At some point today, the Milwaukee Brewers are expected to activate both Ryan Braun and Jonathan Villar off of the disabled list. Braun was well on his way to enjoying another stellar season before issues with his trapezius and later his calf shelved him for most of May and June. The team optioned top prospect Lewis Brinson back to AAA in order to make room for Braun, who will reclaim his starting spot in left field and look to provide production similar to the .262/.350/.524 slash (122 wRC+) and 7 home runs that he put together in 117 plate appearances before hitting the DL.
Johnny Villar, however, is a different story. The Brewers looked like they may have a budding young star on their hands last season when Villar popped 19 home runs and stole 62 bases while hitting .285/.369/.457 as the team’s leadoff hitter. Milwaukee attempted to make Villar a cornerstone of their rebuilding effort by offering him a $20 mil extension to buy out his remaining four seasons of club control, an offer that the 26 year old switch-hitter spurned. He was willing to bet on himself and if he could produce at a similar clip to his 2016 season, his value would skyrocket.
Whether it’s been the pressure to produce after turning down the guaranteed money, the stress of a position switch to second base, some unknown factor, or a combination of everything, Jonathan just hasn’t been anything close to the same player in 2017 that he was last year. Some of his struggles can be attributed to a .294 BABIP that is 45 points below his career average, but as we should know it’s not as though a low batting average on balls in play can be 100% attributed to bad luck. Villar has been offering at more pitches out of the zone this season than he did last year and swinging and missing more at pitches both out of and within the strike zone. When he is making contact, he’s been very pull-happy with a significantly reduced line drive rate and a diminished rate of hard contact versus last season. As a result, he’s hitting for less power, walking far less, and striking out more than 30% of the time. Villar saw his season-long batting line plummet to .213/.283/.342 (61 wRC+) with 6 home runs and 14 steals in 248 plate appearances before winding up on the disabled list with a back injury earlier this month.
Too add insult to injury, now that Villar is ready to return to active duty he no longer has an everyday job to return to. His absence opened up an opportunity for Eric Sogard to usurp the everyday second base job, and he’s been red-hot ever since being called up from the minor leagues a little over a month ago. In 38 games and 143 plate appearances, the 31 year old left-handed hitter is batting .353/.462/.529 with 3 home runs and 3 steals. A new leg kick has perhaps rejuvenated Sogard’s once floundering career; among the 285 players with at least 140 plate appearances this year, the bespectacled veteran ranks 2nd with his .462 on-base percentage and 10th with a 162 wRC+. This may simply wind up being an extended hot streak for Sogard, but for as long as he’s riding it he should continue to get the bulk of the starts at the keystone while batting atop the lineup for Craig Counsell’s first-place squad.
Villar is out of options and cannot be sent to the minor leagues without first clearing waivers, and given his demonstrated upside there’s no chance that David Stearns would be able to sneak him through. That leaves Villar looking at a role coming off the bench, which should at least be one that he’s well-equipped for. In addition to his experience at second base and shortstop, the two positions that he’s played most regularly for the Brewers, Villar also has experience at third base, left field, and center field during his time as a professional. The organization will certainly want to give Villar a chance to work himself back into a regular role at the big league level (especially since Sogard is a free agent at season’s end), but he’ll likely have to earn that opportunity while first shifting around the diamond to find consistent at-bats. In that capacity Villar would serve as a switch-hitting complement to Hernan Perez, who has earned the constant praise of Counsell thanks to his ability and willingness to play all over the field at a high level.
Moving Villar to this type of role would make Nick Franklin’s presence on the roster a bit redundant, as he’s essentially that switch-hitting Perez alternative right now. Franklin’s performed pretty poorly as a member of the Brewers since he was claimed off waivers from Tampa Bay back in April, producing only a .195/.258/.317 slash with 2 homers and 2 steals while garnering 89 plate appearances in a part-time role. The Brewers still need to clear a spot on the roster for Villar’s activation, which could mean that the out-of-options Franklin gets designated for assignment. Nick is listed as day-to-day with a hamstring issue, so there’s a possibility the team may try and stash him on the disabled list as well. There’s also a chance that the club chooses to cut its bullpen from 8 members down to 7 and option someone like Paolo Espino or Brent Suter, but given the high volume of innings that group has been asked to cover this season I’m not certain how eager Counsell and David Stearns will be shrink their relief corps.
Jonathan Villar teased Milwaukee with what could be last season, but he’s been a conundrum so far in 2017. Hopefully the loss of his everyday role will provide some additional motivation to rediscover something close to his formerly outstanding level of play, but in the meantime he should be able to at least provide some value as a versatile switch-hitter and speedster off the bench.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs