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Milwaukee Brewers 2019 preview by position: Second Base

Mike Moustakas is trying to do something that no one has ever really done before.

MLB: Spring Training-San Diego Padres at Milwaukee Brewers Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Jonathan Villar.
Hernan Perez.
Brad Miller.
Eric Sogard.
Tyler Saladino.
Nate Orf.
Nick Franklin.(!)

The Milwaukee Brewers paraded all seven of these men out to start at second base at one point or another during the first half of the 2018 season. Combined, the position provided Milwaukee a .229/.288/.344 batting line prior to the All-Star break. That equates to a not so nice 69 wRC+ (24 percent lower than the league-average second-sacker), which was the fourth-worst total in baseball.

The Brewers made a bet on a Jonathan Villar bounce back season to begin 2018, and they lost. His inconsistency led to lineup shuffling and created a black hole at the keystone that needed to be addressed in a major way at the trade deadline. The position was finally stabilized when Mike Moustakas was acquired from the Royals and Travis Shaw shifted over from third base to second. Both players posted above-average batting lines during the second half as Milwaukee sprinted to a league-best 96 victories, a division title, and an appearance in the NLCS.

The Brewers and Moustakas went their separate ways following the team’s playoff ouster, and both top exec David Stearns and manager Craig Counsell were candid about the need to address the position during the offseason. As the winter dragged on, however, it didn’t seem like the org was very motivated to upgrade the position in a meaningful way. They largely ignored a flooded free agent market, opting only to sign Cory Spangenberg to a split-contract after he was non-tendered by the Padres. Stearns extolled Spangenberg’s versatility and potential upside with the bat, and the 28 year old looked poised to begin the season in a platoon at second with holdover Hernan Perez. Meanwhile, Mike Moustakas lingered out on the open market, in search of the right deal.

While it’s not hard to see why the front office thinks Spangenberg has untapped potential, entering the 2019 with Cory and Hammerin’ Hernan as Plan A at second base would have created another situation similar to what the team began 2018 with. The hope would be that Spangenberg produces at a much greater rate than he did in the prior year (.235/.298/.362 — 83 wRC+) with the reality being that if he doesn’t, second base remains a black hole in the lineup the org is left stuck either praying that Keston Hiura is able to come up and have immediate MLB success, or spending prospect capital at the deadline to make addition via trade.

Slingin’ Stearns and company wanted to avoid that scenario, but at the same time, they did not want to commit to multiple years for any player and block Hiura’s ascendance to the majors in a long-term way. With Spring Training approaching, and Moose still sitting out in free agency, players like Ryan Braun, Christian Yelich, and Shaw began lobbying for his return. The front office kept in contact with Moustakas’ representatives throughout the winter and they began to pitching him an opportunity to return to Milwaukee on a short-term deal, only this time he would be the player who shifts across the diamond to play second base. That would allow Shaw to move back to third base, a position at which he was nominated for the Gold Glove award in 2018.

On February 19th, the team made the official announcement that Mike Moustakas had been re-signed to a one-year deal with a mutual option for 2020 that guarantees him $10 mil. On March 11th, Craig Counsell proclaimed to the media that Moose will be the team’s primary second baseman this season.

There is almost no historical precedent for a player, age-30 or older, moving up the defensive spectrum to a position they have never played before, successfully or otherwise. But Moustakas was drafted as a middle infielder and briefly played shortstop as a pro before shifting to third base and spending the next 11 years at the hot corner, and the club’s decision-makers feel strongly enough that Moustakas’ strong arm, sure hands, and instinctual play will help to make up for the lack of top-end range handicapping the 225-pounder. Well, those traits as well as Milwaukee’s aggressive defensive shifting philosophy.

Simply put, all Moustakas needs to do at second base is make the plays he is “supposed” to make. Deploying Orlando Arcia as a rover should help to cover any range deficiencies on the middle infield, and Moustakas can let his bat do the talking. Even if he matches the 103 wRC+ that he produced while suiting up for the Menomonee Valley Nine last season, that would be close to a 35% upgrade over what the team got out of the position for most of last year and a 10% improvement over the league-average second baseman. And if the southpaw-swinging Moustakas figures out how to pull off what Shaw and Yelich already have — tap into his home run power and take advantage of Miller Park in a way he didn’t last season — then look out, National League.

The return of Moustakas and his anointing as the everyday second baseman allows the team to backslide Perez and Spangenberg into roles more suited for players of their ilk. HP will begin his fifth season with the Brewers in his familiar super-utility role and will likely be the only true infielder on the bench when the team breaks camp. Spangenberg, meanwhile, has been working this spring on becoming a left-handed hitting version of Perez; he’s seen action at left field, shortstop, third base, and second base during Cactus League play while posting a .771 OPS and cracking three homers. Spangenberg’s available minor league option most likely means that he’ll begin the season in San Antonio, but he figures to be one of the first names on the list of potential call-ups in case of an injury. In the same boat is right-handed hitting holdover Tyler Saladino.

In the Minors

Keston Hiura is not only the Brewers’ top prospect, he is one of the most highly-regarded players in all of minor league baseball. The buzz surrounding his development began soaring to new heights as he won MVP of the Arizona Fall League in 2018 and has only grown stronger and louder while he’s hit .242/.342/.545 with three homers this spring. He’ll begin the season in Triple-A, but it’s only a matter of time (plan on at least June, to get past the Super-Two cut-off) before he gets a chance to show what he can do against MLB pitching. Nate Orf is still hanging around the organization as depth, and Bruce Caldwell, Patrick Leonard, and Brett Lawrie were all inked to minor league pacts. Mauricio Dubon could factor into the depth mix at this position but he’s primarily a shortstop. Further on down the ladder are guys like Blake Allemand, Tucker Neuhaus, and Yeison Coca.

Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs