Rebuilding Brewers, steals leader Villar are on the move

MILWAUKEE (AP) — Jonathan Villar seems as if he’s always on the move for the Milwaukee Brewers.

He led the majors in steals last season. He started at shortstop before shifting over to third to make way for heralded prospect Orlando Arcia.

Finally, Villar appears to have finally settled on a new home this spring at second base. But he remains firmly entrenched as a table-setter in the lineup for Ryan Braun.

The top of the order might be the most intriguing part of a team entering the second full year of a rebuilding project.

“When it comes to talent, we’re catching up to some other teams in our division,” Braun said.

Villar brings energy at the top of the order. He had a breakout year after stealing 62 bases while hitting .285 with 19 homers and 63 RBIs.

Center fielder Keon Broxton (.242, 9 HR, 28 RBIs in 75 games) showed promise as a potential power-speed threat at the plate. He stole 23 bases in 27 attempts.

Braun is back in left after bouncing back in 2016 to hit .305 with 30 homers, 91 RBIs and 16 steals. Now the Brewers’ longest-tenured player, the 33-year-old Braun is starting the season healthy for the first time in a few years.

He remains the player in Milwaukee who is best able command a cache of prospects at the trade deadline. Or Braun could be a veteran who serves as a stabilizing lineup presence as more young prospects arrive at Miller Park.

“We recognize that there are going to be days that are challenging and days that are really tough but the only thing we can fully control is our level of effort and how we compete every day,” Braun said. “So, it’s something we made a priority last year and it’s something that will continue to be a priority moving forward.”

Other things to watch as the season begins in Milwaukee:

NEW LOOK: The Brewers need a new closer after Tyler Thornburg was traded in the offseason to Boston for new third baseman Travis Shaw. Free agent signee Neftali Feliz seems like the favorite to handle the ninth. The Brewers would love if Feliz flashes the form that allowed him to save 40 games and win the AL Rookie of the Year award while with Texas in 2010. … Milwaukee let first baseman and slugger Chris Carter go to sign Eric Thames in one of the most interesting moves this offseason in baseball. Carter tied with Colorado’s Nolan Arenado for the National League lead with 41 homers; Thames is returning to the majors after three successful seasons in the Korean Baseball Organization.

ROOKIES TO WATCH: Where to start? The slick-fielding Arcia enters his first full season at shortstop after coming up from Triple-A in August. He’s the first piece of the team’s future core to arrive in the majors. … Outfielder Lewis Brinson and left-handed starter Josh Hader could be the next top prospects to arrive in September. They spent time in big league camp this spring. … Outfielder Corey Ray, pitcher Luis Ortiz and infielder Isan Diaz are among other prospects Brewers fans will be watching as they progress through the minor league system.

ROTATION SITUATION: With no true ace, the Brewers will turn to Junior Guerra (9-3, 2.81 ERA) on opening day. It’s been quite the career turnaround for a right-hander who went from journeyman to No. 1 starter in less than year. Zach Davies (11-7, 3.97) looks to build on a solid rookie campaign, while Jimmy Nelson (8-16, 4.62) hopes to bounce back after a disappointing season. Matt Garza (6-8, 4.51) and Wily Peralta (7-11, 4.86) round out the rotation.

LEFTY LOOKS: Shaw (.242, 16, 71 with Red Sox) and Thames were brought in to add left-handed bats to what had been primarily a right-handed lineup. … Former second baseman Scooter Gennett is taking on a utility role after playing the outfield this spring. He’ll give manager Craig Counsell another left-handed bat off the bench.

SUPER SUB: Hernan Perez (.272, 13, 56, 34 steals) moves back to a utility spot after helping to stabilize the lineup when veterans were traded last season. He figures to still see regular at-bats as a player valued player for his ability to play all over the field and hit anywhere in the lineup.