The night before this past July’s Trade Deadline, Jonathan Villar couldn’t sleep. No stranger to the swirling rumors, he anxiously checked his phone, hoping to not see any news. It was only after a sleepless evening that Villar reported to Oriole Park the next day, relieved once the 4 p.m. ET benchmark came and went.
“I’m happy because they wanted me here,” Villar said at the time. “Everybody told me it was like 99% possible I’d be traded.”
In truth, market forces made the Orioles' chances of moving Villar more remote. But Villar, who has already been traded thrice, knows better than most how career trajectories can change in an instant. Which is why, flash forward a few months, Villar finds himself standing on familiarly uncertain ground. The irony is, it is because once Villar’s short-term future was assured, his production took off.
“I’ve always seen the tools, he’s always shown the tools,” Orioles manager Brandon Hyde said. “The consistency of his game, that’s improved.”
It was never more plain to see than in the final two months of the 2019 season, when Villar showed why there has always been demand for his services. The Orioles' everyday second baseman and sometimes shortstop, Villar was quietly one of baseball’s most productive players in August and September, which he spent showcasing his rare combination of skills.
Speed? Check. Power? Yep. Athleticism? Versatility? Villar possesses them all in spades, and they arguably made him the rebuilding Orioles’ best all-around player in 2019. But since that production put Villar in line for a possible eight-figure payday, he also profiles as one of the club’s most difficult offseason decisions.
What Went Right?
In playing in all 162 games, Villar set career highs in runs (111), hits (176), triples (five), homers (24), RBIs (73), total bases (291) and WAR (4.0). He led the team in runs, hits, steals, and bWAR. He was the only player in baseball to eclipse both the 20-homer and 40-stolen base marks, and the first Oriole since Brady Anderson in 1992. He hit for the cycle, three of Baltimore’s six longest home runs, and .291 with an .843 OPS after the All-Star break.
As much as any other, one particular statistical split illustrated his importance to the team. Villar hit .333 with 15 homers, 22 steals and a 1.025 OPS in Orioles wins. He hit .243 with nine homers, 18 steals and a .669 OPS in losses.
“When I came over here last year [in a trade from Milwaukee], they say play the way you do,” Villar said. “They haven’t changed anything about me. I continue to play hard.”
What Went Wrong?
All summer, the Orioles worked to limit the defensive lapses and baserunning gaffes that have sometimes overshadowed Villar’s production. By the end of the year, they’d either succeeded wildly or wildly overstated those problems.
When the dust settled on 2019, Villar rated as baseball’s best overall baserunner per Fangraphs, an adequately efficient basestealer and not nearly as prone to mistakes as the Orioles’ feared. While Villar did rank among the league leaders in caught stealing, his 82% success rate was acceptably efficient. He took 61% of possible extra bases, 20 percent more than league average. And he made just six outs on the bases, less than half MLB leader Josh Donaldson did and actually fewer than Trey Mancini.
“There are not many guys who can steal 40 bags in the big leagues and hit for power,” Hyde said. “You don’t want to handcuff the guy but you want him to be more aware of situational baseball.”
Defensively, Villar’s defensive metrics were less flattering at second base than short, but given the massive number of shifts the Orioles used, he rarely played either position in any traditional sense.
Aug. 5 against the Yankees, which Villar used a 9-6 loss to carve out a little slice of history for himself. Villar struck out in the top of the first … but then tripled off Masashiro Tanaka in the third, doubled in the fifth, took Tommy Kahnle deep in the sixth and flared a single against Aroldis Chapman in the ninth. When that last ball struck the right-field grass, Villar had completed the first cycle of his career and first by an Oriole since Felix Pie on Aug. 14, 2009. It was the fifth of six cycles recorded in the Majors last season.
Famously, Villar wasn’t aware of his feat until first base coach Arnie Beyeler informed him upon reaching safely. Villar received the baseball and lineup card from the game as keepsakes, which he said he planned to give to his young daughter, Kaylee Helena.
Here is the big unknown. Should Villar return in 2020, he’d reprise his role as one of the Orioles’ most dynamic and important players. But doing so will require Baltimore to pony up somewhere around $10.4 million for Villar in arbitration, according to projections made by MLBTradeRumors. Whether the final number is a little more or a little less, it’ll still be a hefty raise from the $4.8 million salary Villar earned in 2019, and certifiably expensive for a club that slashed its Opening Day payroll by $68 million last season.
The Orioles have $22.5 million more in Mark Trumbo and Andrew Cashner salary coming off the book, and roughly $17.6 million due in arbitration raises this winter, of which Villar represents a major chunk. Do the Orioles have it in them to non-tender their top player by WAR? Can they find equitable value on the trade market? If they sign him, and can’t find a trade partner, is Villar’s roster spot tenuous come Spring Training? These are the questions the Orioles must ask themselves in the weeks to come.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen with other teams,” Villar said. “I don’t know if I’ll be here tomorrow. But I know I feel comfortable here because I have a good manager and good coaches.”