It’s a little tough not to feel bad for Scooter Gennett. The 26 year old overcame his diminutive stature, lowly draft status (16th round, 2009), and lack of prospect pedigree to become a useful regular at the big league level for the Milwaukee Brewers for the better part of the last four seasons. He had a solid season last year, batting .263/.317/.412 (92 OPS+) with career-highs in home runs (14) and stolen bases (8) while playing visibly improved defense at 2nd base (5.0 FRAA). However, the arrival of top prospect Orlando Arcia to the big leagues to play shortstop will shift breakout star Jonathan Villar to the keystone in 2017, relegating Scooter to a role on the bench.
Villar will be one of the most important players for the Brewers this year. He arrived last winter with little fanfare, acquired by new GM David Stearns from his former employer in Houston in exchange for Cy Sneed. After trading Jean Segura, the Brewers needed player at shortstop to bridge the gap until Arcia’s arrival. Villar had been a noted prospect in Houston’s system during their rebuild and had failed to seize a role at the big league level, but would get another chance to prove his worth in The Show for the rebuilding Brewers. The 25 year old ran with the opportunity, both literally and figuratively.
Jonathan appeared in 156 games and took a career-high 679 turns at the plate last year, settling in as Milwaukee’s lead-off hitter for most of the season. He batted an outstanding .285/.369/.457 (118 OPS+) with 19 home runs and stole a league-high 62 bases, also scoring 92 runs as Milwaukee’s table-setter. Villar showed a blend of power, speed, and patience (11.6% BB rate) that allowed his bat to stay in the lineup even as Arcia was called up to play shortstop everyday in August. The switch-hitter shifted from shortstop to third base (where he struggled defensively) to second base by the end of the season, and has been handed the reins at the keystone by the organization going forward. Manager Craig Counsell believes that second base will be the best position for Villar’s skill set and that he’ll thrive there defensively.
After his outstanding 2016 campaign, the Brewers sought to make Jonathan a part of the organization’s long-term future, offering him an extension in the range of $20 mil. Villar ultimately declined the extension and instead choose to bet on himself to replicate his production from last season, but the Brewers still view him as a key piece of the rebuild going forward.
It will be a tall order for Villar to post numbers similar to his tremendous level of play in 2016, however. He strikes out a fair amount (25.6% last year) and his overall line was aided by a .373 BABIP that’s sure to regress at least a little, even if Villar does possess the speed and ground-ball tendencies to consistently post high batting averages on balls in play. His HR/FB ratio of 19.6% was well above the league average of 12.9% last year, and his previous career-best for round-trippers was 14 during the 2011 season that he split between the A+ and AA levels of the minor leagues. He had stolen only 42 bases in 198 games with Houston before his gaudy total last season, and even that didn’t come without its share of blunders (18 caught stealing and several glaring TOOTBLANs).
Whether or not Villar can come close to repeating his All-Star caliber season from last year will be one of the foremost story lines to follow for the Brewers in 2017. If so, he further entrenches himself as a part of what we hope will be Milwaukee’s next winning core of players. If he struggles, Gennett and Hernan Perez are still around to push for playing time at second base and Villar may come to regret passing on the guaranteed money offered to him.
On the Farm
Slick-fielding Yadiel Rivera split time between second base, third base, and shortstop in AAA last year and remains as infield depth on the 40 man roster, though he doesn’t offer much with the bat...Versatile Nate Orf should return to AAA after posting a strong OBP in 2016...Javier Betancourt struggled at AA Biloxi after coming over from Detroit in the K-Rod trade...Blake Allemand shows some potential as a utility infielder...Isan Diaz has been primarily a shortstop, but most think his future lies at second base and he made 41 starts there during his 20 home run campaign in the Midwest League last year...2016 draftee Trey York made it all the way to A+ after an excellent showing in rookie ball...Franly Mallen began to show some promise with a solid season in Helena.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs, Baseball-Reference, and Baseball Prospectus