When the Houston Astros went out and signed free agent infielder Jed Lowrie to a 3-year, $23-million deal with a fourth-year option, it instantly improved the 2015 version of the team, but also served to throw some questions on other players. One of those questions was answered when the Astros designated Gregorio Petit for assignment to clear room for Lowrie.
With the DFA of Petit, the Astros now have seven infielders on their 40-man roster:
- 1B Jon Singleton
- 2B Jose Altuve
- 3B Matt Dominguez
- SS Jonathan Villar
- IF Jed Lowrie
- IF Marwin Gonzalez
- IF Ronny Torreyes
Lowrie becomes the presumptive Opening Day shortstop, joining Dominguez, Singleton, and Altuve in the infield. That leaves Torreyes, Villar, and Gonzalez to vie for backup infield positions. Even allowing that the Astros may carry two backup infielders, that leaves one player out in the cold.
Given the positional flexibility of Gonzalez and Torreyes, they are the likeliest to man the 25-man roster, which leaves Villar - once a highly-touted shortstop prospect - out in the proverbial cold.
Assuming this is true, what does it mean for Villar? With the #2 prospect in baseball (per MLB.com), Carlos Correa, probably hitting the high minors this year, and with Lowrie signed for the immediate future, what do the Astros do with Villar, who won't turn twenty-four until more than a month into the 2015 season?
Villar was always considered more tools than polish, but when he first hit the majors in July 2013, it was hoped that he would build off of the .277/.341/.442 line he'd enjoyed in Triple-A in the same season. Predictably, those numbers tumbled with the raise in level. Villar put together a 79 wRC+ in 241 plate appearances.
Going into the 2013/14 offseason, it was understood that he'd be the Opening Day starter at shortstop for the Astros. Sure enough, he was. Villar played in 87 games for the 2014 Astros, and while the batting line was unimpressive - he hit just .209 and drew walks in just 6.6% of his plate appearances - he saw his ISO nearly double even as his strikeout rate decreased. The air came out of his BABIP, which fell by nearly a hundred points, so some positive regression could be expected.
Villar performed better at the plate after a demotion to Triple-A in June, but ultimately it may not have been his offense that had gotten him in trouble in the first place. One of the most frustrating parts of watching Villar has been his inconsistent defense: While certainly capable of accomplishing great, athletic feats on the diamond, he has a tendency to balance them with mind-numbing futility. In his over-1100 innings in the big leagues between 2013 and 2014, he was credited with -7 DRS, -16.4 UZR, and -10.7 dWAR.
The Lowrie signing didn't close the door on Villar entirely, but it did at least oil the hinges. So what are the Astros' options with the former #94 prospect in baseball?
The most-likely scenario has Villar beginning the season in Fresno, manning shortstop every day while Lowrie plays for the big league club. This gives the Astros flexibility: If Matt Dominguez fails to perform, Lowrie may move to third. If Villar is showing progress, he could get called up to start at shortstop, leaving Gonzalez in a utiltiy role.
The other option that would allow for a Villar promotion would be an injury to Lowrie. Despite two straight seasons in which he has played over 135 games, Lowrie had a reputation before 2013 of being injury-prone, missing large chunks of previous seasons. It's certainly not unreasonable that he'll be viewed as an insurance policy if he shows improvement and Lowrie gets injured. Then the competition becomes Gonzalez-vs.-Villar.
Finally, if Lowrie himself (or Gonzalez) is traded at any point during the length of his contract, Villar becomes a possibility to start at shortstop in the big leagues.
With the Lowrie signing, Villar becomes something of a moveable piece. He's still young enough, with still enough prospect luster, that teams in need of a shortstop may be enticed into trading for him. For instance, perhaps the Pirates aren't terribly excited to give at-bats to Jordy Mercer, and don't see in-house options like Pedro Florimon and Justin Sellers as the answer. Might they be willing to part with a Reese McGuire- or Harold Ramirez-type player for Villar?
Probably not. Still, his youth and his tools are still enough to excite a lot of prospect evaluators, and the return on him could make it easy for the front office to pull the trigger on a deal.
It's worth noting that Steamer likes Villar to improve in 2015, largely due to regression in his BABIP and improvement on his defense. He's projected to put up positive WAR, and even that may be selling him short. It's hard to write such a promising player off entirely, and with the right opportunity, there's still a good chance he could produce. That dream could be worth something to someone.