The next prospect up for scrutiny, the tenth we’ve looked at this winter (and number ten on the mid-season Top 40 list) is a guy that a lot of fans may have forgotten about. Christian Villanueva is a glove-first infielder who is completely blocked as far as starting assignments in Wrigley are concerned, but who may yet have a fair bit of value to offer.
With the exception of six games in Tennessee, Villanueva spent the 2015 season in Iowa, finishing with a line of .259/.313/.437, 18 home runs, a walk rate of 6.9%, and a strikeout rate of just 15.7%. Including the two he hit as a Smokie, his season total of 20 homers was a career high. His Iowa OPS of .751 isn’t bad for a defensive specialist, but it was generated in a feast-or-famine form. In June and July, for example, he posted identical OPSs of .848. Prolonged slumps in May and August (.690 and .632 respectively) brought down the overall figure.
Defensively, Villanueva spent most of 2015 on the infield corners, 85 games at third and 35 at first, but he I suspect he has the skill set to be at least passable at second if the need ever arose. In the 2014 winter leagues he even spent 10 games playing in left field for Obregon in Mexico. We could potentially add Villanueva’s name to the Cubs list of part time left field options, should he make it to Wrigley.
Barring such an injury, though, I just don’t see a scenario in which Villanueva makes the 25-man roster out of spring training. Matt Szczur is the probably the most vulnerable of the currently likely bench candidates, but Szczur has actually out-hit Villanueva in Triple A. If it comes down to those two for the final spot on the bench, given the Cubs’ existent infield depth and Szczur speed off the bench, I suspect that Szczur makes the cut. Even in the most unlikely of cases, the Cubs deciding that Baez is good enough in center that they don’t need another CF on the bench for example, it is still hard to construct a roster that includes Villanueva (barring injury).
That means the Cubs will have to try to stash Villanueva in Iowa, but that is no safe bet (he is out of options). And even if he does head to Iowa, he will soon be fighting for playing time on the infield corners with the likes of Jeimer Candelario and Dan Vogelbach. Add a few veteran insurance signings to the Iowa roster (the Cubs typically carry a few in Triple A, at least at the beginning of the year) and there may not be room for Villanueva in Triple A either.
And, in a way, that’s a good thing. Good, young players who can potentially fill a useful role on a Major League roster are usually kept around. The only reason the Cubs have no room for Villanueva is because of their extreme depth of both infield talent and young players. The lack of a place to play Villanueva means a lot of things have gone very right for the Cubs.
Whether he is traded, claimed, or eventually leaves on his own, with any luck Villanueva will land in an organization that either is rebuilding (where he might have a chance to start) or has some depth concerns on the infield corners. And if he should remain with Iowa for 2016, as unlikely as I think that is, look for him to pick up starts at first and third until Vogelbach and Candelario arrive, and then to continue appearing at those positions as a defensive replacement (particularly at first) or when the Iowa Cubs have need of a DH.