Spring (training) has sprung, as pitchers and catchers held their first official workout on Sunday. The rest of the team shows up on Wednesday, and the first spring training game is just nine days away. Before the Brewers get started with what promises to be a very interesting camp, we're spending the week taking a look at the major position battles for starting gigs in 2016. Today we'll talk about the four main contenders for the third base job, their chances to break camp with Milwaukee, and the odds that they will wind up as the Brewers' primary starting third baseman in 2016.
The Incumbent: Hernan Perez
Hernan Perez ended the 2015 season as the closest thing Milwaukee had to an every day third baseman following the departure of Aramis Ramirez, who was traded in July to allow him to finish him career where it began in Pittsburgh. He started 20 of Milwaukee' final 30 games at the hot corner in September and October, splinting time with Elian Hererra, who was not tendered a contract by the Brewers this winter and has since caught on once again with the Dodgers, the team that drafted him. The Brewers initially acquired Perez in late May -- DFA'ing Herrera in the process -- after the Tigers justifiably gave up on the 24-year-old infielder after he slashed .061/088/.061 in 34 plate appearances with Detroit. He chose free agency after being outrighted to Triple-A early this offseason, but ended up signing a minor league deal with Milwaukee anyway a week and a half later.
Chances he makes the Opening Day roster: Perez was much better with Milwaukee than he was in Detroit, because improving on a .149 OPS is not super hard. He hit .270 and dropped his strikeout rate from 32.4% to a more respectable 20.2%, but he continued to avoid walks at a historic rate, earning a free pass just five times in 272 plate appearances. According to Baseball Reference, only 11 players have walked fewer than five times with at least 270 plate appearances since 1901. In 2012, Perez made the jump from High-A ball to make his major league debut with the Tigers. He recorded a wRC+ of 183, scoring a run and hitting .500 in two plate appearances. That will be the highlight of his career. 5%
Chances he wins the starting job: Look, nothing's impossible. A reality television personality is a front-running presidential candidate, I have been on a date with someone who actually wanted to hang out with me again the next day, Ned Yost is a two-time pennant winner and a World Series champion, and I even met a dog I didn't like once. So literally anything can happen. But it would take a strong mix of injuries to the players ahead of him on the depth chart and a very successful spring training run for him to even be in consideration. I've no problem with him unleashing the latter, but I'm not rooting for the former. Perez is exactly the kind of player one would expect a team that was "tanking" to hand 500 PA to; that he's not a legitimate candidate to make the roster shows how far along the Brewers' rebuild already is. 1%
The Wildcard: Will Middlebrooks
In 2012 Will Middlebrooks, a consensus Top 100 prospect, made his major league debut and to the delight of the Fenway faithful, tore up the American League to the tune of a .288/.325/.509 batting line in 286 plate appearances. There were signs that things weren't quite right, however, before a fractured wrist ended his rookie season in late August -- in his final 35 PA, Middlebrooks hit just .194. He has been dreadful ever since, owning a .213/.258/.363 line in three years since, including one season with San Diego last year.
Chances he makes the Opening Day roster: Middlebrooks was perhaps David Stearns' first notable dip into the free agent pool as Milwaukee's General Manger, depending on one's definition of the word notable, signing a minor league deal on December 15. He is out of options, but that doesn't really matter, because he's already off the 40-man roster and would need to be added in order to find himself in Milwaukee on April 4. Middlebrooks does have an invite to major league camp but so do a number of other infielders, including super utility player Jake Elmore and the aforementioned Perez. He'll need a big spring to prove he deserves yet another chance after three years of failure. 45%
Chances he wins the starting job: There's a number of things that would need to happen in order for Middlebrooks to find himself starting a significant amount of games for the Brewers in 2016, not the least of which is being added to the active roster in the first place. Middlebrooks is only 27, but there's more value in/likelihood of a bounce-back year from his competition. 9%
The Fallen Prospect: Garin Cecchini
By the time Boston fans had come to grips with the fact that Middlebrooks would fail to pan out as the Red Sox third baseman of the future, they already had a brand new top 100 prospect at the hot corner: Garin Cecchini. He struggled to make the jump against higher level pitching, however, as his walk rate was cut nearly in half in over 900 PA in Triple-A from an impressive 17.3% showing at Double-A in 2013. The Red Sox decided that Cecchini needed a little bit more seasoning after a short cameo with the big league club in 2014, but he regressed even further, hitting just .213/.286/.296 with Pawtucket.
