To some, the math is simple.
Milwaukee Brewers third baseman Travis Shaw is scuffling with a .172 batting average, four home runs and eight RBIs a quarter of the way through the season. Down at Class AAA San Antonio, second baseman Keston Hiura, the organization’s No. 1 prospect, is reducing Pacific Coast League pitching to ashes, hitting .336 with 11 home runs and 25 RBIs in 33 games. His OPS is a Christian Yelich-like 1.137.
Add up the numbers and Milwaukee’s path seems like a no-brainer to many. With the Brewers in the early stages of a pennant race, it’s time to bench the slumping Shaw and bring up the phenom who has hit at every level during his bullet-train trip through the minor leagues.
Those who want to see Hiura in a Brewers uniform in time for today’s series opener against the Chicago Cubs even see a logical series of steps to make it happen. The club could make room for Hiura at second base by moving Mike Moustakas back to third and throwing Shaw into a manager’s-choice mix at first base along with Jesus Aguilar, another player whose hitting has fallen off this season, and Eric Thames.
Alas, if only it were that clear-cut.
It’s not, of course. It never is in baseball, where winning games has to be the No. 1 priority but things like contracts, career paths, roster management and long-term benefits for the organization are important factors to consider as well.
So while the Brewers definitely should be thinking about a Plan B regarding Shaw, it is too early to give up on a player who was the team’s biggest run-producer the previous two seasons.
By and large, patience is a virtue in baseball. Players in slumps tend to revert back to their career norms, especially when they’re in the prime years of their career like Shaw is. Craig Counsell has consistently exhibited patience — though not blindly loyal patience — during his four seasons as Brewers manager and more often than not he’s been rewarded for it.
Just five days ago, the manager offered support for Shaw.
“We need Travis,” Counsell said. “He’s going to continue to be in there. He’s a really important player for us and so we’re going to do everything we can to get him going. ... He needs some breaks. I do think he’s close. I’ve said that for a while and I still believe it. We are getting into the season and I think the challenge for him is to just stay positive, that there’s still a huge amount of season left and this can turn into a normal season really fast. We do have to understand that it can change really fast.”
It did with Ryan Braun and, to a lesser extent, Aguilar in recent weeks. Now Counsell is trying to get Shaw back on track and he’ll likely use a tactic — giving a player time off to work on his mechanics — that has worked in the past.
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Shaw looked lost at the plate in the last week. His bat speed slowed to a crawl, his patience at the plate wore thin and he finally took his hitting woes to the field in the last game. With the Brewers scheduled to face three left-handers in the series in Chicago, it is a convenient time to sit the left-handed hitting Shaw all weekend, something Counsell is likely to do.
One thing everyone can agree on is Hiura is ready to hit in the major leagues. And service time is no longer an issue since the Brewers could call him up now and still retain an extra year of contractual control.
Still, there are reasons to remain patient with Shaw, at least for now.
First, he had 63 home runs and 187 RBIs in his first two seasons in Milwaukee — and that’s not the kind of production you just toss out the window. He needs to get back on track soon, but he’s an experienced, middle-of-the-order hitter whose bat is important to the offense.
Second, as a left-handed hitter with power, Shaw gives Counsell options in filling out a lineup card. Counsell likes to alternate righties and lefties throughout his batting order and he also likes to load up on left-handed hitters against tough right-handed pitchers. Shaw helps him do both.
Third, hitting hasn’t been the biggest problem for the Brewers this season, pitching has. If they were scratching out runs and losing 3-2 games, there might be more urgency to add a bat like Hiura’s.
Finally, the Brewers are doing just fine as it stands. Their 23-16 record is comparable to last year’s mark and they are only one game behind the Cubs in the NL Central Division. If they were six games out, the conversation regarding Shaw and Hiura might be different.
The Brewers signaled their infield intentions for this season when they re-signed Moustakas to a one-year contract and had him flip-flop positions with Shaw. With a set lineup, the 12 everyday players have been a constant on an ever-changing roster.
If the Brewers were to elevate Hiura, who would they release? Utilitymen Ben Gamel and Hernan Perez have been tremendous assets, which leaves Shaw, Aguilar or Thames as possibilities. Since all have power and are unlikely to be cut loose, the only way to fit in Hiura would be to eliminate a relief pitcher and Counsell’s heavy use of his bullpen makes that all but impossible.
With a division title to defend, the Brewers’ patience with Shaw can’t last forever. But if Hiura is an option now, he will still be an option in a month.