BALTIMORE — Let’s be honest. Veteran infielder Jonathan Villar was never going to be part of the Orioles long-term future.
He’s fun to watch and he puts up numbers — some of the best numbers on the Orioles stat sheet last season — but the price to keep him purely for entertainment value in 2020 was going to be too high.
So, get ready for another long trudge, but without all the stolen bases and high-fives and unbridled enthusiasm. It would have cost about $10 million in salary, and executive vice president Mike Elias made it pretty clear in late September that he isn’t interested in spending any real money for cosmetic victories.
In other words, the Orioles are probably going to lose another 100-plus games next season, but with one fewer reason to show up at the ballpark anyway.
Welcome to Orioles Rebuild 2.0. Elias never lied to anyone. He arrived here with a mandate to be ruthless in his reconstruction of the club’s talent base, and it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if he follows this up by trading Trey Mancini and Mychal Givens at the winter meetings.
That would leave fans grasping for any reason to stay engaged in 2020, but Elias clearly believes that the only way to change the future is to remove almost all vestiges of the Orioles’ decidedly checkered recent past.
When the team decided not to schedule FanFest this winter, that should have been an indication that there weren’t going to be a lot of autographs there worth paying for.
The case also can be made, however, that displacing whatever star power remains on the roster might convince a lot more fans that Orioles tickets aren’t worth paying for anymore. That’s a scary prospect after they just drew a 41-year low 1.3 million (not including the 1981 strike year).
Villar isn’t a perfect player by any means. He plays so aggressively that he has a frustrating tendency to make base running mistakes. He’s also a below-average fielder at second base and an average defender at shortstop.
Elias is right that it makes no business sense to pay a guy $10 million or so to help you lose 90 or 100 games when he isn’t likely to be around when your rebuilding project (hopefully) blooms, but the same logic doesn’t provide quite the same justification for trading away Mancini.
There’s danger in stripping away all of the identity of a team that has whittled its fan base down to the point where it’s actually possible to imagine attendance dropping into six figures in 2020 or 2021.
Never mind that the Orioles’ reluctant MASN partner and geographical rival in Washington just won the World Series and probably locked up all the undecided adolescent baseball fans in the battleground counties between Baltimore and the District.
Never mind that the NFL team across the parking lot is having one of the most exciting and compelling seasons in its history, though budding superstar Lamar Jackson and the Ravens are providing the Orioles with some offseason cover at the moment.
Even if everyone already expects the rebuild to be a four- or five-year process, the Orioles are still going to need more than fireworks and mini-concerts to keep the remaining customers satisfied — or at least marginally entertained until Adley Rutschman and the new wave of talent is ready for prime time.
This is a team that has — for most of its history — had at least one or two cornerstone player for fans to take identify with and take pride in. From their trio of Hall of Famers in the 1960s to Cal and Eddie and, more recently, Brian Roberts and Adam Jones, there was almost always somebody worth a souvenir jersey.
The prospect of an almost faceless team next season is not a happy one, though it might be necessary if the Orioles are ever going to rise up from the ruins of the past three ugly seasons.
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