All winter long, it’s appeared likely that the Brewers would head in a new direction at first base for the upcoming season. It’s a familiar feeling for an organization that’s started someone new at the position on Opening Day every season since 2011. The path they appear committed to take, however, is one they’ve tried before with mixed results.
Keston Hiura has played 143 major league games, plus 222 more in the minors, 165 in college for UC Irvine, and 49 in 2015 for the West Coast League’s Wenatchee AppleSox. He’s been a second baseman, served as a designated hitter, and he’s played all three outfield spots. He has not, however, played a single inning of a single game at first base. Barring a sudden change of plans, he’s going to do it quite a bit in 2021.
Moving players to first base is often discussed among Brewers fans (it’s been an annual conversation around Ryan Braun for most of a decade, and Khris Davis before him), but teaching a player to play first base involves more than just getting him a new glove and showing him where to stand. It’s the topic of one of the most memorable lines in Moneyball…
With that said, Hiura is not in uncharted territory. Here are some players the Brewers have moved from other positions to a new home on the right side of the infield:
A veteran infielder and a three-time All-Star, by the end of the 1977 season Money had played 1,206 big league games and had been a shortstop, second baseman, and third baseman, but had never once appeared in a game at first base. The 1978 Brewers, however, had Cecil Cooper, Paul Molitor, Robin Yount, and Sal Bando all vying for playing time in their infield, so Money had to take a spot in the lineup where he could get it.
Money played first base for the first time in his MLB career in the second half of a doubleheader on June 4 of that season, and played there nearly every day for two months following an injury to Cooper. During his time as the Brewers’ primary first baseman, he batted .308 with a .369 on-base and .429 slugging. Clearly, learning a new position didn’t bother him much at the plate. The Brewers’ need at first base also didn’t last long, however: When Cooper was able to play first base again that August, Money returned to a utility role and remained there for most of the rest of his career. Over his final five seasons in Milwaukee he appeared at first base just 47 more times.
Simmons would eventually be a Hall Of Fame catcher, but by 1984, his 34-year-old body had taken quite the beating behind the plate. He had logged over 1,700 games in catching gear over the course of his career, including more than 700 on the artificial turf at St. Louis’ Busch Stadium. In an effort to keep his veteran bat in the lineup and maximize the return on their investment from Simmons’ new multi-year contract, the Brewers moved him out from behind the plate in 1984 and split his playing time between first base and the designated hitter role.
Simmons had some experience at first base, having played there a handful of times with the Cardinals and in his first season as a Brewer. His first season out from behind the plate, however, was a disaster in every sense of the word. FanGraphs estimates that he was four runs below average defensively that season, which by itself would not have been a big deal. His offense also cratered, however, as he batted just .221 with a .269 on-base and .300 slugging. Baseball Reference estimates he was worth -2.6 Wins Above Replacement, the worst single season mark in Brewers franchise history. Simmons’ value rebounded in 1985, although by then he was playing mostly as a designated hitter. After his rough year in 1984, he played four more MLB seasons, one with the Brewers and three with the Braves.
The first overall pick in the 1985 draft, Surhoff was primarily a catcher across his first six MLB seasons but moved around a bit, playing both infield corners and the outfield a handful of times each. By 1993, he was moving out from behind the plate more often to play third base. And in 1995, he was primarily a first baseman.
Surhoff’s 1995 season might have been the best year of his career: He played in 117 games and batted .320 with a .378 on-base and .492 slugging while setting new career highs for home runs (13) and runs scored (72) despite only playing about three-quarters of a season. FanGraphs estimates Surhoff was worth 3.4 Wins Above Replacement that season, the second-best mark of his 19-year MLB career. Following the season, Surhoff left Milwaukee as a free agent and he may very well have left his first baseman’s glove at County Stadium. Surhoff played over 1,200 games over the remainder of his career with the Orioles and Braves, but did so nearly exclusively as an outfielder, starting just 53 games at first over his final 10 years in the majors.
