The Milwaukee Brewers have some options at third base. None seem spectacularly overwhelming on the surface. However, in determining which player most deserves the starting role, it’s best to explore all available options.
As it sits right now, the newly-acquired Jonathan Villar is perched atop the official depth chart. In his 589 career plate appearances, Villar has contributed a TAv of .239. He’s only going into his age-25 season, so some offensive improvement can reasonably be expected, especially if he is granted more full-time employment. Inconsistencies in playing time often contributes to poorer performance for young players.
The supposed problem with that reasoning, though, is that Villar never performed particularly well in the minors. In fact, over the 12 changes in levels during his career with more than 100 plate appearances, Villar’s TAv has outperformed his opponent’s TAv (that is, the True Average of those who are also competing for playing time in Milwaukee) four times. In other words, two-thirds of his career at any level has been worse than his competition. Projecting more out of him may be foolhardy, though it should be noted that Steamer projects Villar for his best season yet — a half-win season.
The Brewers player with the most Major League experience at the position is the newly-acquired Will Middlebrooks. While his experience may be tempting, he has actually been below replacement level over the past two seasons. In fact, Middlebrooks has lost his teams 1.6 games (according to WARP) over only 504 plate appearances. His walk rate in 2015 was even lower than Villar’s and his strikeout rate was basically the same.
The other two remaining options to play third base are Yadiel Rivera (a natural shortstop) and Colin Walsh (a natural second baseman). While positional changes shouldn’t be looked upon unfavorably, it doesn’t show great organizational depth. Furthermore, just because they are on the official Brewers site depth chart doesn’t really mean anything.
Rivera is going into his age-24 season and seems allergic to walks. Walsh is going into his age-26 season and has fared well at every level offensively except for a short stint at Triple-A.
This is all meant to say that there is no white-knight savior at third base for the Brewers going into the 2016 season. Except, well, perhaps there is.
Last month, the Brewers acquired Garin Cecchini from the Boston Red Sox for cash considerations. Let’s start with Cecchini’s minors stats and a blind comparison.
In 2013 Cecchini dominated High-A, posting a .349 TAv over 262 plate appearances. A different infield prospect for a different High-A club — we’ll call him Player B — posted a .340 TAv over 237 plate appearances in the same year. In 2013, Cecchini also made his Double-A debut and performed at the well-above-average clip of .312 TAv in 295 plate apperances. Player B waited until 2014 to hit the Double-A level, but in his 441 plate appearances he posted a .276 TAv. That line happens to look a lot more like Cecchini’s first season in Triple-A Pawtucket, actually, in which he posted a .256 TAv in 458 plate appearances.
In summation, Cecchini was better than Player B in High-A and much better than Player B in Double-A. Though Cecchini took a step back in Triple-A, he did stay above average according to True Average.
Player B is Toronto Blue Jays second baseman Devon Travis. Both Travis and Cecchini will be entering their age-25 seasons. The main difference, however, is that Travis has already made a fairly substantial mark on the majors. In 238 plate appearances, Travis’ .307 TAv buoyed a 1.9 WARP season. While he shouldn’t be expected to post another .194 ISO season, and his BABIP of .347 indicates some regression, there’s reason to think Cecchini could make an impression on the majors next season if he is given a shot.
Furthermore, the difference between Cecchini’s and Travis’s Steamer projections are a paltry half-a-win. If you recall, that’s the expected worth of Villar. While Travis is expected to produce 0.9 fWAR for the Blue Jays, Cecchini is projected to produce just 0.1 less than Villar. While Cecchini’s contact rate doesn’t indicate particular success, Villar’s has been even worse. Moreover, Cecchini’s walk rates were very good up until Triple-A and, with the right tutelage, his on-base percentages could definitely surpass Villar’s.
While we are less than two months away from real-life Spring Training games, there are still many decisions to make for David Stearns to finalize his roster. I think it would be a clever move for Stearns to give Cecchini a long look at camp for the Opening Day roster. If I had to pick a player to out-perform their half-a-win projection between Cecchini and Villar, I’d take Cecchini. For a rebuilding team with not a lot to lose, Cecchini could be a good low-risk, high-reward option to break camp at third base. If he doesn’t pan out away from the Boston media and their expectations, then Villar can be used as a serviceable replacement.