Whither Bill Hall?

The Brewers are in a quandary. Not a horrible one, like waking up one morning and realizing they only have three starting pitchers. On the contrary, they have too many MLB-quality infielders. As a matter of fact, the same was true at the beginning of the 2006 season: the Crew opened with J.J. Hardy and Rickie Weeks as their keystone combo, and Corey Koskie and Bill Hall platooning at third.

Three of those four players were lost to injury by the end of the season, so Bill Hall finally got a chance to show what he could do playing every day: he played solid defense at shortstop while slugging over .550. Over the course of the year, he played second, short, and third, along with a little bit of center field. Despite his 162 strikeouts, this guy is a very valuable commodity.

For a variety of reasons, he’s a valuable commodity without a position. The Brewers appear to be on the brink of signing Craig Counsell, which would seem to indicate that Hall won’t be serving even as a backup middle infielder. Doug Melvin has also sounded confident that he would re-sign lefty-mashing Jeff Cirillo. Unless the Milwaukee brass assumes that Weeks or Hardy will get hurt again, that doesn’t leave an infield spot—even a backup job—for Hall.

To the Outfield We Go

Indeed, Melvin has said that he sees Hall as a left fielder. Why left? Heck if I know. Hall only played eight games in center last year, so there are no significant statistics to go on, but both in Spring Training and during the regular season, he looked pretty darn good to this amateur observer. But no: Melvin offered a three-year deal to Dave Roberts; at the very least, Hall in center will be a compromise for the Milwaukee general manager.

So, with Corey Hart pencilled in as the Brewers starting right fielder, that only leaves one position for Hall. Yet, there are plenty of moves to be made: not only do the Brewers have too many infielders under (or soon to be under) contract, they’ve got too many outfielders as well. In addition to Hart, Milwaukee has: Geoff Jenkins, in the last year of a three-year deal; Brady Clark, in the second half of a two-year deal; Kevin Mench, in his final year of arbitration; and more youngsters, including lefty Gabe Gross, speedster Tony Gwynn Jr., and Laynce Nix.

Hall is a better hitter than any of those options, though he may not produce any more than would a Gross-Mench or Jenkins-Mench platoon. The latter option would be expensive (Jenkins is under contract for $7M, while Mench got $2.8M last year), but powerful: Jenkins has hit 291/362/530 in his career against RHPs, while Mench has crushed lefties to the tune of an Ameriquest-aided 303/366/564. $10M isn’t terribly high for a outfield platoon capable of hitting 290/360/530 with excellent defense, at least on those days that Jenkins starts. (That $10M also buys you one solid pinch-hit at-bat per night.) Of course, all of that assumes that Jenkins’ disastrous ’06 and Mench’s embarrassing post-trade production were anomalies; if they weren’t, the downside for a such a platoon isn’t far above replacement level.

Even in center, it may not be that Hall is the best option. Neither Brady Clark nor Tony Gwynn Jr. is much of a hitter, but Hall’s defense could be very spotty in his first full season in the outfield. Gwynn would probably hover around replacement level with the bat, but the evidence we have to go on suggests that he could be one of the best defensive center fielders in the game.

What To Do?

At every position that Bill Hall can play, the Brewers either have a quality option, or an option that they appear to be set on using. To solve the logjam, somebody needs to go. The likely candidates have been Mench and/or Jenkins: Mench was rumored (okay, mostly by me) to be on the trading block immediately after his acqusition at last year’s deadline, and that Jenkins is available is one of most open secrets in baseball.

If the Brewers are set on using Hall in left, they would seem to have two choices: trade, non-tender, or release two of Gross, Jenkins, and Mench, or trade Hall. The second option hasn’t been discussed much, but it may be the best route for the team to take. The trade value of Jenkins and Mench couldn’t be lower; the Brewers will be lucky to get anything of value for either one without eating a lot of salary, especially in the case of Jenkins.

On the other hand, Hall is the type of player for whom teams should be tripping over themselves to acquire in a trade. As a left fielder, he’s just as good an option as Carl Crawford, only a little cheaper for the next two years. Anything Julio Lugo can offer for $32M over four years, Hall can provide—with a lot more power. The only thing standing in the way of a major trade may be the way the Brewers have treated and spoken of Hall over the last couple of years.

They’ve handled him like a utility guy who doesn’t deserve a starting role. However, there’s no statistical basis for that: his bat has never been a question, and a variety of advanced defensive metrics agree that he can handle shortstop just fine (or, in the case of PMR, much better than fine). Some teams may shy away from his high strikeout rate, but any club that can look past his reputation and see the player who out-slugged every other National League middle infielder in 2006 should be ready to work him into their plans.

As a Brewers fan, I’d hate to see Hall go. But it would be equally painful to watch such a first-rate talent go underutilized. If a trade brought back young pitching of roughly equal value, the Brewers would be a better team in 2007, and Hall might finally get the recognition he deserves.

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