Should the Orioles retain the 40th-best player in baseball? Usually, that’s an easy question to answer, but Jonathan Villar’s future is uncertain.
According to FanGraphs, Villar was the 40th-best player in Major League Baseball in the 2019 season. Both FanGraphs and Baseballreference.com calculate Villar’s WAR (wins above replacement) at 4.0.
That puts him ahead of Kansas City’s Jorge Soler, who smacked 48 home runs, Trey Mancini, who had a terrific season and was voted Most Valuable Oriole, Manny Machado and Jonathan Schoop, for whom he was traded on July 31, 2018.
Villar was one of just five players to appear in each of his team’s 162 games. Since he reported to the Orioles in August 2018, Villar has played in each of the Orioles’ 216 games.
He was tied for 10th in the major leagues with 111 runs and fifth in the American League, behind only Boston’s Mookie Betts and Rafael Devers, Oakland’s Marcus Semien and Houston’s Alex Bregman.
Villar stole 40 bases, second in the majors to Seattle’s Mallex Smith. He also hit a career-high 24 home runs, but in this longball happy year, that was only good enough to tie him for 69th place.
Those numbers were terrific, but the number that could trouble general manager Mike Elias is his possible 2020 salary.
Villar will be in his final year of eligibility for arbitration. After making $4.83 million this season, fourth-highest on the club, he could exceed $7 million, and that might be too rich for Elias’ tastes.
Elias is left with several options, none of them ideal.
Clearly, the Orioles aren’t going to extend Villar. All of his value comes from his offense. He committed 20 errors this season, 12 in 658 innings at shortstop and eight in 733 1/3 innings at second base.
They haven’t shown any willingness to offer an extension to Mancini, a clubhouse leader, fan favorite and a champion of Villar’s, calling him one of the most underrated players in the league.
If they haven’t moved on Mancini, they’re certainly not going to offer a multi-year deal to Villar.
They could try to trade him before 40-man rosters have to be set just ahead of December’s Rule 5 draft. The Orioles probably won’t get much for him, but if Elias is determined not to pay him $7 million—or possibly more—they could basically give him away.
In 2013, with reliever Jim Johnson coming off a pair of 50-save seasons, Elias’ predecessor, Dan Duquette, who acquired Villar last July, did give Johnson away.
Johnson was set to make $10 million in arbitration, and that’s what he got from Oakland, who in return sent the Orioles two fringe players, infielder Jemile Weeks and catcher David Freitas.
The move infuriated former manager Buck Showalter, but it turned out to be the right move by Duquette. Johnson had an ERA of 7.14 for the Athletics before he was released in August, and even though the two players acquired for him produced nothing for the Orioles, the team saved $10 million.
In the end, it was a great move because it allowed Zack Britton to succeed Johnson as closer.
The Orioles reportedly tried to trade Villar just before the July 31 deadline but didn’t find a taker.
His full-season performance could make him a more attractive commodity than he was in July, but the Orioles aren’t going to get full value for him.
The most surprising move would be to not to offer Villar a contract, making him a free agent. That would allow the Orioles to avoid paying Villar, but another team could snap him up. It would leave the Orioles with nothing in return.
Last year, Tim Beckham and Caleb Joseph weren’t offered contracts, but their numbers weren’t close to Villar’s.
Another risky move would be to hold on to Villar and see if a team is interested later in the winter, after a contract has been offered, but before the arbitration deadline.
Besides Villar and Mancini, Hanser Alberto, Richard Bleier, Dylan Bundy, Miguel Castro and Mychal Givens are arbitration-eligible, according to Baseballreference.com.
Elias might not want that many arbitration-eligible players on the books for a rebuilding club.
Without a ready replacement for Villar, they might stick with him for his final year before free agency and try to deal him next July. Infielders are usually in demand, but if Villar’s offensive numbers go south, he won’t be as valued as he might be when trading season begins next month.
The Orioles might want to send shortstop Richie Martin to Norfolk to polish his skills now that he’s made it through his Rule 5 season, and that’s another argument for hanging on to Villar.
The team’s best infielder prospects, Cadyn Grenier, Adam Hall and Gunnar Henderson, are far from the majors, and if Villar isn’t back, they’ll have to look for an inexpensive stopgap.
Another year featuring Alberto, Martin, Villar and Rio Ruiz at second, shortstop and third might not excite fans, but they may do as placeholders.
Deciding what to do with Villar is a tricky problem for Elias, and there doesn’t appear to be an easy solution.
Swapping out arms: In the first two days of the offseason, the Orioles have made two moves with pitchers, outrighting right-hander Chandler Shepherd, who started Sunday’s game, to Norfolk on Monday and claiming Cole Sulser on waivers from Tampa Bay.
Shepherd had a 6.63 ERA in five games, three starts for the Orioles.
Sulser, a 29-year-old graduate of Dartmouth, pitched 7 1/3 scoreless innings for the Rays in September, allowing just five hits.