Milwaukee Brewers: What is key to the keystone?

Despite ending just a game out of clinching a Wild Card spot in 2017, the Milwaukee Brewers entered the offseason with a new lexicon of afflictions in the eyes of sports pundits everywhere: logjams, patchwork rotation, Johnny Bullpen. And yet, even with these purported shortcomings, injuries have made logjams a deep bench, the patchwork rotation has a top-5 ERA in the National League, and Johnny Bullpen currently ranks as the second best in all of baseball.

But that doesn’t mean there haven’t been deficiencies.

While most positions have had a third of the season to shake themselves out into some semblance of clarity, second base still seems to be devoid of any sort of consistency. And to be fair, historically, it’s never really been a position of strength.

Sure, Scooter Gennett had a couple decent years as the Brewers second base stopgap, but he didn’t hit his stride until he got a needed change of scenery, went back home to Ohio and now happens to be only a few hits short of leading the NL in batting and with it, boasts a .937 OPS this season after a gangbusters 2017 in which he tallied 27 HR and 97 RBI.

You could also go back to Rickie Weeks, but even including the year he received an All-Star bid, he still enjoyed only three truly productive MLB seasons. If you want to wade through players with one or two productive years, you could also include guys like Fernando Viña, but you’d have to go back to Jim Gantner, who was really only heralded for his general likability and tenure, to find any semblance of consistency — and even he struggled in the on-base percentage department and rarely tallied meaningful counting stats in consecutive years, despite a decent yearly average (don’t worry Jim, you’re still our hometown boy).

And yet, even with the David Stearns method of having any-variable-number-plus-three irons in the fire at any given moment, a third of the way through the season, the keystone still hasn’t shaken out. In fact, it’s still shaking.

Yes, Jonathan Villar has appeared to bounce back, even if not to the gangbusters 2016 campaign that had him so confident he declined a lucrative extension offer, but he’s still falling far short of both need and expectation in 2018. He’s at least slashing an improved .273/.323/.377 over 2017’s sub-tepid rollercoaster at leading the pack in starts, but his 0.5 WAR and 83 wRC+ (Weighted Runs Created Plus) still leaves much to be desired, especially considering his suspect defense has him ranked near the bottom of all qualifying second basemen.

By comparison, Hernan Perez, the team’s undeniably versatile utility man, has done no better as the second in line (20 G at 2B, .245/.270/.355) and it seems that Eric Sogard’s Nerd Power has lost so much of his mojo (.113/.222/.155), he’s seen nearly an equal amount of time in Triple-A. Even Tyler Saladino, who has been a glimmer of hope, has only manned the position a handful of times, more often being slotted at short, and is currently mending a badly twisted ankle (sprain).

And while there may have been some hope prior to May that the team’s No. 10 prospect, Mauricio Dubon, could be the iron to finally strike, despite his significant struggles with plate discipline, any hopes that remained were dashed to the rocks with his season-ending ACL tear.

So where does that leave the Brewers? Well, short-handed, frankly. But that doesn’t mean that options don’t still exist.

Here’s a look at some potential players the Brewers could end up rolling with for the remainder of the year, outside of their current options of Villar, Perez, etc.

In House

Tyler Saladino

Outside of his injury, which only looks to keep him out of the starting lineup for a few weeks at best, there’s still a decent likelihood that the Brewers lean on Saladino when he returns. While his previous MLB numbers don’t jump off the page, a change in his swing had his numbers in Triple-A looking promising and seemed to translate well at the major league level during his short stay (.324/.359/.622, 6 R, 3 HR, 8 RBI).

His playing time increased dramatically with the ineffectiveness plaguing shortstop Orlando Arcia, but it remains to be seen whether they will slot him at second and fill in the blank at short or have him split playing time with Arcia and find a more permanent solution at the keystone.

Nick Franklin

Franklin is also a possibility, but like Saladino, landed on the disabled list, this time before he had even completed his first appearance this season. He’s supposedly due back from the disabled list in mid-June after suffering a quad strain, but if his previous work in Milwaukee is any indicator, he may not be long for the position (.190/.253/.310, 7 R, 2 HR, 10 RBI, 91 PA).

The Brewers obviously see at least something in him, as he’s certainly been given a premium opportunity over those seemingly better-qualified by remaining on the 40-man roster, but he’s certainly not someone many Brewers fans will be excited to take the field.

Nate Orf

He may not yet be a household name in circles that surround Cream City, but if the #FreeNateOrf campaign is any indicator, enough people know about him to want him to be given a shot. He’s not currently on the 40-man roster but his performance over the last few years, including this one, have certainly helped him place a strong bid to surface at some point this year, should those already in the majors do little to cement themselves.

