St. Louis Cardinals: Exploring Jonathan Villar as a utility option

The St. Louis Cardinals could use some help on the infield and Jonathan Villar could fit in well as a speedy utility man.

Earlier this offseason, the St. Louis Cardinals shocked the MLB by declining Kolten Wong‘s $12.5M option for 2022. While the team has Tommy Edman as an in-house replacement, the issue isn’t at second base. The issue is at third base.

With Edman sliding across the diamond, Matt Carpenter will be the everyday third baseman as of right now. Four years ago, that would’ve been just fine. Now, not so much. Since the beginning of 2019, Carpenter has hit just .216 with a .704 OPS. He’s still gotten on-base at a .332 clip over that time, but his 92 wRC+ could be upgraded.

Even if the team is fine with giving Carpenter the starting job at the beginning of 2021 in the final year of his contract, 550 at-bats in 2021 would trigger the option he has for 2022. We all love Matt Carpenter for who he is as a person and for his career he has had in St. Louis, but there is very little chance that the team wants to keep Carpenter another year. That means that Carp can’t play every day.

Because of this, Jonathan Villar should be on the Cardinals’ radar.

At first glance, Villar doesn’t seem like a worthwhile acquisition. The former Brewer had just a 66 wRC+ in 2020 with the Marlins and the Blue Jays. His .232/.301/.292 slash line last year was not good by any means. His .059 ISO is almost comical, but all this says to me is that Villar is going to be a cheap bat to sign.

In his career, Villar has not been the player he was in 2020. On average, he has gotten on base at a .327 clip. He has turned this into 218 career stolen bases, with his high being 62 in 2016. More recently, Villar stole 40 bases in 2019 and even swiped 16 in 52 games in 2020.

Villar isn’t a power hitter, he isn’t even a high average hitter. But what he does is provide a ton of speed on the basepaths and average defense for what will be dirt cheap in 2021 at the age of 30. Going back to his 2019 season, Villar put up a career-high 4.0 fWAR batting .274 with those 40 steals. In an anemic Orioles offense, the switch hitter was still able to score 111 runs and drive in 73. The Cardinals have not had a batter score 111 runs or more since Matt Carpenter in 2013.

To me, he seems almost like a better version of Tommy Edman when he is on top of his game.

One of the things cited when Wong was cut loose was that it didn’t make sense to have two identical hitters (Wong and Edman) in the same lineup. However, it didn’t work in 2019 because neither played up to where they have shown in the past.

Theoretically, the end and top of the 2020 lineup should’ve been menacing on the basepaths with the elite speed of Tyler O’Neill, Harrison Bader, Kolten Wong, and Tommy Edman. It didn’t work out to be that dangerous, but adding Villar would let the Cardinals double down on that Whiteyball-esque pursuit.

Villar doesn’t need to be an everyday starter either. Matt Carpenter will get a fair share of starts at third base, and Villar, with his ability to play second base, shortstop, and third base, can fill in at any of the three with anyone else moving to third.

The switch-hitting Villar has pretty much equal splits over his career against righties or lefties. He hits for slightly more power from the right side, but that doesn’t do anything but help his candidacy as a potential platoon for Carpenter.

Right now, the Cardinals’ plan is likely to have young shortstop Edmundo Sosa as the infield backup, but Villar could present an upgrade. Sosa had a bit of a breakout year at AAA in 2019, batting .291 with an .801 OPS, but he is still unproven and doesn’t steal bases. Sosa has the advantage with his league-minimum salary, but I don’t believe that Villar will be that much more expensive after his down 2020.

Next: How Robbie Ray and Drew Smyly have helped the St. Louis Cardinals

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Villar will remind fans a lot of Edman and Wong at the plate, but unlike them, he is an elite base stealer. For the open utility role for 2021, I would welcome Villar to the Cardinals on a short deal.