Chances he makes the Opening Day roster: Milwaukee acquired Cecchini after the Red Sox designated him for assignment in December, swapping cash considerations to add the 24-year-old. At the time, it seemed like Cecchini had a free lane to the third base job, but Stearns added Middlebrooks five days later, and of course Aaron Hill was added to the mix last month. Cecchini is on the 40-man roster but he does have an option year remaining, so Milwaukee can send him to Colorado Springs without fear of losing him. He actually started more games in left field and at first base than he did at third last season, so he does brings some versatility to the bench. 50%
Chances he wins the starting job: Cecchini has the prospect pedigree and the tools to make Milwaukee think long about writing him off. Still just 24 (he'll turn 25 in April) and with just 40 MLB plate appearances to his name, Cecchini has had less chances and therefore probably has a better chance to figure things out than Middlebrooks. If Hill hits the disabled list/gets traded/is terrible, Cecchini is probably the best bet to scoop up the majority of the playing time. 25%
The Reclamation Project: Aaron Hill
Aaron Hill is one of the newest Brewers, and he's also one of the oldest. Turning 34 next month, Hill is the second oldest player at the big league camp behind the venerable Chris Capuano. Hill was an All-Star in 2009 with Toronto and is a two-time Silver Slugger, winning that season and in 2012 with Arizona. He was worth a combined 9.3 fWAR in those two seasons; in all other seasons since, he's been worth a combined 3.0. Over the past two seasons, Hill has hit just .238/.290/.359, good for a wRC+ of 75 -- this precipitous drop in production at the plate has been accompanied by a similar erosion in his defensive contributions.
Chances he makes the Opening Day roster: Unless Hill gets hurt, he will be a member of the Milwaukee Brewers on April 4. 100%
Chances he wins the starting job: Craig Counsell has already told us that Hill is expected to be the starting third baseman to open the year, per this tweet from Adam McCalvy from this morning. This doesn't mean you should necessarily expect him to wind up with the majority of starts over the course of the season, however. If Hill performs very well, he could be shipped out at the deadline as Milwaukee continues it's rebuild. If he's a disaster, he'll likely be replaced by one of the younger guys with higher upside. 65%
Others in the Mix
First round Rule 5 draft pick Colin Walsh, formerly of the Oakland Athletics organization, is a pretty solid lock to make the team since Milwaukee will lose his services if he doesn't remain on the 25-man roster. He's primarily a second baseman and will likely get most of the starts at the keystone against lefties, despite Scooter Gennett's protestations, but he has experience at third base as well. Walsh is an extremely patient hitter who carried a preposterous 20.0% walk rate with Double-A Midland last season, and he has a career minor league OBP of .396 ... 24-year-old Jonathan Villar was thought to be the de facto starter at third when he was acquired in the trade that sent Cy Sneed to Houston. Instead he'll slot in as Milwaukee's starting shortstop to start the year after Jean Segura was shipped to Arizona last month. If Milwaukee decides to start the Orlando Arcia era early this season, however, Villar could find himself replaced by a superstar shortstop prospect for the second consecutive season, and be in the mix for time at the hot corner ... Nathan Orf, a 26-year-old undrafted free agent, put up some impressive numbers at Biloxi last season, hitting .274/.378/.368. Perhaps best known for the old play every position in one game stunt he pulled with Brevard County in 2014, Orf was actually raking in the Arizona Fall League last October to the tune of a .464/.543/.571 batting line before an injury cut his stay in Surprise short. All Orf has done at every stop is hit, hit, hit, and if he continues to get on base at a good clip with the Sky Sox he could be in line for a call up at some point this season.