(From left to right: Lyle Overbay, Hunter Morris and Mark Reynolds. Image: AP)
In the two years since Prince Fielder left Milwaukee for greener American League pastures, the Brewers have gotten some of the league’s worst production from the first base position. Milwaukee first basemen’s .286 on-base percentage ranks last in the majors over that span. From a traditional power position, the Brewers trail all but three National League teams – the anemic Marlins, Padres, and Rockies – with a svelte .407 slugging percentage. Overall, the team’s 85 wRC+ (Weighted Runs Created Plus) from first basemen has been third worst among big league clubs over the last biennial, again leading only the cellar dwellers Miami and Colorado. While some of Milwaukee’s struggles can be chalked up to injuries to Corey Hart and Mat Gamel, that does not change the fact that the position needs to be addressed. General Manager Doug Melvin has assembled an interesting cast of characters to compete for the job in Maryvale. Juan Francisco, 26, can fill in at both corner infield spots, the homegrown Sean Halton will look to build upon his rookie season, and former Brewer Lyle Overbay has returned as a veteran presence. Yet perhaps the most intriguing candidate is the 30-year-old journeyman from Virginia, Mark Reynolds.
Throughout his career Reynolds has been hit and miss. The misses have always been there. Reynolds set the single-season strikeout record with Arizona in 2008 and then topped himself the following year with a still unsurpassed 223 Ks. If the 200-whiff club ever has a get-together, Reynolds would assuredly be the host – he represents three of the group’s six seasons. When he actually manages to put the bat on the ball, however, Reynolds can be a productive hitter. Just as Cy Young, the all-time leader in losses, said: “I must be pretty good if they let me lose that much,” teams would not continue to play Reynolds if he could not compensate for the strikeouts. In 2009, the year of the strikeout record, Reynolds also managed to belt 44 homers and compiled an .892 OPS. He has three seasons of over 30 home runs, including the 37 he hit as recently as 2011. Although Reynolds has not approached that power in the past two years and was cut by Cleveland in August 2013, he experienced a bit of a resurgence while finishing last season the Yankees. During his time in pinstripes Reynolds’ wRC+ jumped to 105, and his isolated slugging percentage (a measure of raw power) ballooned to a robust .218. He was able to turn these two productive months into a minor league contract with the Brewers for the 2014 season.
While Reynolds’ track record certainly indicates the most upside of any potential Milwaukee first baseman, he does not carry a ton of risk. Even at his nadir, Reynolds has never had a wRC+ below 96, placing him just around the league average. Aside from the portion of 2013 that he spent with Cleveland, Reynolds’ isolated slugging has surpassed .200 every year of his career. Reynolds has had success against NL Central heavyweights St. Louis and Pittsburgh, torching the two playoff contenders for a monstrous .981 and 1.165 OPS respectively. Additionally, Reynolds has been un-fortuitously cursed with a low .282 BABIP over the past few seasons, meaning that he should be due for a rebound. Even his strikeouts appear to be trending the right direction, as last season’s 30.6% strikeout rate was the second lowest of his career. While calling a 30.6% strikeout rate a good sign is somewhat like calling today’s 14-degree temperature a heat wave, the fact remains that it could certainly be worse.
Defense is a serious question mark for Reynolds. A majority of his career has been spent at third base, meaning that he could fill in at the hot corner if Aramis Ramirez gets injured again. While he has gained experience at first base in recent years, he still struggles at the position. In 500 innings at first base in 2013, he cost his team five defensive runs saved. Yet, just like the offensive side of his game, Reynolds’ glove improved when he left Cleveland. During his time in New York, he actually saved the Yankees two defensive runs at first base.
When looking to fill a major positional need, a 30-year-old coming off of his worst career season would not normally appear to be the answer. Mark Reynolds, however, could be an exception. His rebound with the Yankees toward the end of 2013 is reason for encouragement. Reynolds’ extended run of past success indicates that the eye-popping power numbers from his halcyon days with the Diamondbacks were more than a fluky desert mirage. The flurry of strikeouts remains alarming, and his defense needs serious work. Yet, ultimately, Reynolds offers enough power to merit regular playing time at first base for the Brewers.