Jonathan Villar began his career with a strong prospect pedigree. He received a bonus of over $100,000 when the Phillies signed him during the 2008 season, and he was named as the organization’s #22 prospect by Baseball America following his 2009 performance at short-season ball. Villar was dealt to Houston in 2010 as a part of the return for Roy Oswalt and climbed as high as the #3 prospect in Houston’s system and #94 overall (again, per Baseball America) before debuting in the big leagues in 2013.
Unfortunately for the switch-hitting Dominican, his Houston career didn’t quite go according to plan. Villar got extended looks with the rebuilding Astros in 2013 and 2014, but managed OPS+ marks of just 79 and 75 in those seasons while struggling defensively at shortstop. His bat finally showed some life in 2015, when Villar slashed .284/.339/.414 in 128 plate appearances, but by that time Carlos Correa had already broken out at the big league level and locked down shortstop in Houston. Out of minor league options and without an avenue to regular playing time, Villar was given a second chance when Houston’s former AGM David Stearns, now the General Manager of the Brewers, sent Cy Sneed to the Astros in exchange for Villar back in November of 2015.
We all know what happened next, of course, as Jonathan was installed as shortstop to begin the year as a placeholder of sorts for Orlando Arcia; a buy-low, post-hype prospect in need of a new opportunity. He ran with the opening and wound up hitting .285/.369/.457 with 19 home runs and a league-leading 62 stolen bases during his first season in Milwaukee, registering a 118 OPS+ along with 3.9 bWAR and 4.8 WARP. Though he had ceded shortstop to Arcia, by the end of the season Villar firmly established himself as a “keeper” in the Brewers’ rebuild going forward and has been handed the reins at second base.
Milwaukee’s front office apparently feels bullish on Villar’s future as well. The club reportedly offered him an extension worth roughly $20 mil that according to Tom Haudricourt, would have bought out Villar’s three arbitration seasons, which begin after 2017. Villar’s camp didn’t agree to that extension when it was offered, but the fact that the player has yet to sign his pre-arbitration contract for 2017 could mean that negotiations are still ongoing. The Brewers control Villar’s contract through at least the 2020 season so there’s no real chance of losing him anytime soon, but what would it take to get Villar to commit to an long-term extension with Milwaukee rather than go year-to-year?
Using MLB Trade Rumors’ extension tracker, one can find several contracts given to middle infielders in Villar’s service class (between 2 and 3 years of service, not Super 2 eligible) that help to outline what Villar might be looking for. Alexei Ramirez signed a 4-year (plus 1 option year), $32.5 mil deal in 2011 that bought out his arbitration seasons and one year of free agency, though he was coming off a much stronger three-year platform. Elvis Andrus signed away his three arbitration years for a total of $14.4 mil back in 2012, but he had never produced an offensive season near what Villar did in 2016. Brian Dozier might be the best performance comp for Villar; in the two seasons before he signed his 4-year, $20 mil extension in 2015, he posted OPS+ marks of 98 and 114 while manning the keystone for the Twins.
Given the historical market for this type of player, it appears that the $20 mil offered to Villar was a good start for negotiations. A contract of that sum would value Villar’s arbitration years higher than both Andrus and Dozier (whose arb years are valued at $18 mil by his contract), but given the contract inflation we’ve seen in recent years Villar may expect to beat those totals anyway if he can continue to produce at an even just above-average clip. So how about this proposal:
2017: $750,000 ($1,000,000 signing bonus)
2022: $11,000,000 (Team Option, $1,000,000 buyout)
Total: 5 years, $33,000,000 guaranteed || potentially 6 years, $43,000,000
This contract proposal would allow for Villar to beat out the last contract signed by a second baseman in his service class, vanquishing Dozier’s arbitration valuation by a cool $1 mil. In exchange, the Brewers would be able to buy out Villar’s first free agent year at a cost of $11 mil and have the option to buy out his second one at the same price, or pay a $1 mil buyout. In this scenario Villar would still have the opportunity to hit the open market after his age-31 season if the option is exercised, which should allow him to find a sizable contract in free agency provided he performs up to expectations.
One of the staples of the Pittburgh Pirates’ rebuild models has been to aggressively pursue pre-arbitration extensions for their young talent. The typically low-payroll club has been able to sustain their recent competitive streak in part because players like Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, Josh Harrison, and Gregory Polanco are all on well-below market value contracts, which give the Pirates flexibility to supplement other areas of the roster that need attention, like signing Ivan Nova and Francisco Cervelli to multi-year deals. The small-market Brewers would be wise to follow this path and gamble on extensions for players like Villar, and perhaps someone like Zach Davies down the road; providing a life-changing payday to a young player in exchange for cost-certainly when the club is ready to enter “go for it” mode and get more aggressive on the free agent market.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and Baseball Prospectus