8. Milwaukee Brewers (25–19, plus-27, LT: 13)
Last season, the Brewers seemed to have an enviable problem. Starting shortstop Jonathan Villar was in the midst of a gigantic breakout season, smashing a career-high 19 homers and while stealing a career-best (and league-leading) 62 bases. But the Brewers also needed to find room for top shortstop prospect Orlando Arcia, who didn’t possess that kind of offensive upside, but still offered a superior glove. Injuries and attrition at third base pushed Villar to that spot, allowing both players to co-exist in the infield. But the offseason acquisition of Travis Shaw from the Red Sox combined with the continued presence of superutility man Hernan Perez meant that Arcia and Villar would have to form the team’s new double-play combination, with Villar taking over as the team’s full-time second baseman.
With Memorial Day fast approaching, the Brewers are the most unlikely division leader in baseball, sparked by an offense that’s received massive production from Eric Thames at first base, and better-than-average numbers from every other starter ... except Arcia and Villar. Arcia, you can forgive. In his first major league season as an everyday player from day one, the 22-year-old shortstop is batting a weak .230/.277/.360, making him one of the least productive hitters in the league. But he’s also shored up the infield defense, ranking seventh in MLB defensively according to Baseball Info Solutions Defensive Runs Saved with a +3 mark.
The problem in an otherwise surprisingly impressive lineup has been Villar. At .220/.286/.347, he’s been just as bad offensively as his keystone partner, plummeting from his .285/.369/.457 mark of a year ago. He’s also driven Craig Counsell nuts with mental lapses. On Sunday, Villar shuffled slowly after a Kyle Schwarber one-hopper to short right against the shift, then lobbed a throw to first that was both offline, and delivered with no urgency, facilitating an “infield” hit and Jon Jay’s scamper home all the way from second after reliever Rob Scahill neglected to watch what was happening behind him. The Brewers manager benched Villar on May 10 following a rare big offensive day, thanks to two baserunning gaffes that sent him back to the bench after two of the three times he reached base.
Ultimately, starting pitching will likely decide whether or not the Crew can continue to lead the NL Central, or even hang in the race. But Villar has looked out of sorts ever since he returned from the World Baseball Classic having ridden the bench for most of that tournament. Whether it’s rediscovering his 2016 batting eye and healthy line-drive rate, or simply avoiding frequent mental errors, Villar could play a big role in keeping the Brewers’ Cinderella season going, if he can get going himself.