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Indians can prove they’re still trying to win by signing Jonathan Villar

How hard the Indians pursue Villar is a clear indication of how much they really care about winning versus their bottom line

Texas Rangers v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Will Newton/Getty Images

While the Indians prepared to scrape the bottom of the second base barrel to find their Jason Kipnis replacement via free agency, the Orioles decided to plop a better option right into their lap: Jonathan Villar.

In order to save on the projected $10.4 million Villar would make in arbitration, the Orioles pulled what even Buster Olney dubbed a “soulless baseball move” by putting him on waivers with the clear intent of releasing him outright if he clears and is sent back to them. Because every other team is cheap and every other team knows every other team is cheap, he is of course going to clear waivers and essentially become a free agent to be low-balled until he’s forced to sign well below what an arbitration board would have rightly awarded him for the 4.0 fWAR season he had last year.

You read that correctly. Jonathan Villar, a 28-year-old switch-hitting second baseman was worth four wins last season — aka, the second-best second baseman in the American League — and the Orioles are going to release him to save a few bucks. Presumably it’s so they can play Hanser Alberto, a 27-year-old second baseman who is projected by Steamer to be worth 0.5 fewer wins next season, but expected to make less than $2 million in arbitration.

In truth, it makes sense for the Orioles, given their situation. They’re not going to win anything this season, they might as well save money and let those suckers who keep buying tickets to their games suffer through another 100-loss season. It’s the down years where you can rake in the cash, and right now the Orioles are living the life of luxury until expectations catch up to them and they actually have to field a baseball team.

Until that day comes, however, the Indians should be pouncing on this opportunity. Technically, the Indians can’t attempt to sign Villar until Monday, when he will likely clear waivers and be non-tendered and released by the Orioles. That’s when the Indians can get aggressive.

Villar’s value is a little weird, but it doesn’t take a whole lot of digging to find it. You wouldn’t expect much looking at his 107 wRC+ and -11 DRS at second base last season, but 24 home runs and his 40 stolen bases — which was second in all of baseball — show why he’s valuable.

Steamer projects a 10-point shaving off his wRC+, down to 97, but still 32 stolen bases and an improved walk rate at 8.8%. Over an inconsistent few years in the majors, he has 300+ innings at both second base and shortstop, plus a handful at third base and he’s wandered around the outfield a couple times. Combine that with his switch-hitting ability, and he’s a tailor-made Tito Guy out of the box. One that might actually be good, to boot!

The potential drawbacks are just as clear as his speed, however. His Statcast peripherals don’t show a guy about to bust through projections and suddenly hit 40 home runs. His profile is run-of-the-mill as it gets — his exit velocity, hard-hit rate, xwOBA, xSLG, xBA are all in the bottom third of the league — but even Steamers seems him hitting 20 dingers again next season and being ever so slightly below average at the plate.

Given his age and ability to excel at one facet of baseball so well, he’s at least a budget-conscious option for the Indians. I’m not here to vilify their desire to work within a budget right now (I did that already), but if they are serious about still trying to balance competing and maintaining a tight budget, this is the type of signing they need to be going after to prove the scales haven’t tipped too far in one direction.