Despite the warnings, many Oriole fans expressed frustration about the Jonathan Villar trade. He played in all 162 games in 2019, hit for average (.274), hit for power (24 home runs) and stole 40 bases while splitting time between shortstop and second base.
He was guilty of lapses on occasion, but he brought excitement to a team that lacked it.
Still, it was clear that Orioles Executive Vice President/General Manager Mike Elias had no intention of keeping Villar. The 28-year-old infielder was arbitration-eligible, and the Orioles weren’t willing to pay the $10.4 million it was estimated he would have received.
Had he stayed and produced again next season before July’s trade deadline, the odds are the Orioles would have received a deal similar to the one they received on Monday night when they acquired a raw 23-year-old left-hander, Easton Lucas, from the Miami Marlins.
Last July, they traded starting pitcher Andrew Cashner for two 17-year-old players from the Dominican Summer League.
Elias said the market for players with a season or less before free agency won’t bring great packages in return.
Some of the arbitration-eligible players who will return to the Orioles could be traded. Pitchers Richard Bleier, Dylan Bundy and Mychal Givens would seem to be in line to become former Orioles sometime between now and next July.
Bleier has three years left of club control. Bundy and Givens have two, and that makes them more attractive to other clubs than Cashner or Villar.
Trey Mancini, who also has three years before free agency, seems likely to stay, at least for the moment. Pitching will likely bring back more in return than slugging first basemen/outfielders.
Fans seemed to give Elias a grace period for 2019, accepting the decision to rebuild from top to bottom after 115 losses in 2018. That patience might not be as strong in 2020, which could be just as ugly as the past two seasons.
Even with Villar’s flashy play and strong numbers, the Orioles still had their second-worst season in history in 2019, losing 108.
If they kept him until next July, traded him then, got a minimal return and still finished the year with more than 100 losses, would it make much of a difference?
While 2020 could see the Orioles finish with 100 losses for a third straight season, there were some positive signs in 2019.
They introduced some younger players into the mix. Outfielder Anthony Santander seemed to tire down the stretch but his 20 home runs showed promise. Reliever Hunter Harvey excited with an explosive fastball. Austin Hays made a number of exceptional plays in centerfield. Dillon Tate added another power arm.
You’ll see more of those players in 2020, and the hope is that some of the younger players who didn’t perform as well — outfielder Cedric Mullins, relievers Evan Phillips and Tanner Scott and catcher Chance Sisco — can improve.
Prospects Keegan Akin, Dean Kremer and Ryan Mountcastle could join the team during the season, giving fans a glimpse of what may lie ahead.
Of course, if the Orioles trade Bundy before next July, it leaves a hole in their starting rotation, one that can’t easily be filled. Even with him, they’ll trust that John Means repeats his outstanding 2019 and that Alex Cobb can pitch well enough to create a market for himself.
Cobb has two years and $29 million left on his contract and has only a 5-17 record and 5.36 ERA to show for his first two years in Baltimore that has been limited by injury.
Attendance is down 720,000 over the past two seasons, and some season ticket-holders whose renewals are due on Friday, were discouraged by Villar’s trade.
Orioles attendance was 28th of 30 teams in the majors, ahead of only Tampa Bay and Miami, but despite the awful record and the much smaller crowds, there’s still interest in the team.
According to John Ourand of Sports Business Journal, Orioles TV ratings on MASN were actually up 2 percent in 2019. Overall, the Orioles had the 18th-best ratings in MLB of the 29 U.S. teams, finishing just ahead of the Nationals, whose regular-season ratings were down 9 percent.
Elias heads to next week’s Winter Meetings in San Diego with two open spots on the Orioles’ 40-man roster, and they’ll continue the majors’ longest streak of participating in the Rule 5 draft. When they choose a player or two on December 12, it will be the 14th straight Rule 5 draft they’ve been a part of.
Last year, the Orioles nabbed shortstop Richie Martin with the first pick of the Rule 5, and though he may start next season at Triple-A, it was still a worthy gamble.
This year, Elias is looking for more middle infielders and additional pitchers. Whether he drafts them, signs them to major or minor league contracts, trades for them or claims them on waivers isn’t known. The 2020 team will be built using all of those tools. Just don’t expect the results to be terribly different than they were in 2019.