Versatile infielder Jonathan Villar might prefer to play shortstop on a regular basis, but he knows the arrival of former All-Star and Gold Glove shortstop Alcides Escobar this week all but assures that he’ll be spending most of his time at second base.
“I think I’m playing second base,’’ Villar said Thursday. “I don’t know. [This is] spring training right now. Escobar is coming to play shortstop if he stays on the team. Maybe in the middle of spring training, [we] can talk about playing second base or shortstop, but for now, I’m playing second base.”
Escobar, 32, almost certainly will make the team if he stays healthy. The Orioles signed him to provide depth, experience and stability in the middle of the infield. Villar, 27, isn’t going anywhere either, so they would seem to be the obvious front-line middle infield combination.
“[Villar] is going to stay in the middle for right now,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “He's been mainly at second base so far, but as camp goes along, he'll start mixing in at shortstop also, as well as the shortstop guys mixing over at second base.”
Of course, this is a rebuilding year and the Orioles will audition some young players at various positions over the course of the season, but Hyde has said he intends to play every game to win.
“The versatility is really, really important,’’ Hyde said. “You never know what's going to happen. It's a six-month season. Being able to have some versatility, having guys who can play multiple positions — I never want to surprise a guy if he's never worked anywhere in spring training and all of a sudden the second week of the year, something happens and he moves over to a position he hasn't been accustomed to. I want to get those guys as comfortable as possible in areas and spots where potentially they can play during the season.”
Villar doesn’t seem to mind. Coming up with the Houston Astros, he played second, third and shortstop and even appeared in the outfield. During his two years with the Milwaukee Brewers, he also played some center field.
“I like shortstop more,’’ Villar said, “because when I signed, I signed as a shortstop. Second base is good, because you don’t have to move as much and you don’t need to throw so hard to first base, but I feel comfortable with both.
“I’ll be ready for anything. If I play every day, I don’t care what position I play. I’ll be ready for any position they put me in to play.”
Villar started 36 games at second base and 18 at shortstop after the Orioles acquired him from Milwaukee in the deal that sent Jonathan Schoop to the Brewers. He’s a capable defender, but the most important thing he brings to the table is his do-or-die aggressiveness on the bases.
Hyde has said from the start of camp that one of his top priorities is developing a hard-charging running game, so the guy who led the major leagues with 62 stolen bases in 2016 would figure to be right in the middle of it — or at the front of it if he continues to bat leadoff.
“That’s my game,’’ he said. “When you hit a base hit, steal second base and steal third base, that’s a triple for me. That’s happy for the team, too, because a ground ball with one out, that’s an RBI.”
He is such an aggressive base runner that — in a Baltimore Sun article last August — some former Brewers teammates criticized his lack of awareness of game situations. But his speed added an extra dimension to a largely station-to-station Orioles offense last season.
“They’ve told me, run whatever time you want,’’ Villar said, “but when you run, [think about] the situation of the game.”
Villar had a solid final two months at the plate. He posted a .258/.336/.392 slash line with eight home runs, 24 RBIs and 21 stolen bases in just 54 games with the Orioles.
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.
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