Jerry Hairston Jr., one of the players who sparked the Brewers’ late season surge to the top of the NL Central as well as their NLDS victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks, will not be back next season. He signed a two-year, $6 million dollar contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers as part of Monday’s Winter Meetings.
As big an impact as Hairston made down the stretch, there is a reason this is his first multi-year contract in his entire career. Hairston is a career .258/.326/.371 hitter, and as good as that looks now, we must account for how much of that career was spent in eras of much higher offense. The all-encompassing statistic wRC+ does so, and Hairston ranks at a well-below-average 87 on that scale. Versatility counts for something, yes, but only so much.
Make no mistake, the Brewers could have used Hairston as a utility man to shore up the weak left side of the infield. With Craig Counsell also out of the picture, the Brewers need to find not one but two men who can handle shortstop by the start of the season, and Hairston may have been one of the better options available to fill that role.
Although utility players don’t grow on trees, replacing Hairston can be done. Unfortunately, the organization is bare when it comes to up the middle players — for as good a glove as Eric Farris possesses, there is no reason to believe he can hit well enough to warrant major league playing time yet, and Zelous Wheeler simply isn’t ready yet.
The solution at shortstop is simple if the Brewers decide to pony up for Jimmy Rollins. Then the Brewers can simply troll the market for a Willie Bloomquist (or even, gasp, Yuniesky Betancourt) type and call it a winter at the position. However, things get more complicated in the rather likely situation the Phillies do what it takes to retain Rollins’s services, or the situation in which the Brewers aren’t willing to offer the eight-figures over the three or four years necessary.
The highest profile shortstop remaining beyond Rollins is Rafael Furcal, a current target of the Brewers. However, he wouldn’t be enough by himself — he has failed to play even 100 games in three of the last four seasons. That means the Brewers will have to dive into the secondary market at some point. It seems the best option remaining there is Alex Gonzalez, most recently of the Atlanta Braves. Gonzalez has a bat disturbingly similar to that of Betancourt, owning a .247/.291/.399 career line. However, he is widely regarded as one of the best defensive shortstops in the league, a far cry from the lead-footed Betancourt.
The market is thin beyond Gonzalez and Furcal, and the backup option is likely to be underwhelming. Ronny Cedeno, Jack Wilson and Nick Punto all have the ability to play at least replacement level baseball at shortstop and should come relatively cheap. Orlando Cabrera and Edgar Renteria have names that bore success in the past but little else.
It is unfortunate the Brewers will not have Hairston available as a utility man next season, as his versatility would fit a huge hole on the roster. But chances are Hairston’s best day as a Brewer were already beyond him. As unimpressive as some of the options presented above may be, the Brewers should be able to replace his performance as they fill out the left side of the infield for 2012.