Four di­a­monds in rough sea­sons

Stand­outs give non-con­tenders hope for fu­ture

USA TODAY US Edition - - SPORTS - Jorge L. Or­tiz @jorgelor­tiz USA TO­DAY Sports

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.

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