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Why did the Orioles, who lost 108 games last year, just waive their most valuable position player?

Jack Baer
By most accounts, Jonathan Villar was a four-win player last season. That's pretty good for the Orioles. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

When you lose 108 games like the 2019 Baltimore Orioles just did, plenty of turnover is expected as the team continues its rebuild.

What is not expected is that turnover reaching a player who was the team’s most valuable position player during the season, according to multiple statistical measures. That would be a truly odd roster move, and also exactly what the Orioles did.

Orioles waive Jonathan Villar

Eyebrows were raised Wednesday when the Orioles reportedly put starting second-baseman Jonathan Villar on waivers after making an effort to trade him. The roster move comes ahead of MLB’s deadline for tending contracts to arbitration-eligible players.

That is surprising because, as you might have gathered, Villar was rather good in 2019. He hit 274/.339/.453 with a 109 OPS+ while alternating between second base and shortstop, and led the team in hits (176), runs (111) and stolen bases (40).

According to both Baseball Reference and FanGraphs, Villar was a four-win player last year, the highest mark among position players on the admittedly meager Orioles roster.

Fielding-wise, Villar graded out as a decidedly below average second-baseman with -11 DRS at the position, but was curiously average as a shortstop, the harder position, with 0 DRS.

Add all that up, and you’ve got a guy who isn’t a star and is relatively up there in age at 28, but can potentially provide an above-average major-league bat while playing shortstop at an average level. That is a player with value, just perhaps not to the Orioles.

MLB Trade Rumors projected that Villar was in line for a raise to $10.4 million for the 2020 season if he went into arbitration with the Orioles. Meanwhile, the Orioles slashed payroll significantly last year — from $148.6 million in 2018 to $80.8 million per Cot’s Contracts — and figure to want to keep payroll down again as they project to be among the worst teams in MLB.

So the Orioles probably didn’t want to pay a mid-range salary for a decent player. Sure. We’ll see if that leads to even less reason for fans to show up at Camden Yards in 2020, but they’re not the first rebuilding team to strip-mine their payroll. Nor will they be the last.

Meanwhile, we’ll see if any teams decide Villar is actually worth the $10.4 million or so after turning down the Orioles’ trade offers. Given how the Orioles are shaping up for next year, getting out of there might be a blessing in disguise for him.

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