Heading into the 2017 season, few Brewers fans were worried about second base. Jonathan Villar had spent the previous summer making good on his potential, authoring a 4.7 WARP season along the way. Scooter Gennett and Yadiel Rivera provided a decent insurance policy: one could be relied on for some decent at bats, while the other could field screaming grounders in his sleep. In all, a respectable trio of keystone contributors.
That narrative started to change on March 28, when the Cincinnati Reds claimed Gennett off waivers. The loss barely registered on most fans’ radars. A blip of nostalgia, perhaps, but these were the rebuilding Milwaukee Brewers. We’re used to players coming and going. In actuality, Gennett’s sudden departure was the first in a series of unexpected events that engulfed second basemen throughout the Brewers’ system. (Perhaps the most unexpected? Scooter’s .308 Total Average (TAv) and 24 dingers in 435 plate appearances for the division-rival Reds.)
As 2017 winds down, it’s safe to say that the second base picture has grown considerably more murky. Here’s a brief overview of the state of the position up and down the organization.
Jonathan Villar got off to a miserable start this season, hitting only .221 before the All-Star break and battling a lower back injury in June. Even before the injury, ineffectiveness cost Villar significant playing time. The Brewers summoned utility infielder Eric Sogard from Class-AAA in mid-May, and the diminutive veteran’s hot start in Milwaukee left Villar the odd man out. It was scarcely the follow-up the club had hoped for from Villar, who led the majors with 62 stolen bases and recorded a .826 OPS last year. Villar earned his long leash, but he deserved his reduced role this summer. He’s provided fans a glimmer of hope since the break, batting .288/.306/.415 while working at second and dabbling in center field.
Sogard, meanwhile, won hearts across Brewers nation with a monstrous first half, in which he batted .331/.438/.485. He, too, was bit by the injury bug this season, landing on the 10-day disabled list with a left ankle strain in early July. He hasn’t been the same player since making his way back to the active roster, as evidenced by a paltry .171/.276/.224 triple-slash in the second half. The 31-year-old is a free agent at the end of the season, meaning his days in Milwaukee blue may be numbered.
The versatile Hernan Perez has occasionally spelled Sogard and Villar this year, and he’s done so with aplomb. Brewers brass prefers Perez in a super-utility role, though, so he shouldn’t be considered a long-term solution at the keystone. The same goes for Yadiel Rivera, who made only one brief trip to the majors in his final option year, going hitless in a pair of plate appearances.
Dissatisfied with a slumping Sogard and inconsistent Villar, the Brewers acquired Neil Walker from the New York Mets on August 12 for a player to be named. Walker has been a steady contributor this year, amassing 1.3 WARP in just 380 plate appearances. He’s turned it up a notch since coming to Milwaukee, batting .279/.395/.485 in 22 games. But the 31-year-old is likely to command more in free agency this offseason than the Brewers will want to pay. With younger options already on the big league roster, Walker is likely a pure rental, to be enjoyed while he lasts.
Eric Sogard’s May promotion to the major leagues allowed Nate Orf to lock down the second base job in Class-AAA Colorado Springs. He hasn’t disappointed. Orf hit .320/.397/.507 in the thin air of the Pacific Coast League, flashing hitherto unseen power (his 9 home runs this year surpassed his previous career total). At 27 years old, Orf is an unconventional prospect. But he’s also an intriguing one. Orf draws plenty of walks (10.7 percent), and his solid hit tool allows him to avoid strikeouts (14.8 percent). He’s managed to keep the ball off the ground this year, too, and could be a sneaky-good major leaguer if ever given the chance. His .288 TAv in Colorado Springs indicates that he’s ready for that opportunity. Orf could crack the Opening Day roster as a utility man next year if he’s protected from the Rule 5 Draft this offseason.
Mauricio Dubon split time between second base and shortstop this year, reaching Colorado Springs for the first time on June 26. Dubon possesses a solid hit tool, but he failed to replicate the power he flashed last season with the Portland Sea Dogs. If he grows into some pop, he could be a nifty starter. Otherwise, he’s destined for a role as a utility player.
Isan Diaz came to Milwaukee in the Jean Segura trade, and won the organizational Minor League Player of the Year award in 2016 by way of a first impression. He socked 20 home runs and 34 doubles in the Midwest League last season, but took a step back in Class-Advanced A Carolina this year. Diaz struck out in 26.6 percent of his plate appearances en route to a .222/.334/.376 line for the Mudcats. A fractured hamate ended his season in late August.
With the ninth selection of the Rule 4 Draft, the Brewers nabbed California-Irvine standout Keston Hiura. Hiura’s a second baseman by trade, but acted as a strict DH throughout his final collegiate season amidst concerns over an injured elbow. Any worries about whether he could field were mitigated by the fact that Hiura can really, really hit. He walloped Arizona League pitching with a .425 TAv before moving up to Class-A Wisconsin and posting a .326 TAv in just over 100 plate appearances. Hiura returned to the dirt towards the end of the season and held his own at second base. He will push Diaz for superiority in the top prospect pecking order when he gets his first taste of the Carolina League next season.
Barring any significant off-season moves, Jonathan Villar is again the odds-on favorite to start at second on Opening Day. Should he stumble out of the gate, he could cede some playing time to Nate Orf, or to a random free agent signing. Mauricio Dubon could likely benefit from another year of AAA pitching, while the high-upside duo of Diaz and Hiura are set to slug it out for a promotion to Biloxi. Keep an eye on Dubon’s ISO, Diaz’s strikeout percentage, and Hiura’s work with the glove. Villar will reach free agency after the 2020 campaign. By this time next year, we should have a pretty good idea of his heir apparent.
Photo Credit: Benny Sieu, USAToday Sports Images