Analysis: Parting with Jonathan Villar is a statement of intent for Orioles. It’s time everyone listens.

This week’s contract tender deadline was always going to be an inflection point for the 2020 Orioles.

With the Orioles placing infielder Jonathan Villar on outright waivers last week, officially signaling that they weren’t going to pay him north of $10 million in salary arbitration by tendering him a contract, what’s clear is that everyone should do a better job listening.


Not bringing back a player like Villar, who was traded before Monday’s deadline to the Miami Marlins for 23-year-old minor league pitcher Easton Lucas, is not a move that a team that has any interest in being good makes. He was worth more than four wins above replacement (WAR) and was an indispensable part of the 2019 Orioles. It is, in the immediate term, a no-faith gesture to the team’s fans and to the current roster.

But it’s also something that anyone who has paid attention to anything executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias has said about building the 2020 Orioles should be used to at this point. As damning an indictment on the immediate ambition of this team as letting Villar go was, consider the following.

When he addressed the media during the last homestand of the season, Elias said: “We’re taking a broad, strategic, organizational view here. Like I just said, winning a couple extra games is not the end goal here.”

When Elias talked about the arbitration-eligible players he had on the team-sanctioned radio show last month, he said: “There is money involved. You’ve got to take it into consideration, and it may influence the decision whether or not to tender a contract in the first place, but also your threshold for trading those guys if there’s interest elsewhere. That’s part of running any business, and that’s part of reality. Money and budgets are a huge part of our business.”

And when he spoke to The Baltimore Sun after the general manager meetings about what was to come this year, it was even more clear: “Historically, these types of rebuilds don’t always progress linearly. We still have young players that are still a ways away from the major leagues that we’re counting on, and we’ve got young players who have made their major league debut and probably have some lumps to take, and we still have some veteran players that are attractive trade chips and may or may not be moved. We’re still going to be in a process where it’s possible that we take a step back to take two steps forward at the major league level. That can be challenging and it can try the patience of everyone involved, and the fans.”

If the Orioles placing Villar on waivers to jump-start the process of taking him off their roster and then trading him for a minor leaguer is surprising, consider paying attention. At an estimated $10.4 million salary through the arbitration process in an era of suppressed veteran salaries, he was always going to be a difficult sell.

Few teams have as much incentive as the Orioles not to pay him and lose a few more games, with a top-heavy draft class waiting as the reward. Few teams have a worse base of infield depth to replace him than the Orioles, or the incentive to build depth in a meaningful way once he’s gone. And no other team in the league had fewer productive position players to make someone like Villar expendable.

And yet, by virtue of his salary and presumably his style of play, Villar won’t see his services retained for 2020. Trey Mancini, Mychal Givens, Miguel Castro, Hanser Alberto and Dylan Bundy were tendered contracts Monday. Richard Bleier and the Orioles agreed to a contract. This isn’t going to be a team that’s wholly throwing in the towel.

But for those wanting to see investment in the bullpen or starting rotation; a major league caliber starting infield; or any number of upgrades this team needs, the only real option if you don’t like what you’re seeing is voting with your feet. No one has to like the idea that the Orioles are going to, on the heels of 115- and 108-loss seasons, get worse before they even think about getting better.

In that case? Don’t go. Bowie, Frederick, and Aberdeen are within an hour away.

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