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Yankees Potential Free Agent Target: Jonathan Villar

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The Yankees lacked players with defensive versatility — something Villar has in spades.

Miami Marlins v New York Mets Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

When Yankees GM Brian Cashman confirmed that Gleyber Torres would transition to the everyday second base role, it rocketed shortstop to the top of the Yankees’ priority list of needs this offseason. Over the last few months, we’ve left no stone unturned trying to solve the gaping hole at short. The obvious solution was for the Yankees to pursue one of the five star free agent shortstops that made up this unmatched class of talent. However, the Yankees’ disinterest in the players already signed (as well as multiple reports) indicate that it is increasingly unlikely they choose this route of buying the best talent.

So, we switched gears, turning to the less appealing group of stopgap shortstops. These players would bridge the gap to the Yankees’ pair of top prospects — Anthony Volpe and Oswald Peraza — albeit providing negligible value in the immediate future while New York waits for its cheap internal talent to mature. We’ve even explored the possibility of Gio Urshela sliding over to short — a role he capably handled in limited action at the end of last season. Today, I’d like to propose a hybrid solution of sorts, one that involves signing a stopgap player AND making Urshela the starting shortstop. That solution’s name is Jonathan Villar.

2021 Stats: 142 games, .249/.322/.416, 18 HRs, 42 RBIs, 9.1 percent BB%, 26.1 percent K%, 102 OPS+, 105 wRC+, -3 OAA, 2.1 fWAR

Villar is a unique case — he hits better than most if not all of the stopgap shortstop options we’ve reviewed, but cannot field the position anywhere close to the level of that group. He spent the first three seasons of his career as a sporadic (and viral) player for the Astros before establishing himself as a starter in Milwaukee. He has since bounced around between the Orioles, Marlins, Blue Jays, and Mets, putting up everywhere from a four-win to a below-replacement-level campaign.

Starting with the bat, Villar has been a league-average hitter across his career. He’ll take his walks but doesn’t possess a ton of pop, he whiffs and strikes out a fair bit, and he routinely sits in the bottom-third of the league in quality of contact. Of some concern is the fact that Villar regularly outperforms his expected statistics, likely owing to his speed.

Villar’s speed has been his primary offensive threat. He led MLB with 62 stolen bases in 2016 and finished second in 2019 with 40. That said, his sprint speed has declined from top quartile in in the league to just above league average last season. As that speed wanes, one can expect his performance to fall in line with his expected metrics, reducing him to a below-average hitter.

I mentioned Villar’s defense earlier and, well, it’s not pretty. Since the inception of Statcast’s Outs Above Average in 2016, Villar grades out as the sixth-worst qualified shortstop in baseball at -25 OAA. For comparison, Gleyber Torres sits at eleventh-worst with -14 OAA. The Yankees would be better suited leaving Torres at short than plugging Villar in as the starter. If, however, the Yankees opt to slide Urshela to starting shortstop, it would then make sense to bring Villar in as the “stopgap” third baseman, where his defensive deficiencies are less of a liability. And even if the Yankees bring Villar in a purely a depth piece, his ability to play all four infield positions plus some outfield carries value.

Is Jonathan Villar the kind of difference-maker who can turn the odds in the Yankees’ favor? No. That kind of player — a Corey Seager or Carlos Correa for example — requires a significant investment in dollars and years, something the Yankees appear unwilling to do this winter. However, Villar is a reasonable stopgap option whose defensive versatility could be an asset to any team.