He may not have the power of some others at the position, but what he lacks in power he makes up for in just about every other category. In 46 games this season, he’s slashing a highly-productive .311/.401/.413 and has already collected 30 R, 1 HR, 23 RBI and 9 SB.

Dylan Moore

Unlike Nate Orf, who seems to garner at least a fair amount of attention, Dylan Moore is quietly putting together a fantastic season so far in the minors. After crushing Double-A pitching in his first 24 games (.373/.429/.639, 12 R, 3 HR, 18 RBI, 6 SB), he seems to be carrying his success into Colorado Springs (.321/.356/.536, 8 R, 2 HR, 9 RBI, 3 SB) and competing for a potential call-up himself. Unfortunately, he also remains off the 40-man roster, but with the rest of the positions finally falling into place at the major league level, he may already be garnering consideration, even if it doesn’t reflect as much on the roster sheets. Eric Sogard has yet to prove himself in his final year of his contract and if Eric Thames returns to produce at the rate he was before he left, Ji-Man Choi, despite his effectiveness, may better serve as minor league depth or even a trade chip than another redundancy at first base.

Keston Hiura

Ok, let’s be real, Hiura is a long-shot, just days ago getting the call-up to Double-A. But as long as we’re talking real, it’s safe to say at this point that the kid is an absolute natural. He’s breezed through three levels since being drafted in 2017 and at age 21, has yet to post an OPS below .850 at any level.

He may still have a tendency to strike out, but when he’s able to produce numbers like he already has this year (.303/.368/.488, 35 R, 5 HR, 21 RBI, 4 SB in 49 G), that seems like only a minor concern. Even though his defensive numbers are skewed because he’s largely been relegated to DH, he still owns a sparkling 1.000 fielding percentage in 18 games at second base. He may be a stretch to make the jump this year, but he’s still worth mentioning — and let’s be honest, he’s certainly fun to talk about.

On the Market

Jed Lowrie

The guy may be 34 years old, but he’s outplaying his prime years by a long shot (barring his initial breakout in 2013). He enjoyed a productive 2017 season in which he tallied 86 R, 14 HR, 69 RBI in his first full season of playing time since 2014 and he’s built on it convincingly this year, already mashing nine homers and driving in 40 just a third of the way through the season. The best part? He’s in a contract year on a losing team and only cost $6 million — right in Stearns’ wheelhouse.

His chances may improve because he’s still a candidate to be part of a package deal, as the A’s are still likely in search of outfielders — which the Brewers have plenty of when you include their Triple-A roster — and have some pitching flexibility to boot. Oh, and did I mention they also have Trevor Cahill, who at only 30 years old is on a one-year, $1.5 million deal and off to a fantastic start (2.25 ERA, .886 WHIP, 41 K, 9 BB, 44 IP)?

He’s an ideal candidate for the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline but unfortunately, he’s also part of a very small market and a thin position.

Brian Dozier

Dozier has been churning in the rumor mills for a few seasons, but he’s finally now in a contract year, has been off to a slow start and is on a team that will need to make a significant turnaround if they plan to keep their buyer status heading into August and September.

His numbers in his age-31 season aren’t as good as the Twins might have hoped (.236/.310/.405, 33 R, 8 HR, 21 RBI), but in recent years, Dozier has surged in the second half and has averaged 101 R, 28 HR and 82 RBI per season with double-digit steals to boot, all of which have been eclipsed in both 2016 and 2017, leaving the door open to a significant turn at any moment.

His $9 million contract is nothing to scoff at, but with his recent scuffles and partial-pay come the deadline, he’s still a viable option should the Brewers choose to go that route and leverage some of the remainder of 2018’s salary for their potential to win now.

DJ LeMahieu

The Rockies are currently leading the NL West, but signing LeMaheiu to a one-year contract could indicate that they may be ready to move on. He may not provide the power of Lowrie or Dozier, but he is nothing if not consistent with a career average of .302 and on-base percentage of .356, both of which would be improvements on the current slate in Milwaukee. Then again, they may opt to ride out the season with him if they stay in contention.

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There are still two months before the non-waiver deadline, so there is plenty of time for things to shake it in numerous ways, especially considering David Stearns’ penchant for the unconventional.

And of course, considering the laundry list of potential problems the team was supposed to be laden with at season’s start, there are certainly worse things to have to worry about than which stopgap will hold down the fort until two of the team’s top-10 prospects reach the major league level in the next year or two.

Jonathan Powell is a co-founder and lead writer for Bronx to Bushville.

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