league option years, Milwaukee will have to trade him or place him on waivers in the next few days.
Arnold also indicated that outfielder Tyler Naquin — who is in camp on a minor league deal — won’t be on the team either (relayed by Adam McCalvy of MLB.com). Naquin will have a chance to opt out of his contract and retest free agency if he doesn’t plan to accept an assignment to Triple-A Nashville.
The tougher call for the Milwaukee front office was to cut bait with Hiura. The ninth overall pick in the 2017 draft, he entered pro ball as one of the game’s top offensive prospects. Hiura flew through the minor leagues and was in the majors within two seasons. He hit the ground running, connecting on 19 home runs with a .303/.368/.570 line in 84 games as a rookie at age 22. That came with a somewhat concerning 30.7% strikeout rate, but it seemed fair to anticipate Hiura making strides from a contact perspective as he gained more experience against big league arms.
Unfortunately for player and team alike, that’s not how things have played out. While he hit 13 more homers in 59 games during the shortened season, his strikeouts jumped to 34.6%. That led to a meager .212/.297/.410 slash. The swing-and-miss concerns continued to mount the following year, as he punched out just under 40% of the time in 61 big league contests. That led Milwaukee to yo-yo between him the majors and Nashville, where Hiura hit for a ton of power and drew plenty of walks but continued striking out at an alarming clip.
It was a similar story in 2022. The UC-Irvine product got into 80 MLB games and drilled 14 homers. His .226/.316/.449 line was 15 percentage points better than last year’s league average offense, as measured by wRC+. Yet it came with a personal-high 41.7% strikeout percentage, the second-highest rate among the 358 hitters with 200+ plate appearances. Any regression in his .355 batting average on balls in play could’ve left him around the Mendoza line with a sub-.300 OBP unless he took a step forward with his bat-to-ball skills. He’d been off to a rough start this spring, striking out in 15 of 32 at-bats while hitting .156/.229/.219.
Unlike in prior years, the Brew Crew didn’t have the luxury of sending Hiura to Nashville to try to figure things out. Without any remaining options, they had to determine whether it was worth carrying him in a bench role. As MLBTR’s Steve Adams explored a couple weeks ago, the decision was complicated by the presence of another right-handed first baseman, Luke Voit, who’s in camp on a minor league deal. Milwaukee parting ways with Hiura would seem to bode well for Voit’s chances of cracking the roster, though the club hasn’t yet indicated whether he’ll make the team.
The Brewers will take the next few days to evaluate their options with Hiura. It seems likely another team will have some interest in a change of scenery trade. He’s under arbitration control through the 2025 campaign and playing this year on an affordable $2.2MM salary. A win-now team like Milwaukee might not have room on the roster but a club with a less immediate contention window like the Nationals or Rockies could take a look. The Phillies are an immediate contender but just lost Rhys Hoskins to a likely season-ending ACL tear and could look for a righty bat to supplement the first base mix.
If Milwaukee were to place Hiura on waivers, any other team could grab him while assuming the salary. Should he go unclaimed, he’d almost certainly stick with the organization in Nashville. Hiura has between three and five years of service time, which gives him the right to refuse an outright assignment but would require relinquishing his salary to do so.
As for Naquin, he seems likely to explore his options on the market. The left-handed hitter is a career .274/.326/.468 hitter against righty pitching. He’s not a great defender and is best served in a platoon capacity but he could find immediate interest elsewhere. Naquin hit .194/.278/.258 in 12 games this spring.
With Tyrone Taylor set to open the season on the injured list, Milwaukee has a decision to make in right field. Christian Yelich will be in left and Garrett Mitchell seems a virtual lock for center. Right field time could fall to Brian Anderson or utility player Owen Miller but Milwaukee also has a pair of highly-regarded prospects in Sal Frelick and Joey Wiemer. Neither has yet played in the majors but both hit well in Triple-A last year. Arnold said that either of Frelick or Wiemer breaking camp is “definitely in play” (via Hogg).