In a move that took social media by surprise Wednesday afternoon, the Baltimore Orioles waived a guy who finished last season as one of the most valuable position players in the American League.
Jonathan Villar accumulated 4.0 Wins Above Replacement per FanGraphs (fWAR) in 2019, which ranked in a tie for 17th among all AL position players. Given there are only 15 teams in the American League, that means Villar would have been knocking on the door of being an average team’s most valuable position player. And the Orioles, of all clubs, are letting him go?
The grand-scheme conversation surrounding this move pertains to the despicable lengths to which non-contending (See: Tanking) teams will go to save a few bucks on payroll during the years in which they don’t intend to be competitive, anyway. A good player is being cast aside by his team, not because of any issue with his recent performance, but rather, because that player is able to command a fair raise to his compensation as a result of the quality of his recent performance.
It’s an example of a trend in the industry that has the potential to bring the entire thing crumbling down before the next collective bargaining agreement, but the grand-scheme isn’t the aspect I want to focus on for this particular article.
Instead, I’m curious: Which MLB team will step up to the plate as the beneficiary of Baltimore’s frugality? If the opportunity presents, it should be the Cardinals.
That the Orioles waived Villar indicates they aren’t exactly alone in their evaluation of the value of his services. Because of the expected hike in his salary, the Orioles were trying to unload him via trade ahead of Monday’s deadline to offer contracts to arbitration-eligible players. That they ultimately chose to waive Villar indicates they weren’t getting any takers in trade talks.
Through the arbitration process, Villar is projected to earn in the neighborhood of $10.4 million for 2020. That’s a substantial increase from the $4.825 million he earned in 2019, certainly, but it’s a projected increase dictated purely by Villar’s performance on the field last season.
Villar appeared in a full 162 games for the Orioles, mashing 24 home runs and stealing 40 bases while splitting time defensively between shortstop and second base. His defense wasn’t anything special, but with that kind of performance offensively from a middle infield spot, it doesn’t really have to be. Villar posted a sturdy .274/.339/.453 triple-slash and 107 wRC+ to reflect his clearly above-average value as a hitter.
The Orioles surely appreciated the value Villar provided last season, but were not willing to bet on Villar repeating in 2020 what was ostensibly a career-year for the 28 year-old. If the player doesn’t get rewarded financially until he proves himself with his performance, but then doesn’t get rewarded financially after proving himself at an opportune stage of his career given the structure of the system… when does the player get rewarded financially? Again, that’s a problem with the system, but the system is the one under which all teams are free to operate for now.
Still, if there’s a smart team out there over the next few days, that time for Villar should still arrive in 2020.
Between now and Monday afternoon, any MLB team can submit a claim for Villar. Waiver claims are processed in reverse-order of the standings, first for the league in which the team waiving the player exists, before moving to the opposite league in a similar fashion. Since the Orioles are an AL team, AL clubs would have first crack at claiming Villar. Then NL teams would have their chance.
Villar was an everyday player on the bottom-feeding Orioles last season, but he wouldn’t necessarily go into 2020 on a new team guaranteed a similar role. Though $10 million is a substantial sum of money to allocate toward a player you don’t anticipate will fill a major position of need on your roster, it’s not a back-breaking sum in and of itself.
A one-year, $10 million commitment shouldn't be a real deterrent for contending teams looking to gain that extra edge. Say, for instance, a team looking to elevate themselves from NLCS participant to an NL pennant or World Series title.
You know, a team like the St. Louis Cardinals.
On the surface, Jonathan Villar wouldn’t have a clear path to everyday playing time in St. Louis. The Cardinals say they’re committed to Matt Carpenter having a legitimate role next season. You can bet they’ll want Tommy Edman as involved as possible. With a fully healthy and productive group of position players intact, the Cardinals don't really have a desperate need for Villar, on paper.
But when is a team’s contingent of position players ever fully healthy and productive? Baseball seasons are long and arduous. Bumps along the way represent the nature of the beast.
The Cardinals don’t seem poised to make a big splash this winter, but insurance is a luxury, one the Cardinals should be willing and eager to pursue. When John Mozeliak has touted the concept of ‘incremental improvements’ to his roster in the past, fans have rolled their eyes at the notion.
But incremental improvements doesn’t have to be a naughty phrase. In an offseason that doesn’t seem likely to provide a major impact addition to the Cardinals roster, now is the time to put those words into practice.
If the Cardinals are going to preach it, they ought to be aggressive in pursuing such upgrades when they become available. Consider the improvement Villar would represent over Yairo Munoz off the Cardinals bench.
Like Munoz, Villar can play multiple positions across the infield and he has some experience in the outfield, as well. A true base-stealing threat and above-average hitter across his most recent full season, Villar also adds value in areas Munoz (.653 OPS in 2019) lacks.
Consider how you viewed Munoz’s role with the Cardinals last year. Rather than an emergency defensive replacement who provides little value offensively, the Cardinals could employ Villar as a weapon. As a fan, you might even look forward to Mike Shildt creatively involving him in the game plan in some capacity on a nightly basis.
Given the value he can offer in multiple facets of the game, there’s no reason Villar should go unclaimed before Monday. As an NL team that finished near the top of the standings last year, the Cardinals would be one of the last teams to get a crack at landing Jonathan Villar through a waiver claim.
If they’re still serious about incremental improvements, though, they should be there to catch him if he should fall.