What can be expected from Angel Villalona?

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—Villalona’s visa to the United States was revoked until last week, when it was reported that he would be allowed to return to the United States.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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  1. DrBGiantsfan said...

    I saw Villalona play in a couple of Cal League games.  He showed reasonable strike zone judgement until he got 2 strikes on him.  WIth 2 strikes, the pitcher could throw it 2 feet over his head, 2 feet outside, in the dirt, didn’t matter.  Angel V was swinging and the pitchers seemed to know he would be.

    Where he is assigned this spring and how he performs will be one of the more interesting stories to follow in the Giants organization.

  2. Walter Guest said...

    Villalona was signed during an era when the Giants loved free swingers.  There was a 7 year stretch when they were 29th or 30th in the majors in walks, runs and OBP and their minor league teams were near the bottom in walks.  He is a creature of another era.

    I gave up on him with that 3% walk rate in the Cal. League.  That made it practically impossible for him to ever amount to anyting.

  3. obsessivegiantscompulsive said...

    What people need to remember is that of course the pitchers should dominate him to some degree when he was in the Cal League.  He was an 18 YO with one full season facing pro players while not only not playing as competitive organized ball growing up, as most American player do, but was still learning to survive in another land, another world. 

    The average age for pitchers there was 23.0 YO, meaning that they had 5 years more of experience on him, whether pro-ball or college ball, so unless he’s another Mike Trout, he’s going to struggle some against these older, more experienced players.

    The key thing to focus on is that while he was handicapped in that way, he still was among the leader in HRs hit.  In total the year before as a 17 YO in Sally, and by HR-rate in Cal League, if you prorated his season, he would have been among the Top 15 in Homers hit (15) if he had 500 AB’s like the other top homerun hitters.

    And that’s another thing that was missing from this otherwise very good recap of Villalona, that he was injured in 2009 when playing in the Cal League, with a strained quad.  He actually hit well in April and May (over 800 OPS), before sucking in June and July, suggesting that perhaps he had been battling the injury already before finally going on the DL.

    So I would not give up on him just because he has a low walk rate.  Sandoval had a low walk rate too and all the rating services did not include him in their prospect lists the year he make the majors. 

    You need to account for the age of the player relative to the league, and while you do note the negatives, like his low walk rate and particularly his high strikeout rate, it is very significant if he is among the leaders offensively in any area, and he was in homers, both of his A-ball seasons.  And it wasn’t like he was that far off from the average strikeout rate, even, for San Jose, he had a 75.0% contact rate, vs. the league 76.9% contact rate.  So despite being 5 years behind the average pitcher in the league, he didn’t make contact that far worse than the average batter, while still being among the best home-run rate hitters in the league (top 15 or so).  That’s a great, if raw, talent.

    I agree with the assessment that he’s not a lost cause, totally.  As long as he’s not a fat slob, as he was risking being, he has a chance because he had the talent before.  And while he was old for the DSL last season, the key thing to remember is that he was at least among the better hitters in the league.  If he did not have that good a season, that would have been a huge warning bell on his prospects. 

    At this point, he needs to jump every hurdle in his way now to make the majors, with not any great foul-ups.  He jumped one by being in good enough shape that when he sued the Giants for $5M, they placed him on the 40 man roster as part of the settlement.  He jumped another one by playing well enough in the DSL last season, not only being among the leaders, but showing a good enough outing that the State Department could not get in his way anymore in returning to the U.S.  Now he needs to make another:  his first full minor league season return.

    There’s no way he’s going to AA right away, unless he’s raking in the spring and probably even then.  I think it’s either SJ or Augusta if they are unhappy with anything about his conditioning or rustiness.  I think at this point, him regaining confidence in his skills is up there with getting used to facing pro ballplayers again, so if the Giants have any hesitation on those fronts, he might even end up in Salem-Keizer.  Obviously, the higher the Giants place him, the greater the odds that he’s showing talent that is clear to their evaluators.

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