With my one exam of Finals Week already over (pretty awesome right?!), I’ve little else to do but watch March Madness hoops in between performing the various knee rehabilitation exercises I’ve been assigned in the wake of my ACL injury (not so awesome). Of course, I’ve also plenty of time to fret about the fate of my Cincinnati Reds. As an irrational fan, I was already worried about their NL Central chances even before Aroldis Chapman took a Salvador Perez line drive to the face yesterday (thankfully, it sounds like the Cuban Missile will be okay); in addition to losing key contributors like Shin-Soo Choo, Ryan Hanigan, and Bronson Arroyo over the offseason without really replacing them (as exciting as Billy Hamilton is, I’m still on the fence regarding his value), their divisional competition seemed to be stronger than ever. Considering how the Cardinals have somehow got even deeper over the winter, Chicago having nowhere to go but up, and how the Pirates could soon add impact rookies Jameson Taillon and Gregory Polanco to their 94-win team of 2013, I was beginning to take solace in the mediocre Brewers at least providing Cincinnati some respite during the upcoming season. Then I realized they might just have the best outfield in the entire National League this year.
Carlos Gomez will be looking to continue where he left off in 2013, a breakout year in which the former Mets prospect was worth 7.6 WAR, hit .284/.338/.506 with 24 home runs and 40 stolen bases, and played historically good defense in center field. Ryan Braun too, returning from an injury-marred season which infamously ended with a 65-game PED suspension, still figures to be an elite offensive threat even if his numbers do slightly regress from their possibly unnatural 2008-12 peak. The player that will perhaps most contribute towards the Brewers improving on their disappointing 67-95 record from a year ago however, and either affirm or disprove my ranking of Milwaukee’s outfield as the Senior Circuit’s best, is neither Braun nor Gomez though; new left fielder Khris Davis will be the X-factor for the Brew Crew in 2014.
Selected by the Brewers in the seventh round of the 2009 amateur draft, Davis last year took the NL Central by storm with a .406 wOBA after being called up to the Majors in July. Taking over full-time left field duties when Braun was suspended, Khris mashed during the second-half, posting a .279 batting average, a .949 OPS, and by virtue of his smoking 11 home runs in only 153 plate appearances, a .316 ISO mark that ranked second in baseball amongst those with at least 100 plate appearances – behind only his near-namesake Chris Davis. Not a bad first cup of coffee for the 26-year-old, but was it legit?
Davis hit line drives 20.4% of the time with a .293 BABIP last year with the Brewers, indicating his average wasn’t especially fluky. His 22.2% strikeout rate, and 7.2% walk rate weren’t great, but were also far off his statistics in the Minors – leaving additional room for improvement in his .353 OBP number. And though Davis’ 2013 HR/FB rate (28.9%) was unsustainably high, the power of “Khrush” is real; he hit 22 home runs in the offensively-challenging Midwest League in his first full professional season with Single-A Wisconsin in 2010, 17 more at High-A and Double-A in 2011, and a further 15 in just 82 games between Double-A and Triple-A Nashville during 2012. Sure, he’s not the 35+ HR sort of player last year’s numbers indicated, but he could easily reach 20-25 given full playing time – something he’ll receive in 2014.
Evidently the Brewers believe in the Cal State Fullerton product; though they’ve been coy about naming him the outright starter, the trade of incumbent right fielder Norichika Aoki to the Kansas City Royals (in exchange for lefty swingman Will Smith), and subsequent move of Braun to the open slot in right, appears to have opened up left field for Davis – and Davis alone; Logan Schafer and Caleb Gindl will most likely only be reserve options for the club.
So, as written by Bryan Curley on Baseball Professor, “Essentially, we have a player with average contact skills, above average (and possibly very good) plate discipline, and a good amount of power who just so happens to be playing in a hitter’s park (Miller Park has a 108 park factor for RH HR) with a full-time job.” That’s a scary combination – and given Davis’ relative youth, one that could see him stick with his star mates Braun and Gomez as part of a formidable outfield trio for the foreseeable future. Throw into the lineup Jean Segura, Aramis Ramirez, and Jonathan Lucroy, and I believe I’m more than justified in fearing Milwaukee’s offensive potential for 2014.
Not just for my Reds, but the rest of the NL Central, Khrush and the rest of the gang in Milwaukee aren’t going to be an easy out.