With GM meetings underway, Jonathan Villar trade talk could heat up

As the club they support is not loaded with talent, it seems that many Orioles fans are feeling some anxiety about what might happen with middle infielder Jonathan Villar.

The only player in the majors with at least 24 homers and 40 steals in 2019, Villar produced 4.0 Wins Above Replacement (WAR), according to FanGraphs.com, to lead the club. Trey Mancini was named Most Valuable Oriole, but Villar had a strong case after a big second half.

Villar-Sprinting-Around-Bases-White-Sidebar.jpgBut now with an arbitration price tag that could reach or exceed $10 million, the club may part ways with Villar. They could look to trade him or even not-tender him, which would make him a free agent.

Or, at a time when the O’s don’t have any middle-infield prospects quite ready for the majors, the club could pay Villar and keep him for at least 2020. He can be a free agent after the year. They could look to re-sign him and then deal him at the trade deadline. There reportedly was some interest in Villar last year at the deadline. But after the All-Star break he gained nearly 100 points on his OPS and was a more valuable player.

After his big second half he could have several trade suitors, even with a price tag of around $10 million. One scout I texted last night thought it was possible that Villar could bring two of a club’s top 10 prospects.

Villar hit .274/.339/.453 with 33 doubles, five triples, 24 homers, 40 steals, 111 runs and a .792 OPS. He played in all 162 games (one of five players in the majors to do so) and hit his 20th home run on Aug. 26 to mark the eighth time in Orioles history that a player has totaled 20 home runs and 20 stolen bases in a season. He produced the first 20/20 season by an Oriole since Manny Machado (35 HRs/20 SBs) in 2015.

Villar ranked third in the major leagues in steals, was fifth in the American League in runs and tied for ninth in the AL with 176 hits. Villar’s 111 runs are the most by an Oriole since Melvin Mora also scored 111 in 2004, and tied for the eighth-most in a single season in team history.

But it’s fair to question whether Villar can produce another season this good in 2020. Over the 2017-2018 seasons, he hit a combined .251/.310/.379. And while his OPS was .792 last year, it averaged .689 in the two years that preceded it.

A segment of fans who don’t want to see the Orioles fall any further than they already have feel that losing Villar might cement another 100-plus-loss season. That could be so, but 24 other players, and really 40-50 or more, will have something to say about that. That includes some players not even on the team yet.

But the Orioles will listen on any player, of course, and talks for Villar could heat up or the groundwork for a future deal could be set at this week’s General Manager meetings.

Is it conceivable that the club would lose Villar, even via a trade that brings prospects and not major league-ready talent, and still be better next year.

The Orioles could certainly use Villar in 2020. But will they do it at that price? On the books already for 2020 are Chris Davis at $21.1 million and Alex Cobb at $14 million. There are seven arbitration-eligible Orioles, including Villar. They project to get a combined $29.2 million. That puts the rebuilding Orioles at $64.3 million for nine players. That is before any possible outside additions and before they sign all their pre-arbitration players.

It’s not that big of a salary number compared to recent years when the Orioles were contending, but it might be a number that exceeds the comfort level of Mike Elias with his club still so far away from their next time contending.

How should the Orioles weigh dealing Villar and maybe adding future talent against keeping him and possibly winning more in 2020?

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