In the pantheon of Chicago Cubs prospect acquisitions over the past two years, you almost never see Christian Villanueva’s name mentioned. I don’t know if it was the 2013 emergence of Kyle Hendricks (thus making the return for Ryan Dempster just Hendricks, and not Hendricks AND Villanueva), or if it was Villanueva’s underrated 2013 campaign, but you don’t hear about Villanueva much when the future at third base is discussed, or the bevy of top positional talent in the Cubs’ system is mentioned.
No, Villanueva isn’t going to adorn any top 100 lists, and he won’t crack many – if any – top ten Cubs prospect lists, but that’s no knock on his status as a dude you should seriously be following.
Villanueva, who is thought to be above-average defensively at third base and turned 22 mid-2013, hit just .261/.317/.469 last year in the AA Southern League, so it’s understandable that he didn’t jump up on any prospect radars. But consider: among players with at least 345 at bats in the Southern League last year, Villanueva’s .787 OPS was actually 12th best in the league. An offensive haven it was not. Further, his line belies what the advanced stats say: his wOBA was .350 (excellent) and his ISO was .208 (excellent). His BABIP (.303) was slightly lower than you would have expected from him coming into the season (previously, it was closer to .320). His walk rate dipped a bit – to 6.3% – but it wasn’t unnervingly low. All in all, particularly considering the glove and age, it was a very solid year for Villanueva.
I’m writing today about Villanueva because the Mexican Winter League, where Villanueva was playing his offseason ball, just ended yesterday. Once again, Villanueva’s line looks meh: .227/.312/.381. But, once again, it wasn’t a particularly offense-heavy league, and a walk rate better than 10% plus an ISO of .154 give you something to dream on.
Indeed, take a look at a Baseball America scouting report on Villanueva from halfway through the Mexican Winter League:
When he was with the Rangers, Villanueva was blocked not only by Adrian Beltre in Texas but by Mike Olt one level above him. A 2012 trade to the Cubs for Ryan Dempster should have helped clear a path to the majors for him, but instead the Rangers included Olt in the Matt Garza deal, although Olt’s struggles make that less of a roadblock than it was in Texas. Now he’s in the same organization as Kris Bryant and Javier Baez, both of whom could end up at third base, while Jeimer Candelario is coming up through the system too. Villanueva had a steady year with Double-A Tennessee, playing plus defense while hitting a career-high 19 home runs, and he was off to a .253/.326/.434 start through 92 plate appearances for Obregon in the Mexican Pacific League. Power has been a question mark on Villanueva, but if Villanueva can hit around 20 home runs per year and improve his patience at the plate, his ability to prevent runs in the field give him the upside to be a solid-average everyday third baseman in the big leagues.
In another organization, Villanueva is a clear top ten prospect and is headed to AAA with a chance to emerge as the heir apparent at third base in the big leagues. With the Cubs, he’s fallen into this unfortunate afterthought status.
Don’t let it happen – Villanueva is a legitimate prospect, and he could be the starter out of the gate at third base at AAA next year. The Cubs will have a tricky decision to make if Mike Olt doesn’t make the big league roster, but demonstrates he’s still capable of playing effective third base. But, who knows? Given that he’s already on the 40-man roster, we could be seeing Villanueva as the placeholder at third base in the second half of 2014 while awaiting the arrival of Bryant and/or Baez.
And, from there, maybe Villanueva shows something more? His track record and scouting reports suggest he certainly can. All I’m saying: don’t forget about this guy.
Picture via Tennessee Smokies