The Orioles recently announced they are placing Jonathan Villar on waivers. It is a surprising move considering that he appeared to be their most valuable trade asset. John Means is the only other player with more trade value, but he is just coming off his rookie season, so the O’s might be hoping that he will be part of their future when they are good again.
On the surface, it looks like Villar had an excellent bounce-back season, his best since 2016. He hit .274/.339/.453 and was worth 4.0 WAR. He also led the league in baserunning by accumulating 10.5 BsR according to FanGraphs. He stole 40 bases and got caught only nine times, and he ran the bases well when he was not trying to steal. What is strange is that even though he split time between second base and shortstop, the advanced metrics liked him much more at the more difficult position. It is difficult to know what to make of this beyond the wonkiness of these metrics in a single season sample. I highly doubt he is a -11-run defender at second.
The problem with Villar’s full season stats is that they are not telling the whole story. He was hitting significantly worse at the trade deadline, slashing .265/.328/.422 with a .320 wOBA that was 15 points lower than it would be at season’s end. The Baltimore Sun’s Jon Meoli speculated that Villar saw the lack of interest in him at the trade deadline as a “wake-up call.” It could just be a coincidence, but it is a plausible explanation.
Villar hit .291/.360/.511 through the rest of the season, 44 points of wOBA better than he had been hitting up to that point, and his walk rate went from 8.0 percent to 9.6 percent. We do not have splits for WAR available, but I would estimate that at least three out of the four wins he was worth came in the last two months.
The Orioles reportedly put Villar on waivers because they could not find any trade interest in him. He only has one year left until free agency, and MLB Trade Rumors projects him to make $10.4 million in arbitration. If teams had good reason to believe they were getting even a two-win player, they probably would be willing to take on most or all of the salary and part with a low-level prospect or two.
Steamer projects Villar at 1.8 WAR for 2020, but I imagine that is with some wide error bars. He was barely above replacement level two years ago, was worth 2.7 WAR last year, and was likely worth less than 1.0 WAR through July of this year. Villar’s final two months of the season look pretty fluky, and if that increased performance really was the result of a “wake-up call,” how can a team be sure that he will still be as motivated if they trade for him?
A $10.4 million salary is nothing for a competitive team with a need at the keystone, and I am a strong proponent for teams to spend money, but even I have to concede that teams might be right to be hesitant to spend eight figures on Villar. There is nothing wrong with overpaying for real production, but overpaying for replacement level play or close to it is a problem. Furthermore, it would be unwise to acquire Villar without a back-up plan in place, which complicates things even further.
While it is not difficult to understand why the Orioles had trouble finding a trade partner for Villar, that does not mean that putting him on waivers is the right thing to do, because it will only guarantee that they will lose him for nothing. Even with Villar’s salary included, the Orioles 2020 payroll will be under $80 million. Of course rebuilding teams should not be recklessly spending money, but they also do not need to be saving money at the expense of forgoing talent acquisition for the future.
I would have preferred to hang on to Villar, even if it would cost $10 million. I see it as a worthwhile gamble to see if he is at least decent in 2020, and then leverage that for a desperate trade suitor. If he ends up being terrible, well, no big deal. That lost $10 million is not going to impact the franchise at all. Orioles ownership is not going to decline to spend on a big name free agent in the future because the team ended up wasting $10 million on Villar in 2020.
This all works out great for Villar. Either he gets claimed off waivers for a salary that was over twice his 2019 salary, or he gets to be a free agent. If I were him, though, I would hope to get claimed off of waivers, because he probably will not make more on the open market, at least not on a per year basis.
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Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.