When the Orioles dealt Jonathan Villar after an impressive 2019 season, it had the feeling of a goodbye. Villar had been a bright light in a dark season, leading the O’s in several categories, and it was difficult to watch him head to Miami for greener pastures. Literally. More cash.
Well, if the Orioles are so inclined, it could have been less a goodbye, and more of a “see you later.”
Villar, who was traded during the 2020 season to Toronto, is back in the free agent pool, and the Orioles are where they were at this time last year after dealing Villar in the first place. After trading Villar’s replacement, Jose Iglesias, to the Angels following a breakout season from him too, the O’s find themselves with a hole at shortstop, in the market for a veteran to come in and shore up the position.
And there’s the idea. Why not make the new guy the old guy?
Villar was expendable because the Orioles were eager for prospects and he was due a raise in pay, but neither of those appear to be obstacles this time. Villar would cost no prospects, and the price tag figures to be lower than last year, now that he’s a year older — he turns 30 in May — and is coming off a season in which he slashed .232/.301/.292. Those numbers are well below his output in Baltimore in 2019, and they resulted in an OPS of .593 that was nearly 200 points lower than his .792 figure from the season before.
You can call that a red flag. But red flags lower prices, which sounds pretty good for a team looking to keep its spending down.
Besides, the Orioles have seen the resurrection process play out with Villar. The Brewers had no problem parting ways with him in 2018, when they dealt him to Baltimore to get Jonathan Schoop for their playoff push. Villar was a .261 hitter with speed but little pop who struck out a ton and didn’t get on base, making him seemingly ill-suited for anything but the bottom of the lineup.
Villar came to Baltimore and, in a hitter’s park, became the asset he was in 2016 when he hit .285 with an .826 OPS and 62 steals. His average rose to .274, he clubbed 26 home runs, and his 111 runs were fifth in the American League. He still struck out a good amount, but his on-base percentage went from .315 to .339, and with more times on base he managed to swipe 40 bases.
The numbers last year aren’t good, but they may not be anything playing half of his games in Camden Yards couldn’t fix.
And the Orioles would seem to be a good fit. With Iglesias gone, the shortstop position is currently set to be filled by either Pat Valaika, who with a .277 average fared well in his first season in Baltimore but who only played 15 games at shortstop and who has only once played more than 70 games in a season, and Richie Martin, who hasn’t played a competitive game since 2019, who hit only .208 that season, and who was thought to be headed to the minors for 2020. Neither one is an obvious heir apparent.
So, the fit would seem to make a lot of sense...right?
Perhaps, but there’s certainly not a lot of buzz out there about a reunion. Before Iglesias signed last January, there had been rumors everywhere about the O’s being interested. This time, any Villar talk is in the opposite direction. Jon Meoli of the Baltimore Sun threw some ice water on any hopes for a second Villar stint, writing “it’s hard to see the sense in going back down that road, even at a bargain.” NBC Sports’s Ryan Wormeli agreed, writing that Villar is likely outside the Orioles’ price range, even after a down 2020.
If that’s the case, if Villar is still looking for anything close to the $8.2 million he got from the Marlins — even anything more than the $4.825 million he got in 2019 — or a long-term deal, then a reunion is D.O.A. Regardless of whether or not it would be a good signing, it’s a moot point. The Orioles weren’t willing to write the check for Villar’s pay raise after a good season, so why would they do so this year after a bad season?
The Orioles might also be looking for their answer at shortstop to be someone who plays the position full time. Though Villar played 97 games at shortstop for Baltimore in 2019, he played 111 at second base, and some defensive statistics indicate he’s better at the latter. His fielding percentage at shortstop is .954 compared to .973 at second base, and UZR (-30.4 at shortstop, -9.8 at second) tells a similar story.
The Orioles may have a rule in their search of defense coming first. They may be willing to sacrifice some hitting for a steady glove, which was why Iglesias made sense (who knew he’d hit .373). If that’s the case again this year, Villar is probably not the guy, even if he is in their price range.
It’s fun to think about, though. Villar was a popular player in 2019, and fans were sad to see him go. A reunion could be a well-received move in the middle of a challenging process.