Around this time a year ago, we learned that Jonathan Villar was making a substantial bet on himself. The switch-hitting dynamo was coming off a breakout season during his first campaign as a Milwaukee Brewer, one in which he hit .285/.369/.457 (119 wRC+) with 19 home runs and a league-leading 62 steals while shifting from shortstop to third base to second base. After the season Villar was offered a contract extension that would have bought out his arbitration years and guaranteed him something in the vicinity of $20 mil, no small sum for a player who received a $105K signing bonus as an international free agent and had only earned about $1.3 mil by that point in his career. But the opportunity to secure even greater riches down the road if he was able to repeat his performance proved too tantalizing for Villar and his agent, and they spurned Milwaukee’s offer.
Hindsight being 20/20, it appears at this time as though that was a significant mistake by the soon-to-be 27 year old. Villar got a late start to Spring Training in 2017 while playing off the bench for the Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic and never got on track during what wound up being a dreadful season. After showing Milwaukee his sky-high ceiling in 2016, Villar displayed his floor as a sub-replacement level player in 2017 as he batted .241/.293/.372 (71 wRC+) with 11 home runs and 23 steals. Villar was handed the everyday job at the keystone to start the year, but his abominable offensive performance led to his relegation to the bench and motivated David Stearns to pursue an outside upgrade in Neil Walker while Milwaukee charged toward - and ultimately fell short of - a playoff berth.
When Villar put the ball in play in 2017, he still managed to produce an above-average rate of hard contact. Unfortunately he put the ball in play quite a bit less often, as his K-rate escalated from a still-high 25.6% in 2016 up to an egregious 30.3%. His ISO dropped some forty points as he hit for extra bases less frequently, and his BABIP cratered from .373 during his breakout season down to .330. Perhaps most concerning was the precipitous fall off in Villar’s walk rate, from a stellar 11.6% in 2016 down to a below-average (and not nice) 6.9% in 2017. Coupled with a five percent increase in swings at pitches outside the zone, it became apparent that Villar was pressing at the plate as the season wore on. Combined with some questionable decisions on the base paths, Villar's overall performance helped to wear out his welcome with a good chunk of the Cream City faithful.
An experiment in center field notwithstanding, Villar to his credit did grade out as a capable defender at second base last season. He may not have passed the eye test in the view of some fans, but Fangraphs credited Villar with +1 Defensive Runs Saved at the keystone last year while he checked in with +2.6 Fielding Runs Above Average according to Baseball Prospectus.
Villar ceded playing time in the early going last season to bespectacled veteran Eric Sogard, and “Nerd Power” will be pushing him at the second base spot again this spring after re-upping with Milwaukee on a one-year, $2.4 mil deal. Sogard joined Milwaukee as a minor league free agent prior to the 2017 season after spending five years in Oakland, where he posted an anemic .609 OPS while accumulating over 1,300 plate appearances. But Sogard was an unexpected catalyst atop Milwaukee’s lineup for a period last season, nearly doubling his previous career walk rate while drawing free passes at a 15.1% clip. Sogard has never been a source of much power, but his high OBP helped drive a .273/.393/.378 slash (108 wRC+) with three home runs and three steals across 299 plate appearances. Much of that damage came during the months of May and June, however, as Sogard went down with an ankle injury in early July and missed nearly three weeks of action. In 137 PA after returning from the disabled list, his .204/.338/.248 slash more closely resembled his offensive output from his days in Oakland. The org likes Sogard’s left-handed bat and his ability to play shortstop and third in addition to second, and his re-signing was a popular move with the players in the clubhouse.
Also jockeying for position at second this spring will be Hernan Perez, who has been Craig Counsell’s Swiss Army Knife since he was claimed off waivers from Detroit back in 2015. Perez has played every defensive position but catcher as a member of the Brewers (including pitching an inning in a blowout last summer) and has proven to be quite adept across the board; he graded out the best in the outfield corners (+9 DRS between LF and RF) and at second base (+2 DRS) last season. But Perez is seemingly allergic to walks at the plate, having taken a base on balls in only 3.7% of his plate appearances in the big leagues. That severely limits his offensive ceiling, and though he clubbed 14 home runs and swiped 13 bags last season, his .259/.289/.414 slash across 458 PA was measured at a well below-average 78 wRC+. Hammerin’ Hernan has provided plenty of value in his super-utility role with Milwaukee, but it’s probably best for the club if he’s given fewer at-bats in 2018 (barring an injury, of course).
It’s worth mentioning that Neil Walker does still remain available on the free agent market if Milwaukee determines at some point this spring that they are unsatisfied with their current in-house stable of second basemen. The 32 year old Walker has provided a steady bat throughout his MLB career and hit .265/.362/.439 (114 wRC+) with 14 home runs in 448 plate appearances last season, including four dingers and a 125 wRC+ in 38 games with Milwaukee after being acquired via trade in August. At this point, though, it seems most likely that the Brewers begin the 2018 season with Villar and Sogard in some type of timeshare at the keystone and hope to see the best that each player has shown they can offer, while Perez continues to roam around the diamond and plug in wherever Craig Counsell needs him.
In the Minors
Mauricio Dubon is the club’s most MLB-ready prospect at the position after spending part of last season in AAA, though offensively he may wind up being something resembling Hernan Perez with more speed. Utilitymen Nate Orf and Nick Franklin also figure to see time at the keystone in Colorado Springs. Further on down the ladder, last year’s first round pick and the org's new #1 prospect Keston Hiura could be ready as soon as 2019 as scouts are quite high on his bat. Blake Allemand, Javier Betancourt, and Wendell Rijo are other notable names at the position throughout the system.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus
Who should receive the bulk of the playing time at 2B for the Brewers in 2018?
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