Prior to the lockout and accompanying transaction freeze, we saw a flurry of activity on the free agent market which both came out of nowhere and saw many of the top names on the market find news clubs at an early point of the offseason. But even with that flurry of activity, there are still a good number of impact free agents left on the board, and much of this dead period has been spent trying to find fits for those remaining big free agents. For our purposes, much of the dead period has been spent wondering about whether or not those players could fit on the Boston Red Sox roster.
But as we all know, the Red Sox (nor any team) are not going to sign all of the top free agents, nor will they fill all of their holes with big-name additions. That would be fun, but it’s an unrealistic expectation. Most of us, myself included, expect at least one splashy addition, but they are also going to scour the market for mid-tier names who fit their roster well. Second base and/or bench infielder seems to be the ideal place to find this relatively cheap fit, and Jonathan Villar makes a ton of sense in this line of thinking.
Villar has bounced around a few different organizations in his career, originally signing with the Philadelphia Phillies before quickly being traded to the Houston Astros in a trade that sent Roy Oswalt east. Although he was never quite an elite prospect, Villar was long on many scouts radar, making a brief appearance on the back end of Baseball America’s top 100 list early in his professional career. He eventually made his debut with Houston in 2013, and since then he’s also played for the Milwaukee Brewers, Baltimore Orioles, Miami Marlins, and New York Mets.
Villar is now officially in the back half of his career, with 2022 set to be his age-31 season. He’s also settled in as a solid all-around player, as can be seen with his performance in 2021. Last season, the switch-hitting infielder hit .249/.322/.416 for a 105 wRC+, putting him a shade above-average at the plate. That’s not out of the norm for Villar, despite a 2020 in which he finished with an abysmal 65 wRC+. We all know, though, that the 2020 season is not one on which we should be basing any strong opinions, and for Villar that rough year was sandwiched between two seasons with above-average production at the plate. (He finished 2019 with a 107 wRC+.)
In terms of profile, Villar doesn’t really fit the kind of offensive player one might expect based on the fact that he is a speedy middle infielder. Traditionally, those players are contact-oriented who get on base without hitting for much power. Villar, however, has some pretty solid pop, generally settling right around the middle of the pack in terms of power when he’s at his best. He also has some issues making contact, striking out at least 25 percent of the time in six straight seasons (rounding up a 24.6 rate in one instance). But even with the strikeout rate, he keeps his on-base percentage in a solid range thanks to consistently solid walk rates, and when you put it all together you get a guy who FanGraphs’ projection system see as a roughly average hitter.
Granted, that is obviously not a terribly exciting profile, but we’re talking about the middle tier and a Red Sox team that is probably looking for a solid but not too expensive middle infield option. And that’s the other part of Villar’s game, where he can fill in anywhere in the infield. Now, his defense isn’t elite, but he can hold his own at both second base and shortstop, and has experience at third base as well. The Red Sox don’t have a whole lot of infield depth on their bench right now, so getting one player who can cover the entire infield is probably the strategy they’ll have to employ when transactions start up again.
And that brings us to Villar’s potential fit on this team, which would be one of a true jack-of-all-trades. He could reasonably fill any role that may be needed. If Christian Arroyo was hurt in spring training or just ineffective, Villar could play second base every day. Those two could also split time as the team waited for one player to separate themselves. As a bench player, Villar could again fill in for any infield opening, and he could be a useful late-game weapon. A big part of that would be on the bases, where he’s consistently been an above-average baserunner and a double-digit base stealer, but he could also be an important pinch hitter. While not a superstar hitter, he’s a league-average bat as discussed above, and a switch-hitter with very even splits against righties and lefties.
This seems to me to be the kind of package that can often be most overlooked in the majors, as a guy who is just solid at nearly everything without really excelling in this area. And to that end, Villar seems like he should be a relatively cheap addition who would not really take away from a team’s ability to address other areas on the roster. FanGraphs readers, for example, predicted a two-year, $12 million deal for the infielder.
There is always the chance that a team would be going more aggressively after Villar, either in terms of money or what kind of role they are offering the player. In that case, the Red Sox can certainly pivot, perhaps towards a reunion with José Iglesias. But Villar’s market is one that is worth delving into, as he can fill a lot of roles simultaneously and give the team flexibility, both financially to make bigger splashes for other spots on the roster and also in terms of roster management, giving Alex Cora more lineup configurations and late-game options, all with just one roster spot.