The Braves’ bench depth has, at times, been a real concern in recent years. Having Guillermo Heredia getting the occasional start and being a defensive replacement on a good team is fine. Having Abraham Almonte getting significant at-bats lacking a backup infielder who can hit, well, at all has been less fine especially when one accounts for having to pinch hit in the National League.
However, with the universal DH likely coming assuming baseball ever happens again, there is a less onus on the bench. It is very possible that teams, including the Braves, will carry an extra bullpen arm at the expense of a bench spot. There is much less need for pinch-hitting and bench spots will be primarily for a backup catcher, emergency backups with utility and platoon players.
That brings us to this installment of our free agent targets series where we will be talking a bit about Jonathan Villar. The Mets enlisted Villar’s services for the 2021 season with a one year, $3.55 million deal and were rewarded with a .249/.322/.416 with 18 home runs, 63 RBI, and 2.1 total fWAR in 505 plate appearances out of him. He saw time at second base, shortstop, and third base in 2021.
Villar, on the surface, is a very decent infield bench bat. He can play all around the infield and even has a handful of innings in the outfield in his career. While his bat isn’t stellar (hence why he may best profile as a bench piece), he does hit for some power, passage average, and has drawn walks at a 8-9% clip during his career. Given that his best tool is his legs along with his willingness to steal bases, actually being on base is an important part of the equation. Considering the offensive output the Braves have gotten from such luminaries as Johan Camargo and Orlando Arcia recently, Villar would likely be an upgrade to that when he does play.
That said, Villar isn’t an ideal choice given what we can expect from 2022 and beyond. Having a utility backup who can actually hit and run a bit is nice, but he isn’t a particularly great fielder and that poses a bit of a problem. As we have already established, there are not going to anywhere close to as many pinch-hitting opportunities with the DH in place. If any of Dansby Swanson, Austin Riley, or Ozzie Albies were to miss extended periods of time, the defense would take a bit of a hit in addition to the expected drop-off in offensive production. The Braves may be better served to go with a defense first utility guy that won’t command the expected two year, $14 million deal that Villar is expected to get especially since a good chunk of his value would be lost given the lack of playing time and pinch-hitting opportunities.
However, where Villar COULD factor in is if the offseason goes further sideways with Freddie Freeman and/or his replacement. Obviously the ideal situation is that the Braves come to terms with Freddie and all is right in the world again. However, lets assume a world where Freddie Freeman leaves the Braves AND the Braves cannot make a deal to acquire a player of the caliber of Matt Olson to replace him. Again, this would be bad. However, one option that could be available to them would be to move Austin Riley to first base, put Villar at third base (where he spent the bulk of the 2021 season for the Mets), and then use the savings to upgrade the roster elsewhere. Sure, his offense and defense would likely be underwhelming at the hot corner, but if the Braves had a free agent or trade pivot option for the outfield that would bolster the offense, it might work.
That being said, with Orlando Arcia still an option that the Braves continue to keep entertaining and Villar maybe best suited for a team that needs a cheap infielder that won’t be embarrassing to start a lot, it seems more likely than not that Villar’s future may not be in Atlanta unless things get really weird.