If you had asked any San Francisco Giants personnel expert coming into spring training who they thought would be leading the Giants organization in home runs on June 11, you likely would have gotten a few different answers. Maybe it would have been Pablo Sandoval or Hunter Pence. Perhaps they would have told you that it would be a proven minor league power hitter like Roger Kieschnick, Brett Pill, or Adam Duvall. It’s likely that none of them would have given you Angel Villalona as their pick, yet he is the man in the lead right now, having hit 14 homers over his first 60 games for the High A San Jose Giants.
Villalona was considered a huge signing after agreeing to a record $2.1 million dollar deal with the Giants as a 16-year-old in 2006. He struggled to play up to his potential in his early professional career, dealing with injuries and concerns about his athleticism that necessitated his move to first base after signing as a third baseman. He seemed to be on the upswing after hitting .267 with nine homers in 67 games as an 18-year-old in San Jose, but his world was shaken when he was charged with murder following an incident at a bar in the Dominican Republic in September 2009.
The 22-year-old Villalona, who received his visa to return to America on Feb. 7, had not played in the United States since that incident took place. While he settled the case with the victim’s family and the charges were cleared, he still had further complications in the return to the States. The Giants were at first reluctant to take him back. Though they eventually decided to give him a second chance after placing him on their 40-man roster in December 2011, Villalona was denied his visa in 2012 due to him being “unfit for athletic activities”. He later revealed that he had been 290 pounds at the time and was significantly out of shape. He was forced to play in the Dominican Summer League in 2012, and hit only .303 with seven homers in a league that primarily featured players who were four to six years younger than him. With his visa issues, conditioning concerns, and poor performance, it seemed that Villalona was a long shot to ever make it back to the United States, much less have a shot at the majors.
To his credit, however, Villalona worked very hard in the offseason to get back in shape, and got down to just under 260 pounds. With his improved condition, he was given his visa to return and participated in Giants major league spring training. Though he was far behind the other participants in terms of development, Villalona did show signs of potential, namely hitting a long home run in the Giants’ victory over the Oakland Athletics on March 1.
What Villalona has done in the minor leagues this season has vastly exceeded the expectations that most people had for him entering the year. After starting off the season in a major slump, he has improved his hitting stroke in every month, while improving his plate discipline and cutting down on his strikeouts. Though he is still working on becoming a better average hitter, with a .242 clip entering Tuesday’s game, his ability to get extra-base hits cannot be ignored. Villalona, massive enough to be an NFL tight end at 6-foot-3 and 257 pounds, has 16 doubles in addition to his 14 home runs. This hard work has earned him a starting spot in the California-Carolina league All-Star game later this month, and he could be looking at a promotion to AA later this summer if he keeps it up.
Though he is pretty much limited to first base with his size, Villalona could still be a part of the Giants’ future. There are not too many players in the league who have as much raw-power potential as Villalona. If he keeps it up and continues to be as much of an extra-base threat as he has been this season, he could eventually fit as a big, power-hitting first baseman in the vein of St. Louis Cardinals rookie Matt Adams. At the very least, he provides another alternative if the other first basemen in the organization, such as Brandon Belt, Pill, and Ricky Oropesa continue to put up inconsistent performances. With the adversity he has overcome, don’t be surprised if you see him at AT&T Park sooner than later.