The Milwaukee Brewers have plenty of depth at the major league level at second base. Whether or not that is “quality” depth is up for debate, however. According to PECOTA projections (as of 9 March), the trio of Jonathan Villar, Eric Sogard, and Hernan Perez are projected to receive a combined 709 plate appearances at the keystone, and between the three of them the spreadsheets predict a total output of 1.2 WARP. Sogard was the most productive player of the trio last season, but struggled mightily in the second half and his offensive track-record in Oakland (.609 OPS in five seasons) doesn’t inspire a ton of confidence in his age-31 breakout. Villar was dynamic in 2016 but was among the worst everyday players in baseball last season, at least at the plate. Perez is a useful super-utility man and Craig Counsell has suggested he’d prefer to keep Hammerin’ Hernan in that role. Given his sub-.300 OBPs in two of the last three seasons (with a .302 sandwiched in there), Perez is probably best suited as more of a useful role player than anything.
Given that second base is a question mark right now, it stands to reason that the club may have to dip into the minors at some point this year for help at the position. The first player that jumps to mind is top middle infield prospect Mauricio Dubon, who made it all the way up to Colorado Springs last season after being acquired in the December 2016 Tyler Thornburg trade with Boston. Dubon is an interesting prospect, skilled at both shortstop and second base with a high-contact approach at the plate. And while Dubon will almost certainly get a chance to play in Milwaukee in the near future, PECOTA seems to believe another player probably deserves a shot at the big leagues before him:
Enter utilityman Nate Orf.
Orf has been considered a “non-prospect” since beginning his professional career, which shouldn’t come as much of a surprise – the diminutive 5’9″ Missourian was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Brewers back in the summer of 2013 as a 23 year old out of Baylor University. Orf doesn’t have much of a track record for power (15 home runs in 545 minor league games) but since turning pro all he’s done is hit. Employing a selective approach at the plate has allowed Orf to keep his strikeout rate below 15% at every stop he’s made while climbing the minor league ladder, and he’s the owner of a career .289 batting average. Often times we’ll a high-contact hitter like that shirk walks against minor league pitchers, but not Orf; he’s also drawn a free pass in nearly 11 percent of his plate appearances in the minors. Overall, he owns a career .289/.385/.401 slash in five seasons within Milwaukee’s minor league system.
Orf logged some time in AAA in 2016 but spent all of 2017 with the Sky Sox and produced arguably the finest season of his career. As pointed out by my colleague Steven Jewell at Brew Crew Ball, joining the fly-ball revolution may be exactly what Orf needed to take the next step at the plate. Orf slashed nearly 10 percent off of his ground ball rate in 2017 and nearly all of that change went to an increase in fly balls. He hit fly balls at a 47.9 percent rate last season. That helped Orf to nearly double his previous career high in isolated power, with his .187 ISO far outdistancing the .101 he produced all the way back in rookie ball in 2013. He clubbed 32 doubles, 11 triples, and nine home runs on his way to slashing .320/.397/.507 in 125 games for Colorado Springs. Even when factoring in the hitter-friendly environment of both Security Service Field and the Pacific Coast League as a whole, Orf posted a .288 TAv and was one of only two Brewers prospects that posted a wRC+ greater than 130 (the now-departed Monte Harrison was the other).
Following the conclusion of his highly successful 2017 campaign, Orf headed to Venezuela and batted .337 in 29 games for Tiburones de La Guaira (as a teammate of Junior Guerra!) even as he battled some stomach issues and lost 15 lbs during the season. He earned a non-roster invite to major league camp for the first time this spring and has continued to impress in the early going. Thus far in 12 Cactus League appearances, Orf has hit .333/.481/.534 with a double and a home run.
Dubon has the more notable prospect pedigree, but PECOTA doesn’t seem to believe he’ll make much of an impact this season. Dubon’s 50th percentile projections say he’ll only receive 62 plate appearances at the highest level in 2018 and bat .246/.295/.351 for a TAv of .235. Orf, on the other hand, is forecasted to bat .244/.332/.382 across 250 trips to the plate for a TAv of .244. His ability to capably play all over the diamond helps him in the eyes of PECOTA as well (he played all nine positions in a game once at Class-A Advanced in 2014, and accrued 7.9 FRAA between 2B, 3B, LF, and RF in 2017). Overall, he’s projected to contribute 0.7 WARP in a part-time capacity.
This will be Nate Orf’s age-28 season and his sixth as a minor leaguer for the Brewers. The profile likely plays best in a bench/utility role, but perhaps 2018 could finally be the year that he gets a shot at playing in the MLB.