Upgrading the bench can do a lot for a team. The Mets are hoping they have found such an upgrade in the 30-year-old, switch-hitting, utility infielder Jonathan Villar, who they signed in early February to a one-year, $3.55 million contact plus incentives.
The Mets will be Villar’s sixth team in his eight-year career in the big leagues. A breakout year with the Brewers in 2016 that included a league-leading 62 stolen bases elevated his status to that of an every day regular, and his best season since came in 2019 with the Orioles, when he played all 162 games, posting a 109 OPS+ with 24 home runs and 40 stolen bases. In an otherwise bleak year in Baltimore, Villar was a bright spot, finishing the year over four wins above replacement. Unfortunately for the rebuilding Orioles, this raised his arbitration price quite substantially and he was therefore traded prior to the non-tender deadline during the 2019-2020 offseason.
Looking at Villar’s overall batting line for the shortened 2020 season doesn’t paint a pretty picture. However, it was really a tale of two seasons for the switch-hitting speedster. Over 30 games in Miami, he hit .259/.315/.345, which is not his best effort with the bat, but not exactly out of line with his career norms. Things really took a turn for the worst for Villar after he was traded midseason to Toronto, where he was awful, posting a .188/.278/.203 slash line over 22 games. In a season full of small sample sizes, it’s hard to draw any solid conclusions from these further parsed splits. However, over the course of his career, Villar has spent much more time oscillating within reasonable distance of average as a hitter than dwelling in the doldrums and that is what the Mets are betting on.
Regardless of how things go for Villar with the bat, he remains an elite stolen base threat, which is the greatest asset he brings to the Mets, alongside his versatility in the field. He stole 16 bases in last year’s abbreviated season (at an equal clip with Toronto as with Miami) and only Billy Hamilton has more stolen bases than Villar since 2016. Villar also continues to hold steady at an 80% success rate and his speed has shown no signs of decline as he enters his thirties. In a lineup that does not contain too many stolen base threats, Villar injects some speed that will make him very useful as a pinch runner in key spots.
Villar also provides utility as a player who has experience at almost every position on the field other than catcher and first base, which is vital for a Mets team with its share of players manning less than optimal defensive alignments. Villar is not a plus defender at any position, but he won’t have a substantial negative impact in the field either. The overwhelming majority of his at-bats have come as a middle infielder, but he has played one Grapefruit League game for the Mets at third base in addition to two at second base and three at shortstop. With Francisco Lindor locked in at shortstop and Kevin Pillar and Albert Almora sharing reps in the outfield, it is likely that if Villar is called upon as a defensive replacement, it will be at second base or third base.
On the Mets bench, Villar acts as the switch-hitting complement to the left-handed Luis Guillorme; both provide the positional flexibility to allow Luis Rojas to get creative with late-inning double switches when warranted, with Guillorme offering slicker defense and Villar offering more speed on the base paths. And if Villar can even come close to matching the 2019 version of himself—and the upside is certainly there—he could see a lot more at-bats than you think in 2021 and quickly make himself indispensable to the Mets.