Four diamonds in rough seasons
Standouts give non-contenders hope for future
They have endured miserable seasons, in some cases so predictable that they’ve been suspected of tanking. For these clubs, the playoffs were out of the picture by Memorial Day.
Amid the losing, though, some of the majors’ worst teams have found potential contributors for a franchise turnaround.
The Milwaukee Brewers might have a future 20-20 infielder in their ranks. The Cincinnati Reds unleashed another speedster to wreak havoc alongside Billy Hamilton. The Tampa Bay Rays molded a valuable multiposition player. The San Diego Padres discovered an unlikely source of power.
Here’s a look at four players whose emergence bodes well for clubs trying to return to relevance.
Jonathan Villar, Brewers
Brewers general manager David Stearns was plenty familiar with Villar from their previous three seasons together with the Houston Astros, so he wasted little time in trading for the infielder after taking over his new post in early October. Six weeks later, the Brewers acquired Villar for minor league pitcher Cy Sneed.
Switch-hitting Villar had flashed excellent speed and decent pop as a minor league shortstop before reaching the big leagues shortly after turning 22. But he was a mild disappointment with the Astros, especially his propensity for striking out, and in early June 2015 he was replaced by uber-prospect Carlos Correa.
“Sometimes when players break into the major leagues at a young age and don’t have the success everyone immediately anticipates, we forget about them a little bit,” Stearns said. “We thought there was the potential Jonathan could be one of those guys. We knew the underlying talent level was there.”
It has been on display in Milwaukee, where Villar has lifted his on-base-plus-slugging percentage (OPS) to a career-best .826 while batting .292 with 15 home runs and 53 steals, the second-highest total in the majors.
Villar, 25, again ceded the shortstop job to another top pros- pect when defensive whiz Orlando Arcia was called up in early August. But whether he stays at his current third-base spot or moves elsewhere, he figures to be an important part of the young nucleus the Brewers are assembling.
“One of the great benefits Jonathan provides is the ability to play multiple positions well,” Stearns said when addressing Villar’s future home. “So we’re going to continue to keep an open mind.”
Jose Peraza, Reds
The Reds have found an ideal complement for Hamilton, a fellow speedster who also can drive opposing defenders batty. Now they need to figure out where to play him.
For now, Peraza is mostly starting in center field in place of Hamilton, who is sidelined with a side muscle injury that could keep him out for the rest of the season. The Reds likely will find a different spot for Peraza in the offseason so they can pair them at the top of the lineup.
Peraza, 22, is batting .321 with a .349 on-base percentage and 15 steals in 54 games while making at least seven starts at four positions: shortstop, second base, center field and left field.
“This guy certainly looks like he’s capable of being a regular, everyday player,” Reds manager Bryan Price said. “Now it’s just a matter of finding his best spot and where he best serves the team. He can serve our team in a lot of different ways.”
Peraza arrived in Cincinnati as one of the key acquisitions in the three-way deal that sent popular third baseman Todd Frazier to the Chicago White Sox. Another rebuilding move, the trade of outfielder Jay Bruce at the deadline, netted the Reds a promising infielder in Dilson Herrera.
It remains a bit of a mystery where they fit in, considering Cincinnati has Gold Glove-caliber defenders at shortstop (Zack Cozart) and second base (Brandon Phillips), both of whom are eligible for free agency after the 2017 season.
What’s clear is Peraza, who is batting .403 since his Aug. 20 callup, has done enough to carve a spot in the Reds’ plans.
Brad Miller, Rays
The team that sprung the ultimate Swiss Army knife player might be grooming another one.
Miller, in the middle of a breakout offensive season in his first year with the Rays, was not happy to be moved from shortstop to first base when the club acquired infielder Matt Duffy at the deadline.
But the Rays don’t think of Miller strictly as a first baseman. They established themselves as regular contenders late last decade with Ben Zobrist as a valuable multiposition player, and they see some of that same potential in Miller, who has a .799 OPS and a career-high 28 homers.
“Whether he’s playing shortstop, first base, the outfield, he’s a baseball player, and we’re going to get everything out of him,” said Matt Silverman, the Rays president of baseball operations. “The utility-player tag is not appropriate. He’s an everyday bat who can help us in so many different ways positionally.”
Miller’s home run output has come as a surprise to many around the game, considering he had never hit more than 11. But Silverman said that was partly due to playing at pitcher-friendly Safeco Field, and the Rays expected power from the lefty swinger when they acquired him from the Seattle Mariners along with Logan Morrison.
Tampa Bay saw both players as part of the solution to its perennial offensive woes, and the Rays have indeed hit more homers than at any other time this decade, though the majority of them with the bases empty.
Unexpected pitching problems and injuries have conspired to doom Tampa Bay to its worst season since 2007, but Silverman is bullish on the prospects for next year with starters such as Chris Archer, Alex Cobb, Jake Odorizzi and Drew Smyly heading the rotation and Miller somewhere on the field.
“We don’t need him to settle at any position, because he plays so many different positions well,” Sil- verman said. “He gives us so many options heading into this offseason because we know he can play so many different spots and we’re going to get that type of production at the plate.”
Ryan Schimpf, Padres
Schimpf refuses to play the part of a 5-9 second baseman, and that might be what keeps him in the majors.
Middle infielders his height are supposed to slap the ball and run to scrap out singles. Schimpf, a 28year-old rookie with the Padres, hardly ever hits the ball on the ground, let alone slaps at it.
His offensive game is based on lifting the ball for extra-base hits, and he has delivered plenty of them while carving out a regular spot in the lineup.
Despite playing in only 73 games since his June 14 debut, Schimpf ranks second on the team with 18 home runs and boasts a .567 slugging percentage, with 38 of his 52 hits (73%) going for extra bases. His 18 homers since July 1 are the second-highest total in the NL.
This might not be a fluke. Schimpf hit 22 home runs in his final season at LSU and reached the 20-homer mark in each of his two previous seasons in the minors.
“The power has been a part of my game since I was little,” said Schimpf, who atones for a .225 batting average and 85 strikeouts with a .338 on-base percentage and a .905 OPS. “I’ve always gone out there trying to drive the ball, even when I was a little kid. I’ve learned from a lot of good coaches along the way to help me refine it a little more.”
Schimpf, who also plays third base, figures to compete for the starting job at second next spring with Cory Spangenberg, who has missed most of the season with a thigh injury, and perhaps prospect Carlos Asuaje.
Padres manager Andy Green is aware of Schimpf ’s uncanny knack for hitting the ball in the air — his fly ball rate of 64% is by far the major leagues’ highest among batters with at least 200 plate appearances — and sees it as a strength in this era of defensive shifts.
“It plays better than hitting a ton of ground balls when you don’t fly,” Green said. “Hitting the ball in the air, it’s no secret that’s where you’re successful now. You don’t want to hit at a crazy-high launch angle if you don’t have a lot of power, but he does have a lot of power, so he’s going to find his success in the air.”
The Reds’ Jose Peraza is batting .321 and has made at least seven starts at four positions.