A look at the Orioles team leaders in bWAR this season is a bit embarrassing. Three of the top five players were traded away in July. One didn’t appear in a game after June 13 due to injury. And the final player wasn’t even acquired until July 31. This fact makes two things quite clear; the 2018 Orioles were just as bad as you thought, and Jonathan Villar is now the best player on team.
Way back on Opening Day, Villar found himself as the starting second baseman of the Milwaukee Brewers. He played in 87 games for the eventual NL Central champs and put together a .261/.315/.377 batting line while playing steady defense up the middle. But the Brewers needed more out of the position and made improving the infield a top priority.
Meanwhile, the Orioles were falling apart at the seams and ready to sell just about anyone with less than two years of team control remaining. That included a Jonathan of their own, second baseman Jonathan Schoop. In the final moments of non-waiver deadline day, a deal was announced. Schoop was headed to the Brewers and Villar would make his way to the Orioles along with two prospects, Luis Ortiz and Jean Carmona.
As one of the few competent big leaguers on the roster, Villar immediately slotted into the O’s everyday lineup and stayed right there for the rest of the season. He appeared in 54 games after the trade, splitting time between second base and shortstop, while hitting .258/.336/.392 and accumulating a team-best 1.3 bWAR in that time.
Villar brought a unique skill set to Baltimore. His 21 steals between August 1 and the end of the year were enough to lead his new team over the entity of the season. It was also the fourth-most swipes in the entire league during that time period. Better yet, he was only caught three times, making for an 87.5 percent success rate.
In addition to the slash line mentioned before, Villar had a 102 wRC+ and .321 wOBA after joining the O’s. Both numbers were the third-best on the team behind Renato Nunez and Trey Mancini. The middle infielder was not exactly a Silver Slugger candidate all of a sudden, but he was solid, and on a team this bad, that stood out.
Villar has played five positions in his big league career: second base, shortstop, third base, left field and center field. For the Orioles in 2018, he spent most of his time at second with a dash of shortstop thrown in. Conclusions can’t be drawn from just two months of defense, but he never looked uncomfortable in the field, posting positive UZRs at both spots. Again, it was not quite Gold Glove level work, but it was adequate.
Over the entire season between Milwaukee and Baltimore, Villar registered seven defensive runs saved at second base whereas he cost the O’s three runs at shortstop. Even still, shortstop could be his role for the 2019 Birds. Tim Beckham is a non-tender candidate after a lackluster season and there are no other clear options at the position. Second base could be played by Steve Wilkerson, Breyvic Valera or others.
Villar’s impressive play with the Orioles is unlikely to have surprised many around the league. He was a fringe top 100 type of prospect during his time in the minors. Two years ago, he was a force in the Brewers lineup, hitting .285/.369/.457 with a 120 wRC+ and 117 OPS+. That’s when he set career highs with 19 home runs, 38 doubles, 79 walks and 62 steals. It’s no mystery that this guy can play. But his 2017 season was a disappointment as he crashed offensively, and he carried most of those struggles into 2018.
Which version of Villar will show up for the Orioles in 2019 remains to be seen. The team has him under control through the 2020 season. The 27-year-old may never again reach the success he had back in 2016, but he should have a few years of productive baseball left.
The combination of Villar’s contributions following the trade and the fact that he has more than one year of team control remaining could make him an attractive trade option for teams in need of middle infield help. But the Orioles won’t feel pressured to get a deal done by spring training. The free agent market has plenty of second basemen and the shortstop-hungry teams could be all-in on Manny Machado. It may be smarter to wait for the dust to settle and make a trade closer to July 31.
Of course, the organization needs to hire some decision-makers before any deals can go down. The lack of obvious middle infield heirs in the high minors may dissuade the future front office from dealing Villar prior to having a more concrete succession plan in place. Carmona, Adam Hall or Cadyn Grenier may be fine shortstops in the big leagues one day, but none of them have even gotten to High-A Frederick yet.
Villar’s time in Baltimore may not last beyond the 2019 season. But that shouldn’t downplay how important acquiring him may be to the rebuild effort. He has provided a necessary steadying of the lineup and bought the club some time to figure out the future in the infield. The rest is up to the people in the warehouse.