While American baseball sits immersed in an ice bath, the hot stove unable to muster much more than a simmer after the Gerrit Cole trade, summer in the southern hemisphere has bats in full swing and with it, some of the Milwaukee Brewers major league and notable minor league talent.
It’s safe to say the 2017 regular season was a surprise success after the Brewers ended up just one game away from playoff contention on the league’s smallest budget, but not all members enjoyed breakout seasons like that of Travis Shaw and Domingo Santana. Some were held with high expectations after impressive 2016 seasons, only to fall into near obscurity in 2017. But the 2017-2018 Winter League season may be indicating several bounce backs that could prove to be highly-promising.
Liga de Béisbol Profesional de la República Dominicana
Jonathan Villar may have been the biggest disappointment during the 2017 season. As the rest of the team seemed to take off in impressive fashion, Villar followed up his dynamite 2016 season in which he slashed .285/.369/.457, hit 19 home runs, drove in 63 runs, scored 92 of his own and stole a league-leading 62 bases, with a streaky, uninspiring year that saw numerous slumps and inconsistency that lost him playing time. While he did eventually somewhat rebound, he still left everyone wanting more, finishing the year slashing only .241/.293/.372 with 11 home runs, 40 RBI and 23 stolen bases, while falling behind Eric Sogard and midseason acquisition Neil Walker on the depth chart.
But at only 26, Villar still holds significant potential and he’s already beginning to prove that he may have a career-resuscitating bounce-back season in him. Through 16 games with the Dominican Baseball League’s Aguilas Cibaeñas, Villar is slashing .328/.391/.377 with eight RBI, six runs and a pair of stolen bases (although he’s already been caught five times). Even more promising, however, is that he only has six strikeouts compared to seven walks in that timeframe, an obvious improvement over the high strikeout to walk ratio he struggled with in 2016.
Given that the Brewers haven’t yet pursued another second baseman outside of retaining Sogard, who the team signed to a one-year deal this offseason, and settled with Villar at $2.55M for 2018, there’s a chance they may roll the dice on the position for the time being. Villar undoubtedly has enough pressure on him to make a convincing push — the club has a top-30 prospect behind him at three of four minor league levels including Mauricio Dubon who enjoyed a successful jump to Triple-A last season (.272/.320.420, 6 HR, 33 RBI, 7 SB in 58 G) as well as rising star Isan Diaz and 2017 first round pick Keston Hiura — and having a potential time share with Sogard, along with any droughts, could have a considerable impact on his career.
Although he already ended his Dominican Winter League stint in late December, relief pitcher Tristan Archer also enjoyed a nice rebound after the thin air of Colorado Springs left him with a 4.76 ERA and 1.492 WHIP in his first Triple-A foray in 2017. But despite a mediocre earned run average and a WHIP marred by allowing too many hits, his strikeout and walk rates (2.7 BB/9, 8.0 K/9) carried into winter and with them, came better numbers all around. In 14.1 innings of relief for the Leones del Escogido, Archer posted a 1.26 ERA, a 0.907 WHIP with 13 strikeouts and only two walks. With uncertainty looming in the 2018 bullpen, there’s a chance Archer builds on this success and could see some Major League time later in the season.
Liga Venezuela Béisbol Profesional
Outside of Villar, Junior Guerra may have had the most disappointing 2017. After arriving to the Major League roster in 2016 on the heels of a fantastic story that chronicled the then-31-year-old pitching all over the world, Guerra suffered an injury during his Opening Day start. The injury not only kept him out until late May, but significantly shifted something physically or mentally, as he went on to follow his breakout 2016 season (9-3, 2.81 ERA, 1.126 WHIP, 100 K, 43 BB in 121.1 IP) with a forgettable performance that eventually landed him in the bullpen (5.12 ERA, 1.479 WHIP, 67 K, 43 BB in 70.1 IP).
But whatever was ailing him then seems to be in remission, as his 48.1 innings pitching for Tiburones de La Guaira have produced much better results as evidenced by his 2.98 ERA, 1.18 WHIP and 30 strikeouts albeit with 17 walks.
Given the recent signings of Brewer veteran Yovani Gallardo and journeyman Jhoulys Chacin, there’s no guarantee that Guerra will make the rotation over someone like Brent Suter come Spring Training, but if his pitching continues to trend back towards where it was in 2016, he has a good shot to be at least a suitable long relief candidate to shore up what looks to be an uncertain bullpen.
Although a few players have had offseason stats to write home about, Jesus Aguilar may take the cake. Through 24 games with the Leones de Caracas, Aguilar is slashing a massive .317/.442/.549 with five home runs and 15 RBI. Although impressive, it may not be a surprise for anyone who paid close attention to the Brewers in 2017. After being scooped off waivers from the Cleveland Indians last February, Aguilar went on to not only become a highly-reliable first baseman on both sides of the plate, but boasted some of the best pinch hitting numbers in the majors. His productive 2016 season included a triple slash line of .265/.331/.505 with 16 home runs and 52 RBI in only 279 at-bats.
If Aguilar, like the rest of the position players who flourished last year, come close to their production in 2017, the Brewers should be primed for a chance to push for the playoffs for the first time since 2011, with or without any major additions.
Jonathan Powell is a co-founder and lead writer for Bronx to Bushville.