The July flurry of trades netted the Orioles fourteen players in exchange for some of their best and most recognizable names. Many of those players are prospects whose future is impossible to predict. They range from very raw to being polished enough to have been called up to the majors already. There was one outlier, a veteran who posted a fantastic season in 2016. That is Jonathan Villar.
The 27-year-old Villar, from the Dominican Republic, has bounced around during his career. His professional career began by signing with the Phillies as a free agent in 2008. He was traded to Houston in the Roy Oswalt deal in 2010 and made his major league debut with the Astros in 2013. After three seasons of being a part-time player (no more than 87 games), he was dealt to Milwaukee prior to the 2016 season. That is the campaign where he made a name for himself. He posted a .285/.369/.457 slash line while scoring 92 runs and swiping a league-leading 62 bags. He wasn’t all speed though; he also hit 19 home runs and drove in 63. It was quite the season.
It has been downhill since then for Villar. In the season and a half since the end of his fantastic 2016 season, he is slashing .253/.304/.381. That’s a far cry from the numbers he put up two years ago. His decreasing production, the Brewers’ acquisition of Mike Moustakas, and their desire to upgrade the infield’s offensive output that led them to Jonathan Schoop all combined to make Villar expendable.
Villar now finds himself on an Orioles club that has recently started a major rebuilding process. There are no middle infield prospects in the upper levels of the minor leagues to challenge him for playing time. Maybe this situation won’t provide the motivation he needs or maybe it will be the fresh start that will kick him back into his 2016 gear. The early returns have been good. He has slashed .360/.385/.560 in seven games since the trading deadline.
So what type of player do the O’s have on their hands? His impressive stolen base numbers over his career indicates that he will bring an element of speed to the table that we haven’t seen in Baltimore in some time. He also fits the profile of a stereotypical leadoff batter, something the O’s haven’t had since Brian Roberts.
Offensively, the analysis of him comes down to whether or not 2016 was fluke season. It’s hard to say exactly what caused Villar’s numbers to decline across the board from 2016 to 2017. His strikeout percentage went up between the two seasons (25.6% to 30.3%) but his walk rate plummeted (11.6% to 6.9%). All told his, walk to strikeout ratio went from 0.45 to 0.23. Not good. Villar’s career BABIP (batting average on balls in play) is an impressive and well above average .346. A BABIP of .373 helped fuel his fantastic 2016 season, but it dropped to a still respectable .330 the next season. That regression doesn’t fully explain his offensive dropoff.
Defensively, he wasn’t good at second base during that great 2016 season. His defensive runs saved (DRS) according to FanGraphs was -1 that season. He rebounded last season, posting one DRS. But this season, he has already saved five runs at second base. While his offensive production has dropped after 2016, his defense seems to have improved. That will be a welcome addition to the Orioles.
Overall, Villar was a nice buy-low acquisition for the Orioles and filled an immediate hole at second base that their farm system is not equipped to fill. And at 27 years old, he is still young and in the prime of his career. Plenty of players don’t figure it out until well past that age. While 2017 was rough overall (-0.5) WAR, he has bounced back this season (one WAR). A player who posted a three WAR season as recently as 2016 is worth taking a chance on, especially since he is trending back in the right direction.
But as much as Villar could be a nice piece for the Orioles now and conceivably into the future, does he factor into their long-term plans? When rebuilding, the question a club needs to ask about each player is “will he be a part of our next good team?” If the answer is no, he needs to be traded for younger assets that will be a part of said next good team. Villar is eligible for free agency after the 2020 season. That is the same offseason that Kevin Gausman’s contract expires, and he was deemed expendable by the O’s. I certainly don’t see Baltimore fielding a contending team in 2019 and it is looking doubtful for 2020 as well. It is very possible that Villar could leave as a free agent while the Orioles are still in rebuilding mode.
Given that, I wonder if Dan Duquette didn’t accept Villar as part of the return for Schoop with the intention of flipping him. If a change of scenery gets Villar back to, or near, his 2016 level of production, the Orioles will have a very nice trade chip on their hands. We can hope that the O’s middle infield situation in the minor leagues will look better a year from now. If a farmhand is showing himself to be ready, it is very possible that Villar is traded, assuming he returns (somewhat) to form.
It is strange that a club embarking on a massive firesale and total rebuild would acquire a player who has less than three years left until free agency. While Jonathan Villar is filling a role now, it is unlikely that he is on the next good Orioles team and therefore could be a trade candidate sooner rather than later.