Spring Training is upon us. It seems the Brewers have moves to be made regarding their crowded outfield and solid-but-underwhelming starting rotation but the rest of the roster is presumably set.
Earlier this offseason, second base was a primary concern for Brewers fans. Most assumed that GM David Stearns would bring back midseason acquisition Neil Walker. That hasn’t happened yet, and although Walker is still a free agent, it seems the team is content rolling with the pieces they’ve got at the position: Jonathan Villar, Eric Sogard, and Hernan Perez.
This Spring will determine who will be the Brewers starting second baseman on March 29th.
If a decision were to be made based on the 2017 season alone, the thirty-one-year-old Sogard would be the obvious choice. Sogard enjoyed a .393 on-base percentage (OBP) over 299 plate appearances in 2017, thanks in large part to his walk rate of 15.1 percent. He was one of just three batters with over 190 plate appearances with a walk-to-strikeout ratio above 1, joining Joey Votto and Justin Turner.
However, Sogard hasn’t always been an on-base machine. In 1,327 plate appearances over six partial seasons prior to 2017, he had an OBP of .296 and a walk rate of 6.9 percent.
Sogard’s increase in walk rate can be attributed to a simple decrease in swings. He swing rate dipped just below 35 percent in 2017, after hovering around 40 percent prior to last season. He began swinging less frequently at pitches not only outside of the zone, but inside of the zone as well.
Sogard has always been regarded as a terrific infielder. If the veteran can somehow manage to maintain his elite walk rate, he will be the an above average starting second baseman and possibly hit towards to the top of the Brewers lineup.
But history shows Sogard has been a well-below average hitter throughout his career. If pitchers adjust and begin throwing him more strikes, he will be forced to put the ball in play and rely on his weak power profile. 299 plate appearances are not enough to conclude that Sogard is a completely different hitter, which is why the next couple guys are going to get their licks.
Jonathan Villar is the primary competition for Sogard. Villar himself is a testament as to why one season can’t be the end all be all when it comes future performance. Similar to Sogard, if a decision were to be made based on the 2016 season alone, Villar would be the obvious choice.
Villar dominated in 2016, stealing 62 bases and hitting 19 home runs, producing a .826 on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS). He was the obvious fit to start at second base prior to last season.
And then he struggled. Villar made 436 plate appearances and stole 23 bases while sporting an .665 OPS in 2017. His poor offensive output forced the Brewers to search for a replacement.
Villar comes into camp this year fighting for his job back. Even if he finds himself somewhere in between his 2016 and 2017 self, it’s easy to see him being a solid starting second baseman. He is still just twenty-six-years-old, which means there’s a possibility his best days are ahead of him.
The Brewers have stacked the rest of their lineup, particularly in the outfield, which means they can afford to run with Sogard or Villar at second base and running the risk that neither of them will be a true starting caliber player. The question then is, which one is going to garner the bulk of the playing time?
If the team was forced to choose, Villar, who has a much higher ceiling than the older, less athletic Sogard, should receive the bulk of the playing time.
Villar has the ability to push the Brewers’ offense to another level. Sogard, at his best, will just move the lineup along. It’s hard to see Sogard ever reaching double digit home run numbers in the major leagues. Villar has 20+ home run power on top of being one of best base stealers in the league when he’s healthy.
In reality, both players are going to receive their fair-share of playing time unless one sticks out. If one or the other can regain their career-year form, the Brewers won’t have a single hole in their lineup.
Photo Credit: Benny Sieu, USAToday Sports Images