Brewers examine second-base situation
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
The Milwaukee Brewers answered a number of positional questions in their surprise breakout season of 2017.
But one area where they'll head into the off-season boasting no obvious long-term answer will be second base, thanks mostly to the unexpected flameout of Jonathan Villar.
"That's a position we're going to have to take a long look at," general manager David Stearns conceded at the team's season wrap-up news conference at Miller Park on Tuesday.
"I think we have multiple talented players who we have under control who have the ability to be everyday second basemen. We didn't get that level of production this year from some of those players, so we will have to determine whether we think that was an aberration this year, or whether we think that's more to the norm."
The 26-year-old Villar seemingly had become a building block with the Brewers after a breakout 2016 season in which he hit .285 with 19 home runs and 63 runs batted in and led the major leagues with 62 stolen bases. He played both shortstop and third base that season before being pegged as the team's second baseman moving forward.
The team reportedly was so convinced Villar could do the job long-term that it offered him a $23 million contract extension last spring--an overture that he turned down--and then later placed holdover Scooter Gennett on waivers.
It was a decision that backfired for the Brewers.
While Gennett went on to post a breakout .295/27/97 season for the Cincinnati Reds, Villar never got going. He eventually was replaced as the primary second baseman, became a complete non-factor with the team fighting for a postseason spot down the stretch, and wound up hitting .241/11/40 with 23 stolen bases.
He also committed 16 errors, second-most on the team, while carrying over his 2016 bugaboo of making head-scratching and at times costly base-running gaffes.
Villar was even given a brief six-game audition in center field late in the season in an attempt to take advantage of a period where he'd heated up at the plate. But that ultimately didn't take either, and now the Brewers' brain trust is left to decide whether he can be afforded another chance on a team that will have drastically raised expectations heading into 2018.
As Stearns noted, there are options beyond Villar.
The Brewers traded for veteran Neil Walker on Aug. 12, and he hit .267 with four homers and 13 RBI in 38 games. But he's 32 years old and will be looking for a big payday on the free-agent market.
Veteran Eric Sogard played well for a stretch but his value lies in his versatility, and at 32 early next season it's likely he'd be viewed as no more than a reserve should the Brewers bring him back.
Hernán Pérez started 16 games at second base, but manager Craig Counsell covets his ability to fill in at multiple positions. Then there's minor-league prospect Mauricio Dubon, who showed considerable promise in jumping from Class AA Biloxi to Class AAA Colorado Springs this past season.
There's also the possibility Stearns could look outside the organization in the offseason, either swinging a trade or signing a free agent.
"We were very flexible over the past couple of springs, having competition," Stearns said. "We believe having competition is a good thing. Clearly, as we become a more competitive team and become a more established roster with players who have longer track records, the number of available spots in any spring training is going to diminish.
"But it remains to be seen whether second base is one of those spots for us quite yet."
Another area the Brewers will need to address is the starting pitching rotation, which took a big hit when budding ace Jimmy Nelson underwent surgery Sept. 19 for a torn labrum in his pitching shoulder that he suffered while sliding.
Nelson was a workhorse for the Brewers this season, finishing second in starts (29) and innings (175 1/3) behind leader Zach Davies. His 199 strikeouts led the team.
"We believe that we're going to miss Jimmy for a meaningful part of the 2018 season," Stearns said. "We're not going to know how long that is, frankly, until we see you guys close to spring training. It's going to take a while to get a grasp of where he is in the rehab process.
"But clearly, when you lose a player--regardless of the position--of Jimmy's talent and stature with this team, you have to account for that."
Counsell didn't bite when asked about left-hander Josh Hader's role moving forward. He was switched from starting to relieving when he was called up to the major leagues on June 9, and he eventually became a big weapon out of the bullpen down the stretch.
"Josh is going to get outs for us. He proved he could get outs for us," said Counsell, employing one of his favorite catchphrases.
"The thing is, no decision has been made and why would we make a decision today on that, really? The biggest thing for us, the biggest positive for us, is that Josh proved he can get outs.
"Josh, frankly, dominated hitters in certain stretches of the season. So we know we have a big-league pitcher there and a guy that can get important outs if we choose to use him as a reliever."
Another member of the rotation, Chase Anderson, earned the nod from Counsell as the Brewers' breakout player of 2017 with closer Corey Knebel right behind him.
Anderson, 29, went 12-4 with a 2.74 earned-run average in 25 starts (141 1/3 innings), overcoming a seven-week, mid-season absence caused by a strained left oblique to become the team's most consistent starter. He even stepped forward and made a start on three days' rest in the wake of Nelson's injury.
"The player that to me took the biggest step forward was Chase Anderson," Counsell said. "He was a player who did it in that last stretch of 2016. There was an injury that interrupted the season, but once he got going this year he really took a big step forward for us."
The 25-year-old Knebel, meanwhile, replaced Neftali Feliz early in the year and went on to post 39 saves in his first season as closer. The right-hander struck out an incredible 126 batters in 76 innings while also leading the National League in appearances with 76.
"It was a season that was remarkable," said Counsell. "From a relief pitcher, to say you hope to see that again, I don't know that you'll see a season like that again. It was incredible, an incredible season for a reliever.
"He was one of the better relievers that you saw in baseball this year."
Among the news items announced on Tuesday was that the entire major-league coaching staff would return for 2018 and that the Brewers had purchased a full ownership stake in their advanced Class A affiliate, the Carolina Mudcats.
Last updated: 11:01 pm Tuesday, October 3, 2017