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Jonathan Villar has played himself into being the Orioles biggest trade chip

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The 27-year-old is one of the few things to go right in Baltimore this summer.

Oakland Athletics v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images

There’s not much competition on a roster nearly devoid of established talent in its prime, but Jonathan Villar is the Orioles best player, and it’s not particularly close. He is one of the handful of guys on this team that could find a regular spot on many other major league clubs. That said, he’s not a star and, at 27 years old, is unlikely to become one. The O’s could hold onto him, but it makes a lot more sense to heavily explore his trade market this winter.

Villar came to the Orioles on trade deadline day as part of the deal —along with Luis Ortiz and Jean Carmona— that sent Jonathan Schoop to the Brewers. It’s still far too early to judge which team did better on that swap, but the O’s have almost certainly gotten a more productive player in Villar than they anticipated. According to Baseball Reference, Villar has already equaled Schoop’s 1.4 WAR for the Orioles this season in 39 fewer games.

The way in which Villar creates his value is what makes him stand out. The .270/.340/.411 batting line he’s put together since the deal would be pretty impressive on its own. He’s also added eight home runs and 17 stolen bases on 20 attempts. All of this has been done while showing decent range at both middle infield positions. Villar is a multi-tool player that, if the O’s were ready to win, would be a valuable weapon just about anywhere in the lineup.

Unfortunately, the Orioles are not ready to win, and it’s unclear when they will be. In the exchange of the Jonathans, the O’s lost a bit in age but gained a full year of team control. Villar cannot become a free agent until after the 2020 season. That gives them two more guaranteed years of Villar if they wish to hold onto him. That may not be enough time to build a serious contender.

Holding onto good players for too long without signing them to contract extensions has been a common mistake in the recent history of the Orioles. They waited too long to move Manny Machado and Zach Britton, and the argument can be made that they did the same with Schoop.

The Orioles have done a lot to pad Villar’s value since acquiring him. He has received significant playing time at both shortstop and second base. While it has been a very small sample size, he looks comfortable in both spots. The 17 stolen bases he has since August 5 are the most in baseball during that time. Not to mention he has put together the aforementioned batting line in one of the sport’s toughest divisions. This August and September have been two of the most productive months in Villar’s career.

Any contender looking to upgrade in the middle infield may be intrigued by a trade for a fairly young Villar. Jed Lowrie of the Athletics will be the best second baseman on the free agent market, but he’s also about to be 35 years old. Machado is the clear prize at shortstop, but beyond him at the position is a defensive specialist like 29-year-old Jose Iglesias and little else.

Just a quick glance at the FanGraphs team leaderboards reveals that contenders like the Dodgers, Brewers (ironically), Rockies and Red Sox could all do well to improve at second base. At shortstop, the Phillies, Diamondbacks, Braves and (once again) the Brewers need to get better value. Any one of those teams may be willing to part with a tantalizing prospect or two in order to get their hands on Villar.

There’s only one Machado to go around, and the O’s already cashed in on him. Selling Villar at his peak value won’t return as much as Machado did in a trade, but it could command a surprisingly good package for a player that, just a few months ago, was deemed surplus to requirements for a club that had a clear need at his position.

That’s not to say the O’s wouldn’t suffer in the middle infield with his potential departure. There are very few options at shortstop that are near MLB-ready in the team’s system. Steve Wilkerson could play second base, but there is plenty of reason to be unsure about him as well. This would not be a move to make the Orioles a better team right now. A trade of Villar would be made with a view towards the future; 2020 and beyond.

Of course, the Orioles do need to win games, at least more than have in 2018. Losing is to be expected during a rebuild, but the extent to which the team has lost this season will turn even more fans off if it continues at such a break-neck pace. They cannot continually trade away any players of value for prospects to save money and stockpile young guns in hopes of a brighter “tomorrow” or else that tomorrow may never come.

But Villar is not a franchise centerpiece. He’s an above-average role player that may make an All-Star game or two before it’s all said and done if things go right in his career. He’s replaceable, and if the Orioles can find a suitable deal, they should not hesitate to pull the trigger on a trade.

When that trade should happen is open for debate. The sooner they make the trade, the more the Orioles will get in return. We have seen this show before. Two years of control can quickly turn into three months, and suddenly other clubs are offering scraps for your most valuable commodity. The O’s front office needs to get proactive for once. It they expect, without a doubt, to be competitive before Villar’s team control expires (unlikely), then they should hold onto him. If that seems like a pipe dream, then this winter is the time to make a deal.

Do you expect Duquette and company to build a winner in less than two years time? Then you should hope to hear a lot of rumors surrounding Villar before the team gathers in Sarasota for spring training this February.