At the start of 2023, first base looked solid for the Brewers, with Rowdy Tellez coming off a 30-home run season; Keston Hiura looking like a decent fill-in; 2020 home-run champ Luke Voit working as a part-time DH and backup to Tellez; and Jon Singleton demolishing Triple A. An injury to Tellez and failures to perform by the others led the Crew to make deals that brought Carlos Santana and Mark Canha into town for the stretch run. However, Santana and Canha are due to be free agents, so should the Crew look for a free-agent replacement, or is the answer already on the roster?
Granted, Tellez is still under team control for 2024, and Canha has a team option that year. Still, there might be a better option for the Brewers that could hold down first base, and also clear space for a very deep position on the team–and he was originally seen as a first baseman.
Believe it or not, when Christian Yelich was drafted in the first round in 2010 by the Marlins, they saw him as a first baseman. Given his offensive resurgence this year after his struggles in 2021 and 2022, he might be the answer for the position in Milwaukee for years to come. Yelich’s 127 OPS+ is 50 percent higher than the figures posted by Tellez (82 OPS+) and Canha (85 OPS+) for the Brewers, and almost twice as high as Santana’s (68 OPS+).
Such a move would actually solve a lot of problems for Milwaukee, not just the offensive black hole at first base. If Yelich moves, the 2024 Brewers outfield could feature Sal Frelick, Joey Wiemer, Garrett Mitchell, Tyrone Taylor, and Blake Perkins as the top five, with Noah Campbell and Jackson Chourio as potential call-ups. That is a lot of depth.
Now, Yelich has zero professional experience at first base, not even playing that position in the minor leagues, much less in the majors. The other option would be to have Yelich take over at DH, where his OPS is more than twice that of Jesse Winker (60 OPS+).
It’s almost the opposite of the situation at first base. Tellez is a question mark after his 2023 season, and while a recovery would be great (and solidify first base and DH), he is slated to be a free agent after 2024. Canha has a team option for 2024, but it’s worth $11.5 million, and that is money that could be used to keep Corbin Burnes and Brandon Woodruff around for a 2024 all-or-nothing run.
In the high minors, the Brewers also have some options. Keston Hiura seems to be re-working himself after an abysmal 2021 and a technically above-average 2022 (114 OPS+). He has team control through 2025. He would come relatively cheap, even at his 2023 salary of $2.2 million. His strikeout rate seems to be down, and if he has figured it out, he could be a bargain option.
Then there are two of the Brewers’ overlooked prospects at first base, Ernesto Martinez and Wes Clarke. Martinez has shown excellent defense at first and flashed the ability to also play center field in 2021. He missed a lot of time in 2021 and 2022 with injuries, and slumped early in 2023, but has just made a mid-season jump to Double A. Clarke has spent the full season at Biloxi, splitting time between first base and catcher, and he has posted very high strikeout totals to go with plenty of walks and 20 homers (tied with Patrick Dorian and Willy Adames for second across the Brewers system as of August 21, per Baseball Reference).
At this point, the Brewers look to be making their way to the playoffs, but first base and designated hitter have been a long-running issue. The stopper for one of those gaps could very well be Yelich–and if his offense holds at this level, it could make the Brewers much better in 2024.
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