After exposing productive infielder Jonathan Villar to waivers last week, signaling their intention not to bring him back in 2020, the Orioles dealt Villar on Monday to the Miami Marlins for minor league left-hander Easton Lucas, just ahead of the deadline to tender contracts to arbitration-eligible players.
Villar, who hit .274 with a .792 OPS last season in his only full year with the Orioles, was set to make an estimated $10.4 million through salary arbitration, according to MLBTradeRumors.com, and the Orioles spent the past week-plus trying to get value for him. They requested waivers on him last week, effectively offering him to the rest of the league at that price, and ultimately consummated a deal with the Marlins before Monday’s 8 p.m. deadline.
Executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias said on a conference call Monday night that the trade came together in the four hours preceding that deadline, and while the Orioles were “motivated” to trade him for the right return, he said it was “very difficult” to deal a player who was such a big part of the team’s present.
“It’s hard to let him go, but we’ve got to keep an eye on our strategic objectives, which prioritize the future right now,” Elias said. “With a guy who’s going into his last year of arbitration with the team, facing free agency, who is set to demand a large salary that he’s earned through his play this year and in years past, when we have the opportunity to use that playing time on other players who may be around longer, to use that payroll on other players and other objectives that fit more tightly with our strategy, and then get a young player back, a young pitcher that we view as a prospect and potential future piece for the team, it makes a lot of sense. It’s something you have to do.”
In terms of replacements, the Orioles have Hanser Alberto, Richie Martin, Stevie Wilkerson and waiver claim Pat Valaika on the middle-infield depth chart on the 40-man roster. Elias only mentioned Alberto by name while noting that they’ll likely have to go outside the organization to find candidates to fill the void in playing time left by Villar, who played all 162 games last season.
“We’ll see who ends up competing for those spots this year, who we end up bringing into the organization, how our guys look that are in the minor leagues when it comes to spring training," Elias said. "But I think that clearing the avenue for some players that potentially are under control longer or have the chance to be under control longer makes sense for us.”
Lucas, the return in the deal, was a 14th-round pick for the Marlins out of Pepperdine in the 2019 MLB draft. He pitched 34⅔ innings over two short-season levels, primarily as a starting pitcher, and struck out 41 batters with a 1.10 WHIP and a 3.63 ERA between the Gulf Coast League Marlins and Short-A Batavia.
Elias said the Orioles “had a pretty good file on him” and viewed him as a possible pick for the first 10 rounds after a productive college career, with his profile that of a back-end starter if he develops well.
“We like his stuff,” Elias said. “He’s 89-92 [mph] with a fastball that has some hopping life to it. He’s got two distinct breaking balls, a slider and a curveball, that have a chance to be average pitches, and I think that our pitching program in particular can help him with that. He’s also got a really nice changeup that plays well to right-handed hitters. It’s a starter’s profile.”
Lucas will join a crowded group of contenders to break camp with the Orioles’ Low-A affiliate in Delmarva.
After agreeing to a contract for 2020 with left-handed reliever Richard Bleier earlier Monday, the Orioles tended contracts to their five remaining arbitration-eligible players at the 8 p.m. deadline — outfielder Trey Mancini, right-hander Dylan Bundy, relievers Mychal Givens and Miguel Castro, and Alberto.
All those players remain under club control, though Elias acknowledged that Bundy is a popular name in trade conversations and said he’s a member of the organization “until a trade is done, or if it ever comes.” The Orioles have until the Jan. 10 arbitration deadline to agree on a 2020 salary before going to an arbitration hearing in February.
Tendering those players contracts, however, was a simple decision, Elias said.
“It was pretty straightforward,” Elias said. "These guys had good years, took steps forward for us, and have multiple years of control remaining — in some cases, three years of control remaining. That makes it very easy to tender them, not feel any pressure to explore their market prior to the tender deadline, although we’re open-minded to that, and very happy to be rolling forward with these players and look forward to continuing to talk to them over the winter as we try to finalize.
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“The bottom line is these players are on our club, and that’s a good thing. They’re pieces for not just 2020, but beyond.”