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Unconventional trade idea: Villar for a pitcher

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Villar’s versatility and contract status present the Mets with an intriguing option.

New York Mets v Miami Marlins Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

In just under half a season, Jonathan Villar has turned into one of the most electric and fun players on the Mets’ roster, and this season he’s turned that energy into a highly productive campaign. Signed to a one-year deal during the offseason, Villar has made the most out of numerous injuries to Mets starters, putting up a 106 wRC+ in 211 plate appearances while filling in mostly at third base. At times he’s been the team’s best hitter, and he’s not only blossomed into a fan favorite, but also occasionally an invaluable starter on a first-place team. So, naturally, the Mets would be smart to trade him.

The Mets are currently in first place in the division, but they might decide to make deal or two at the deadline. First-place teams looking to add talent in-season usually have to deal young players, and while the Mets still may do that, Villar presents an intriguing opportunity to fill a greater positional need without having to part ways with a prospect.

While Villar has performed admirably in the wake of multiple injuries, the returns of Luis Guillorme, Jeff McNeil, and the impending return of J.D. Davis all but kill his chances of remaining an everyday player in the second half of the season. It is entirely possible that injuries or under-performance may vault Villar into the lineup once again, but the best-case scenario for the Mets going forward sees Villar as a versatile spark plug sitting on the bench.

Meanwhile, the Mets’ league-best pitching staff is facing a tidal wave of issues. With Joey Lucchesi out for the season and questionable timelines for injured starters David Peterson, Carlos Carrasco, and Noah Syndergaard, and the current mix of pitchers filling out the bullpen, it’s becoming imperative for the team to find quality pitchers in the open market. Or to put it simply, the team needs arms much more than they need bench players.

And on the best version of the 2021 Mets, Villar is a bench player. But with his defensive versatility, switch-hitting ability, speed, and power, he could make a productive starter elsewhere on a contending team. Since Villar is already 30 years old and only signed through the end of this season, there’s a decent chance he sits through much of the rest of 2021 and signs elsewhere in the offseason. But since he’s playing so well right now, the Mets have a rare opportunity to sell high on a versatile veteran.

Trading Villar would be an unconventional move that would attract few potential buyers, but there are some worthwhile options to explore. No team out of contention would look to acquire a 30-year-old on an expiring contract, so you can eliminate most of the league. The Mets would also be looking for a pitcher in return, so it would be best to target pitching-rich contenders, preferably outside of the division. The Padres and Astros have good infield depth and likely wouldn’t be interested in a Villar deal. The Red Sox don’t have much in the way of trade-able pitchers, and trading with the Rays has historically been a very bad idea. That realistically leaves the Dodgers, Giants, and Athletics as the best possible trading partners.

Villar isn’t the superstar rental that would command a bevy of prospects, so a theoretical trade would probably be a one-to-one swap, and likely with a pitching version of Jonathan Villar: a pitcher on an expiring contract versatile enough to be plugged into any situation. That’s a lot of qualifiers, especially with so few teams for whom a Villar trade makes sense, but a few possibilities exist.

The Dodgers have a couple of players who fit this bill, with the best option being Jimmy Nelson. After missing the entire 2018 and 2020 seasons and posting negative fWAR in 2019, Nelson has roared back with a 1.69 FIP in 26 appearances for the Dodgers, but he hasn’t gotten many opportunities alongside the other veterans in the bullpen. Nelson’s experience as a starter in Milwaukee also makes him a potential swing man, something that could be very attractive for a Mets rotation relying on multiple starts from Triple-A pitchers this season.

Joe Kelly also somewhat fits this bill, though he’s older and more expensive than Nelson is. Kelly has also started exactly one game in the last six seasons, doing just about all of his work out of the pen after a promising start as a starter in St. Louis and Boston. What Kelly has over Nelson, however, is playoff experience, with 32 appearances over seven playoff runs, including eight appearances in the World Series. That’s incredibly valuable for a bullpen whose only members who have set foot on the big stage are Jeurys Familia and Aaron Loup.

The Dodgers, who are always deep, may decide that their infield depth is deep enough, which would force the Mets to look elsewhere. Oakland’s infield depth is not deep, as they’re offering the lion’s share of starts at second base to Jed Lowrie, who has been pretty good this season but is 37 years old. Villar would represent an immediate upgrade over Lowrie and would also give the Athletics another switch-hitting infielder, but unfortunately they don’t have as much to offer as the Dodgers would.

Yusmeiro Petit is having a perfectly fine season as a 36-year-old reliever, and he even has recent playoff experience with five appearances last season for the A’s. The same can be said of Sergio Romo, who is even older and has gobs of playoff experience. I recognize that trading for a 38-year-old middle reliever for anything more than a bucket of fish will certainly upset some fans, but I have a vested interest in seeing Romo play for the Mets. I might pay for his 2021 salary myself with all the jerseys I would buy.

Much like their rivals across the Bay, the Giants could also use some help in the infield, as Villar would represent an upgrade over Wilmer Flores at third base. Unfortunately for the Mets, there isn’t really a pitcher on the active roster who would fit well in a trade. The closest the Giants could offer is José Álvarez, who has a 2.73 ERA and 3.60 FIP over 29 innings for San Francisco.

These are just three destinations and a handful of trade options for Villar, but it may not be worthwhile to explore this possibility any further considering the likelihood of a Villar trade actually happening. If the Mets do see a significant need to be addressed via a trade, it’s more likely the Mets take the conventional approach of sending prospects to bad teams in exchange for veteran rentals. I hear the Diamondbacks are selling.

But this team has something special with Villar. They have been very lucky to have gotten the good Jonathan Villar, akin to his 2019 Orioles campaign or his 2016 Brewers campaign, as opposed to the bad Jonathan Villar, who has shown up everywhere else he has played in his nine major league seasons, including last year with Miami and Toronto. He is absolutely worth keeping this year, either as infield depth or the first player off the bench. But there is no guarantee that the good Villar shows up again next year for the Mets, if he re-signs at all. With most of the starting infielders back on the active roster, it wouldn’t create much risk to sell high on Villar.