2016 and the Brewers Middle Infield

Opening Day was a delight for the Brewers’ young middle infield.  Scooter Gennett has had a rough few years, but he was the Opening Day second baseman and remains just 25 years old.  Jonathan Villar is 24 and already in his third organization.  But on the first day of the season, both players hit home runs.  And given that both have struggled with the bat, that will be a welcome sign.

I am not going to pretend that this one game (or any one game) portends anything in particular.  However, I am going to use it as an opportunity to discuss what is likely to happen during the season with those two positions.  I have mentioned this topic a few times this offseason, but we now have some insight into what the organization is thinking.

Shortstop is the fulcrum on which the middle infield situation will hinge.  Villar is the current starter, but he is–in an ideal world, at least–just a stopgap until Orlando Arcia is ready.  Villar has established himself as above replacement level already, and he is still very young.  This is not the profile of a star, but it does sound like a journeyman who can adequately fill in during a pinch.  And the Brewers are certainly in a position on the win curve where a journeyman is sufficient.

Villar is likely to play at least a few months.  Arcia is a top prospect (12th in BP’s top 101), but he is 21 and his age-21 season is less likely to be more important to the Brewers’ organization than his age-27 season would be.  In the wrong circumstances, this would create ethical issues, but Arcia’s 2015 in Double-A was the only time he’s spent in the high minors, so this developmental decision is entirely reasonable.  This also will have the obvious side effect of delaying the beginning of his service clock.  Therefore, while we may not see Arcia right in the middle of June, but we will not see him before that.

At that point, Villar is likely to shift to a more utility role, which would free him up to play second base if necessary.  Up until that decision is made, though, second base appears to be Scooter Gennett’s job to lose.

I am on record as not being Gennett’s biggest fan.  He is an empty-average hitter without great plate discipline who has struggled mightily in his career against same-side pitching, which makes him a halfway-decent option for half a platoon.  If this were paired with great defense, the Brewers might have something.  Unfortunately, it is not.  FRAA ranks Gennett as negative in each of his three seasons, and we saw his limitations even on Opening Day, as he booted a ground ball up the middle.

However, the Brewers appear committed to him. Their usage of him last year (just 36 plate appearances against lefties in 2015) indicates that they are well aware of his limitations, but his start on Opening Day against lefty Madison Bumgarner clearly suggests that they have opted to give him first crack at the spot and they are trying to boost his confidence.  I do not believe they will continue to give him a ton of at bats against lefties, but Craig Counsell presumably wanted to establish his starting lineup off the bat and Gennett is now clearly a part of that.

I am choosing to believe this is due to a lack of better options, and Arcia’s promotion would make Villar a viable candidate for the second base job.  Gennett appears to be a bench bat at this point, and Villar simply offers more both as a hitter and a fielder.  There is no harm in giving Gennett all this playing time, as the Brewers are clearly not expecting to win all that much, and maybe he will surprise me and prove himself a worthwhile starter.  If he doesn’t, though, I would expect him to be demoted to even more of a part-time player when Arcia arrives than he is even now.

Therefore, the nature of these two positions depends almost entirely on Arcia.  If he continues to hit the cover off the ball in the high minors, he will probably force himself to the majors by mid-season.  However, if he struggles or gets injured, Villar, Gennett, and whatever other scrap-heap infielders the Brewers pick up off the street will continue to fill in semi-admirably.  There is no harm in this for the Brewers–they have legitimate big league players who can play without embarrassing themselves, but no one is so good or immovable that Arcia’s spot is in any way endangered.  For a team projected to win 76 games by PECOTA, this is as solid an outcome as they could hope for.

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