On a last place team, talent has a way of standing out. After all, 100-loss clubs rarely have a surplus of it. The Orioles struggled once again in 2019, and few players had what could be considered a memorable year.
As you may have heard, Trey Mancini established himself as the face of the franchise. In fact, some may say he was the Orioles’ entire offense in 2019. John Means burst onto the scene, managed to post a winning record in Baltimore, and finished second in the American League Rookie of the Year vote.
Unfortunately, last season also featured several disappointing stories. Alex Cobb got bit by the injury bug once again, Mychal Givens watched his ERA climb and his trade value plummet, and Cedric Mullins found his way back to
Triple Double-A. Still, another player joined Mancini and Means atop the Orioles player power rankings in 2019.
Jonathan Villar played in every single game last season, and played quite well. Villar slashed .274/.339/.453 for the O’s and finished four wins above replacement. He delivered the offensive output while handling both middle infield positions (not at the same time, but I imagine he’d be up for the task). Villar scored 111 times, drove in 73 base runners, and demonstrated an ability to hurt pitchers in multiple ways. His 24 home runs and 40 stolen bases made him the only 2019 player in the 40/20 club.
Simply put, Villar had a very good year on a very bad baseball team. Baltimore surely got its money’s worth out of the $4.83 million that the infielder earned last season. However, he’ll be due a substantial raise in his final year of arbitration.
Villar’s 2020 earnings are projected to top $10 million, which has generated some concern. While some have made the case for Villar to be a non-tender candidate, it’s difficult to picture Mike Elias simply forfeiting one of the club’s only assets.
Instead, Villar’s price tag, along with his close-to career year in 2019, have many projecting that the switch hitter could be on the block this winter. After all, the Orioles are a rebuilding club. Losing four wins from the middle infield likely won’t be a difference maker next season. The Orioles won’t sniff the playoffs until after Villar’s arbitration eligibility runs out, so what’s the point of writing the check or keeping him around?
First of all, it’s a lot easier to make this argument when it’s not your money. The Angelos family is trying to run a business, and they’ve tasked Mike Elias to help them. Now with that disclaimer out of the way, the Orioles absolutely cannot let Villar walk this offseason.
If they can obtain a fair offer for him right now, then he has to go. Losing Villar would not help the 2020 club, but that’s the sad reality of a rebuild. If not, the Orioles absolutely must sign Villar, play him every day, and try again at the end of July.
If the Orioles deal Villar this winter, they’d be selling high. Forty steals, 24 homers, and 111 runs scored could help plenty of teams. His defensive versatility, speed and power make him an asset to just about any contender. There’s no guarantee that his numbers remain at an elite level, and his value could easily level off. On top of that, if the Orioles acquire prospects in the deal, Baltimore would want them in the organization as soon as possible.
If the Birds do deal Villar, who would play up the middle? Even if Hanser Alberto handles second base, who takes short? The Orioles kept Richie Martin around last season just so they could send him down to develop this year. Even if Martin hits in spring training, the club would have to go outside of the organization for ifnield depth.
The ideal scenario likely consists of a strong first half for Villar in a Baltimore uniform, and Martin tearing it up during his first season at Triple-A. The former Rule 5 pick would take Villar’s place at the trade deadline while a couple of prospects head to the farm. If only it were that simple.
Still, it’s challenging to let one of your only productive, veteran players go. It’s even more difficult when that player has expressed an interest in staying in Baltimore.
As bad as the Orioles were last year, it’s difficult to imagine where they would have been without Villar. Eventually, winning has to become “strategically relevant,” although it may not be this year.
Jonathan Villar had an extremely productive 2019. He made national headlines when he blasted the 6,106th MLB home run last season, and always seemed to appear in Orioles game recaps. Now, the Orioles are tasked with determining how to maximize the 28-year-old’s value. Does it include Villar playing games in Baltimore in 2020? I guess we’ll see.