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Milwaukee Brewers Position Battles: Second Base update

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Will there be a “winner”?

MLB: Spring Training-Milwaukee Brewers at Los Angeles Angels
Villar’s feeling good about things!
Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

The Milwaukee Brewers entered into the spring training portion of their 2018 season with three viable candidates for the starting second base position, looking for one of them to grab the position and run with it. That hasn’t happened, but it isn’t all bad news. All three candidates on the roster (Jonathan Villar, Eric Sogard, and Hernan Perez) have performed well, and last summer’s first round draft pick Keston Hiura has shown considerable promise for the future.

The level of play at the position meant that the Brewers never made a move to add another player to the mix, even though last season’s late acquisition Neil Walker sat on the sidelines as an unsigned free agent for much of the spring. Walker didn’t sign until March 11th, and then for just one year at $5 mil. Those numbers were considerably less than was predicted for Walker, and were certainly affordable numbers for Milwaukee, but it’s possible that there was never interest from either side in a return for Walker to Milwaukee.

At about exactly the same time, Craig Counsell revealed the Brewers plans for the position, as reported by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Tom Haudricourt:

Eric Sogard was a non-roster signee last season, coming off of a lost 2016 campaign due to knee surgery. After a successful stint at AAA Colorado Springs in April to establish his health, Sogard joined the Brewers and played well - although he started much better than he finished. For the season in Milwaukee Sogard slashed .273/.393/.378 for an OPS of .770. All of those numbers were well above his career averages, and he helped spark the team when Villar started the season poorly. Sogard was re-signed this offseason at a manageable amount ($2.4 mil), avoiding a trip to free agency in what looks like an astute move given the benefit of hindsight.

This spring Sogard has hit well, slashing .300/.405/.600, for an OPS of 1.005. As a left-handed batter, it isn’t surprising that his numbers against righties have been considerably better than against lefties (.421/.500/.789, 1.289). One issue that may arise is that all three of the candidates performed better against right handed pitching, although we have a relatively small sample size against lefties, of course.

Jonathan Villar had a great 2016 season in Milwaukee and had an opportunity to sign an extension offered by the Brewers before the 2017 season that would have bought out his arbitration seasons. But Villar turned it down, gambling that another good year would give him a chance at an even bigger payday through arbitration. It didn’t work out that way for Villar, as he started slowly and didn’t get going at all until late in the season and finished with a .241/.293/.372 slash. These numbers were all below his career numbers, and well below his 2017 .285/.369/.457 output. This spring Villar has produced at a .297/.350/.378 clip, so the average and on-base numbers are back up but the power is still down considerably. His numbers against left handers haven’t been eye-popping (.286/.286/.357), which is where he would seem to have an advantage over Sogard as a switch hitter. And his numbers are better against lefties than Sogard, just not notably. Villar is the one player in this group that offers base stealing skills, having stolen a league-best 62 bases in 2016. That number fell to 23 last season, although the drop is more due to reduced playing time and fewer times on base than anything else.

The third candidate, Hernan Perez, was hoping for a steady position spot after two years as the Brewers’ super sub. Perez has played every position over the last two seasons except catcher, but that translated into a career-high 458 plate appearances last season. His hitting was at a slightly lower level than his 2016 output (2016 - .272/.302/.428, OPS of .730 vs 2017 .258/.289/.414, OPS .704), but the Brewers know what they get with Hernan: solid defense wherever they play him, with a good arm, and consistent contact at the plate with low walk numbers. This spring Hernan has a .295/.340/.432 slash, OPS .772. His OPS against lefties is just .646, although he has been much more effective against southpaws for his career.

The Brewers are going to use Perez in much the same way as they have for the past two seasons: he will see time at second base and third base, with a little time at shortstop. He will see reduced time in the outfield and at first base, though, as the offseason additions of Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain will take up space out there, along with Domingo Santana and Ryan Braun. Braun is also going to see time at first base, and the presence of Eric Thames there also would limit Hernan’s PT. The Brewers also still have Jesus Aguilar at first base at this point, and Ji-Man Choi has impressed this spring with his bat, defense at first, and enough versatility to take some time in left field. But even if Aguilar and Choi are not on the roster, it is difficult to see another 450 plate appearances for Perez.

Sogard is also the primary backup at shortstop, so off days for incumbent Orlando Arcia will mean a start for Villar or Perez as well.

And Keston Hiura - the youngster has been sent back to the minor league camp, mostly to work on the defensive side of the ball. Hiura came to the Brewers after the draft with an injured elbow that had limited him to DH duty for much of his final college season. Hiura avoided surgery and rehabbed his ailing wing, and he didn’t play defensively in the minors until a few late-season appearances at low-A Appleton. He hit well last season in rookie ball and for the T-Rats (combined .371/.422/.611, OPS 1.033) and continued that this spring. His spring slash of .433/.452/.567, OPS of 1.005, outpaced all three of the incumbents, and gives the Brewers a solid second base prospect for the future.

If I had to guess, I’d say that Sogard will get the majority of starts at second, especially against right handed pitching. Villar will take the second most, with Perez third. Villar also has major league playing time at short and third, and even the outfield. But all will play a significant role for the hopeful Brewers. The Brewers value versatility from their position group, and these three provide that. Craig Counsell has said that playing time will increase for the player(s) that establish themselves; here’s hoping they all play well and make Counsell’s decision making difficult.

Statistics courtesy of Brewers.com and baseball-reference.com