This is the fifth part in a nine-part series previewing the Milwaukee Brewers by position heading into Opening Day on March 31.
ON THE ROSTER
Mark Reynolds (.220, 21 HR, 67 RBI, 14 2B in 135 games with the Indians and Yankees)
Lyle Overbay (.240, 15 HR, 59 RBI, 24 2B in 142 games with the Yankees)
2013 IN REVIEW
Once a position of strength, first base was a disaster for the Milwaukee Brewers in 2013. Several metrics ranked the production the Brewers got out of first base as the worst of any team at any position in baseball. Seven players combined for a league-worst .629 OPS and fangraphs.com had the group’s WAR at -4.6, also worst in baseball.
Not only did the team get historically low offensive production out of first base, but the Brewers led the majors in errors at the position with 21. It was a constant struggle to find something that worked.
After Corey Hart and Mat Gamel both suffered season-ending knee injuries before the year began, the Brewers started converted shortstop Alex Gonzalez at first base on Opening Day. Of the seven players that started at first base last season, four had never played the position before. And that’s not counting Martin Maldonado and Blake Lalli, who had played a combined six games at first base prior to 2013.
Gonzalez was eventually designated for assignment after hitting .177 with just one home run and eight RBI in 113 at-bats. Yuniesky Betancourt tried his hand at first base but also had to spend time at third base filling in for the injured Aramis Ramirez. The veteran shortstop hit .280 with six home runs and 21 RBI in April before finishing with a .212 batting average, 13 home runs and 46 RBI.
Acquired in a trade with Cincinnati in early June, Juan Francisco led the team with 62 starts at first base in 2013. He struggled defensively at his new position — making 10 errors in 67 games — but provided the Brewers with a bit of pop. Francisco has always had power, but his inability to make contact has hindered him. In 240 at-bats with the Brewers, Francisco hit .221 with 13 home runs and 32 RBI but struck out 95 times.
Desperate to keep his bat in the lineup on days he wasn’t catching, the Brewers even gave Jonathan Lucroy nine starts at first base. He was hesitant at first to jump into a new position in the middle of the season without properly learning the nuances but eventually gave in knowing the team was out of the race.
Sean Halton came up in June and made 19 starts at first base. The 26-year-old career minor leaguer hit .238 with four home runs and 17 RBI in 101 at-bats, providing just about what could have been expected of him.
One of general manager Doug Melvin’s top priorities was to fix the first-base problem, and he went out and signed a pair of veterans in Reynolds and Overbay.
Hart was the team’s first target, but he got a much better offer from Seattle and signed with the Mariners. The trade market didn’t leave Melvin with many options, so signing Reynolds and Overbay to minor-league deals made sense.
The two had to compete with Francisco in spring training, a battle that wasn’t decided until Sunday. While the Brewers have yet to make a roster move with Francisco, Reynolds and Overbay both have been informed that they will make the team. Melvin and manager Ron Roenicke opted to go with the guys with proven track records in the big leagues.
Reynolds is a perfect example of knowing what you are going to get in a player. He has potential to hit 25 or more home runs — especially in Miller Park — but will strike out at a high rate. Reynolds led the majors in strikeouts for four consecutive seasons with the Diamondbacks from 2008-11, including setting the single-season record with 223 in 2009.
But he’s also hit 30 or more home runs in three of his seven years, only hitting fewer than 20 in his rookie season when he blasted 17 home runs in 111 games. Reynolds was released by the Indians last August despite leading the team with 15 home runs at the time. He signed with the Yankees and finished the year with a .220 batting average, 21 home runs and 67 RBI between the two teams.
Reynolds will provide the Brewers with an insurance policy for Aramis Ramirez at third base while also being able to play second base and the corner outfield positions if needed.
Also with the Yankees last year, the 37-year-old Overbay hit .240 with 14 home runs and 59 RBI. He’s entering his second stint with the Brewers after a very productive first go-around from 2004-05. Overbay once kept the seat warm for Prince Fielder and now is being asked to fill the gap as the Brewers still try to find a permanent replacement for the slugger.
Roenicke plans to split the playing time between Reynolds and Overbay based on who is performing better at the time. Reynolds hits from the right side of the plate, while Overbay is a left-handed hitter. Both are solid defensive options and will improve the Brewers in that category from last season.
KEY TO SUCCESS
Consistency. The Brewers are counting on a pair of veterans to provide just that. A team can’t succeed with seven different players covering a position, so Milwaukee needs Overbay and Reynolds to perform and provide stability.
THEY SAID IT
"We’re going with two guys that their track record is what we’re looking at. We feel we have better defense that way. I’ve been frustrated a little bit with the way we’re playing our defense, as has (general manager) Doug (Melvin). We really feel like we’re going to pitch well this season. Because of that, we feel like we need to play good defense. When they talk about your defense being strong up the middle, we think we should be." — Brewers manager Ron Roenicke
"Any time you have consistent guys playing out there every day, it helps with the comfort level of the coaching staff and infielders. Having a consistent lineup night in and night out — there are always going to be interchangeable parts — but if you can run the same guys out there for the most part, I think it helps the team out a lot." — Mark Reynolds
"I think with me and Lyle, we have a pretty consistent track record. You kind of know what you are going to get." — Reynolds