By now, many baseball fans know the general story of Angel Villalona, but in case you don’t, here are the facts:
—Villalona was one of the top rated prospects in the San Francisco Giants system, ranked third by Baseball America after the 2008 season, and was heading for a similar ranking after the 2009 season.
—Immediately after the 2009 season, Villalona was involved in an incident in his native Dominican Republic in which a 25-year-old man was shot and killed and Villalona was named a suspect. He later turned himself in.
—The charges against Villalona were eventually dropped due to a lack of evidence, but he also came to a $139,000 settlement with the victim’s family.
—Villalona’s visa to the United States was revoked until last week, when it was reported that he would be allowed to return to the United States.
When last we saw Villalona on the U.S., he was an 18-year-old holding his own in the California League. He had some significant flaws as a player, as most 18-year-olds do, but he also had as much raw power and potential as any player in the minors. Now, Villalona has not only lost three seasons of development time, but three extremely important seasons in what would have been his age 19, 20 and 21-year-old years.
Villalona will be in Giants camp this spring for the first time in three years, with a lot of questions to answer. There will be those who want to know the details of the incident that cost him three seasons and the chance to be a part of a World Series winner last seasons (and yes, he could have been in the majors by 21 had he not been interrupted), but I’m not one of them. Frankly, there are certain things about life in the Dominican Republic, especially for young, rich athletes with a target on their back, that I sleep better at night not knowing about. I’ll stick to Villalona the prospect, and leave Villalona the person to be figured out by the Giants.
But Villalona the prospect has almost as many question marks surrounding him. In 2008, he was the youngest position player in the South Atlantic League and was tied for eighth in the league in home runs. He also struck out 118 times against just 18 walks, a remarkably low total. The following year, Villalona took on the California League, whose hitting environments should have aided his power numbers, but he hit just nine home runs in 74 games and his ISO dropped to .130 from .172 the year before. His strikeout rate stayed the same, but his walk rate dropped even further, down to 2.9 percent.
Since then, the only thing we’ve seen from Villalona is the 44 games he played this past season in the Dominican Summer League, a league he skipped over as a 16-year-old after signing and coming stateside, and for which he was way too old and advanced. Because of that, it’s difficult to put much stock in his .303/.430/.497 line.
The biggest questions surrounding Villalona today are largely the same as they were in 2009. WIll he ever get his aggressiveness at the plate under control enough for his power to play? And where is his conditioning?
Villalona has always been a big boy, and even at 18, when he was 6-foot-3″ 230 pounds, there were questions about how much he would grow, both up and out. Two years away from the organization couldn’t have helped that, even if he stayed in shape and worked with the Giants. It’s just not the same when you’re on your own.
On the field, we’ve seen historically that plate discipline is one of the hardest tools for a player to develop. Villalona was going to need plenty of at-bats in the minors to see any improvement in his plate discipline, and he simply didn’t get it. He showed significant improvement this past season, walking in 12.4 percent of his at-bats in the DSL, but given the inferior competition he was playing against, it’s hard to determine how much of that is from being an older, more mature player, and how much is from hitting against younger pitchers with poor control.
There is the possibility that stepping away from the game allowed Villalona to reassess his approach at the plate and make a drastic change in how he attacks pitchers, or lets them attack him. It’s not a strong possibility, but stranger things have happened. More likely, however, is that Villalona ia largely the same player he was when he was 19—a big-bodied, power-hitting first baseman who swings at everything and gets himself out without truly letting his power come in to play on the field.
The Giants have not said where they plan to begin Villalona in 2013, and likely don’t yet know themselves. That decision will have a lot to do with how he does this spring, and they could have him stick around in extended spring training until he gets back into the baseball groove before deciding where to send him.
Villalona is still just 22, so he’s hardly a lost cause, but he’s still going to need plenty of at-bats in the minors. He never really mastered High-A ball in his last attempt, so an assignment to Double-A would have to be the result of the Giants seeing some kind of significant improvement during his time away from the game. Still, if he makes it there at some point during the 2013 season, he wouldn’t be terribly old for the level, a testament to just how far he was advanced his last time around.
Because of how young he is, Villalona is far from a lost cause. The Giants will need to be patient with him, and because he was on the restricted list, the Giants still have the option of sending him down to the minors. There is no rush to get Villalona to San Francisco.
Three years ago, it looked like the Giants had lost the $2.1 million investment they made in Villalona when he was 16. It’s unlikely that he’ll ever become the star they had hoped when he was a teenager, but his acceptance back into the country makes it possible for them to still get something out of their efforts. Villalona still has a long way to go, and this spring and summer we’ll see if it’s any longer than it was three years ago, but at least with his return to domestic baseball, there’s a chance of him carving out a major league career.
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