This was written in January, but is being re-posted with Villanueva on his way to Chicago as part of the Ryan Dempster trade.
In 2011, Hickory was a hotbed of minor league talent including the best true shortstop prospect in baseball and multiple first round picks in catcher Kellin Deglan, center fielder Jake Skole and pitcher Luke Jackson. If not for being blown away by Boston Red Sox shortstop prospect Xander Bogaerts, my trip to Greenville would have been highlighted by a modestly performing, all but unknown third base prospect named Christian Villanueva. Villanueva went on to belt 10 home runs and steal 14/15 bases over the final two months of the season raising his prospect profile to legitimate sleeper.
Overall, Christian Villanueva joined former Marlins first round pick Christian Yelich, along with top-10 Red Sox prospect Brandon Jacobs as the only prospects in the league who belted 15 or more home runs and swiped 30-plus bags. And while Yelich and Jacobs rode exorbitantly high BABIP’s to the prospect promise land, Villanueva’s .300 mark was more sustainable than sexy leading to his being overlooked.
In batting practice, Villanueva consistently utilized quick, explosive hands and a level swing plane to pepper line drives to left-centerfield with a handful leaving the park each session. Additionally, he crushed a home run to left field off of what was admittedly a fringe average fastball at best in game action, but it was truly a “no doubter” which ricocheted off of the brick condominiums behind the Green Monster of Fluor Field.
Command of the strike zone is a key aspect of Villanueva’s game to monitor going forward. Strong contact skills are an asset, but when a young player expands the strike zone like Villanueva did, it will lead to poor contact on batted balls and higher strikeout rates. This is also the likely reason for a BABIP a touch low for his speed tool and low walk rates.
On defense, Villanueva is in the top three of third baseman I’ve had the opportunity to scout along with Marlins Matt Dominguez and Phillies Travis Mattair. He possesses lightning quick feet, soft hands and a strong throwing arm leaving little doubt as to whether Villanueva can stick at third base long term. In fact, Villanueva’s defensive skills and body control are so strong, second base seems like a viable option where his offensive skill set would be a better fit. However, with only two third basemen posting four win seasons compared to six at second base in 2011, third base appears to be in the midst of a down period in terms of overall talent at the Major League level.
With 32 stolen bases in 38 attempts, Villanueva has enough speed to project as an elite base stealer at his position. Of course Diamondbacks Ryan Roberts led qualified third baseman with 18 and was the only one in double-digits, so the bar isn’t exactly set very high. As for Villanueva, he will lose a step or two at full physical maturity, but his agility and quickness will allow him to maximize the speed he does have. At the big league level, he projects as a player who should average about 15 steals annually.
For me, the best part of scouting a game in person are those rare instances when an unknown prospect forces me to take notice. Each year, those opportunities are less than a reader would assume as maybe a half dozen players, if that, truly fit the criteria. Of those players, Christian Villanueva was the best of the bunch in 2011 and ranked only behind Jurickson Profar in terms of position prospects on that ball club.
A comp to Braves Martin Prado is imperfect, but provides some insight into the type of value Villanueva projects for at the Major League level. At 20, Villanueva and Prado posted similar OPS numbers (.803 to .785) in the South Atlantic league behind a trade off of power (Villanueva) for on base skills (Prado). However, Villanueva’s potential for positional flexibility, double-digit home run totals at the Major League level, and modest walk rates work quite well. Villanueva’s strong defensive skills may be the kicker which allows him a higher peak WAR projection.
Between Villanueva and Mike Olt, the Rangers organization boasts two solid third base prospects with Adrian Beltre signed through at least 2015. This organizational depth can be used to add pieces at the big league level via trade, or as insurance in case of injury. Villanueva will never be a true centerpiece of a deal for a player such as Matt Garza, but would be an excellent addition as a third or fourth piece of a larger package.