Yesterday Brewers GM David Stearns acquired shortstop Jonathan Villar in exchange for minor league pitcher Cy Sneed. It was his second middle infield acquisition in as many days. On the surface this seems like a strange trade for the Brewers to make. "Why do we need another light-hitting middle infielder," is a question I was asked many times.
Honestly at first I didn't really have a great answer. It seemed to make Jean Segura that much more expendable. But with Orlando Arcia just a year away and Luis Sardinas already likely as ready as he'll ever be, Segura was pretty expendable to begin with. However the more I looked at Villar, the more it seems to me this is exactly the type of trade the a rebuilding club should be making.
At 24 years old Jonathan Villar is still relatively young. He was formerly a highly rated prospect. He got good marks for his defense with 60 grades on both his arm and his fielding ability. He also has 70 grade speed. That translates to 40+ stolen base potential. His bat always lagged behind though. And in limited major league exposure he has failed to make the most of his tools.
In a lot of reports I read about him he was docked for being immature off the field and for making youthful errors. He would rush things and just make mental errors. So his defense wasn't as good as it could be. He would also get overzealous at the plate and widen the strike zone by swinging aggressively at balls. This didn't let him fully utilize his blazing speed. You can't steal first as they say.
That's not a glowing report but I think it leaves room for significant improvements. I'm reminded of the things I heard about Mark Reynolds before he came to the Brewers. I heard nothing but awful things about his defense. But then he took over at first base and was actually really good. As it turns out a lot of his defensive issues were simply errors. You can't really improve your range or your instincts much. But you can eliminate errors if you work hard enough.
So I go back to his age. He's still just 24--he'll be 25 by opening day. He still has that range and that arm. And he still has that speed. If he can work on the rest I want to believe he can still make the most of his defensive ability. If he can then I see no reason he can't be above average defensively at second base or maybe even third base--which is the Brewers greatest area of need.
The Brewers could really stand to benefit from good defense. It can only help their young rotation and especially the ground ball pitchers. I still think Matt Garza can regain his form and having a good defense behind him will help. I'd love to see him get moved at the trade deadline and I think improving that defense is going to be a big part of making that happen.
On the other side of the plate I'm less bullish on Jonathan Villar's offense. I do think he could get to a league average bat which is decent. He does seem to draw a fair amount of walks which is nice. In limited time this year he was able to produce a line worth 107 wRC+. If he can do that over a full season, pair it with 30-40 stolen bases, and even just average defense I think he'd be worth around 2 wins.
But that's probably his ceiling and he still has to go a long way towards proving he can get there. I don't want to get anyone's hopes up. The hard truth is that it's far more likely he's a utility player only. Fixing mental errors AND fixing his plate approach is a lot to hope for. I think as a rebuilding club the Brewers might put up with his poor offensive numbers if he can prove an effective defender though. And that's probably the most realistic hope.
Still to give up Cy Sneed for that chance I think is worth it. Sneed was a third round pick in the 2014 draft. He's found success as a starter in the low minors and made steady progression. He spent half the season at low-A with 77.1 IP, 21.1 K%, 5.4 BB%, 1.13 WHIP, 2.68 ERA, 2.74 FIP. Then he got a mid-season promotion to high-A where he threw 62.0 innings with a 22.1 K%, 4.4 BB%, 1.13 WHIP, 2.47 ERA, and 2.44 FIP. However the stats might be misleading here.
Astros clear roster spot by trading Villar to Brewers for Cy Sneed. Sneed is a 3-pitch righthander who competes with fringe-avg stuff.— JJ Cooper (@jjcoop36) November 19, 2015
Then there is this quote from Baseball America's write up of the trade:
As a durable innings-eater with three fringe-average to average offerings, he has the makings of a fifth starter if he reaches his ceiling, although he's more likely to be a "sixth starter" who sits at Triple-A and gets called on when injuries arise.
The ceiling isn't very high with Sneed and he was probably really low on the overall minor league SP depth chart. But that probably says more about the improvement of the farm than Sneed himself. And I think he's exactly the type of guy that could thrive in the bullpen. But even then the Brewers have a ton of relief prospects. So it feels like a fair trade off.
I want to believe that Villar can still reach his ceiling as an above average defender with league average offense and 40+ stolen bases. I'm just not sure that everything clicking is a realistic thing to hope for. I do think he can get past his mental errors and become a quality defender if nothing else. The Brewers seem to have had success in that area. That defensive improvement could make this trade worth it. And I don't think Stearns would have made the trade if he didn't believe it was worth trying.