Surhoff wasn’t the only Brewer to shed his catching gear in the mid-’90s: While Surhoff was moving from behind the plate to third base, Aussie backstop Dave Nilsson was moving into the outfield. Nilsson was a catcher from 1992-94, then mostly a right fielder in 1995 and 1996 before primarily playing first base in 1997 and 1998. The goal of getting Nilsson out from behind the plate mainly involved keeping his bat in the lineup. Nilsson was a promising hitter, but also suffered from wear and tear while catching. His offensive performance improved once he started playing elsewhere defensively. From 1992 to 1994, he had never posted an on-base plus slugging above .777, but from 1995 to 1998, he averaged an .833 mark. His defense never drew rave reviews, but his offensive value often made up for those shortcomings.
Nilsson eventually moved back behind the plate in 1999 and had a career year offensively, making his first and only All-Star team. It’s unclear how the rest of his career would have gone if not for a bizarre series of events: As a free agent following the 1999 season, he opted to sign with Japan’s Chunichi Dragons instead of staying in MLB, as staying in the majors would have meant having to give up playing for his native Australia in the Sydney Olympics. Nilsson’s stint in Japan did not go well and then he failed a physical when trying to return to the U.S. with the Red Sox. He never played in the Majors again.
Before the 2009 season, Baseball America rated Gamel as the No. 34 prospect in all of baseball, but he struggled to stick in the Majors as a third baseman across parts of his first four seasons. Finally, in the 2012 season, the Brewers made him their Opening Day first baseman and the path appeared clear for him to live up to his offensive potential at long last.
The experiment, sadly, lasted less than a month. In the 21st game of what would have been his first full big league season, Gamel tore his ACL chasing a pop up at Petco Park in San Diego, ending his season and his career in affiliated baseball. Gamel’s next game appearance for a U.S.-based team didn’t come until three years later ,when he debuted with the independent Somerset Hawks in 2015. He was primarily a DH that year, but did play 27 games at first base before retiring.
Gamel’s injury opened the door for another longtime Brewer to try his hand at a new role: Hart had played some first base in the lower levels of the Minors, but had manned the position for just two of his 796 Major League appearances in his first eight seasons in the big leagues.
Just two weeks after Gamel’s injury, the Brewers moved Hart to first base for the first time on May 15. Five days later, it became his primary role. From the time of the move through the end of the season, Hart batted .275 with a .338 on-base and .500 slugging and hit 22 home runs in 110 games. He likely benefited from having played first base in the Minors, but his tall frame made him a natural candidate for the position physically. Hart was expected to be the Brewers’ regular first baseman again in 2013, but a knee injury and a slower-than-expected recovery cost him the entire season and opened the door for a year many Brewers fans would likely prefer to forget.
One of the most inexplicable personnel moves in Brewers franchise history was their decision to reunite with Betancourt, who had played in 152 games for the 2011 team with a .271 on-base percentage and poor defense. Nonetheless, the Brewers signed him to an MLB contract, and when Hart and fellow infielder Alex Gonzalez were both unavailable, the Brewers turned to Yuni at first base.
No team had ever played Betancourt at first base in his eight MLB seasons, a move veteran baseball writer Joe Posnanski later suggested might have been outlawed in the Bible. The Brewers did it 68 times that season and were rewarded with one of the worst offensive performances in franchise history. Betancourt batted .212 with a .240 on-base percentage and .355 slugging that season, where Baseball Reference estimated his value at -2.3 Wins Above Replacement. After that season, Yuni never played first base…or any other position in the Majors again.
After years of discussing it, a playing time logjam finally convinced the Brewers to move Braun—the franchise’s all-time leader in games played in the outfield—to a new role at first base in 2018. It lasted for two days. Braun was the Brewers’ Opening Day first baseman that season and he had a huge moment in the second game of the year, hitting a ninth-inning three-run home run off Padres closer Brad Hand as the Brewers rallied to an 8-6 victory.
He also left that game in a double-switch in the ninth inning. When he returned to the lineup two days later, it was as a left fielder. Jesus Aguilar later emerged at first base, eliminating the need for Braun to play there. Talk of moving Braun to the outfield started anew when the Brewers added Avisail Garcia to an outfield that already included Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich last spring. Cain’s decision to opt out of the season and the availability of the designated hitter role, however, meant Braun only dusted off his first baseman’s glove once in 2020.