There wasn’t much to take away from Sunday’s matchup of San Francisco Giants prospects pitted against current Giants and players trying to make the big-league club. However, one bright spot was first baseman Angel Villalona, and there’s reason to believe that he could be a legitimate major league contributor within the next couple years.
Though Sunday’s game featured more prominent prospects such as outfielder Mac Williamson and catcher Andrew Susac, Villalona looked to be the most polished hitter of the bunch, as he was the only player with multiple hits (including one off Madison Bumgarner) and consistently was able to work the count.
While Villalona had some rough moments at the plate in 2013, there was certainly reason for optimism as well. After returning to American baseball for the first time since 2009 due to legal issues which had kept him in the Dominican Republic, Villalona was able to hit a total of 22 homers between Class A San Jose and Double-A Richmond. His 14 homers in 73 games at San Jose earned him a spot as a Cal League All-Star, and while his eight home runs at Richmond don’t seem overly impressive at first glance, it’s very acceptable considering that most of the parks in that league favor pitchers.
His issues came with making consistent contact, which could be attributed at least in part to the fact that he had had such a long layoff from facing quality pitching. He hit .229 at San Jose and .235 at Richmond, which included a month of May at San Jose in which he hit .263. Though he didn’t impress in a few early at-bats during this year’s spring training, he took great advantage of Sunday’s opportunity to show that he is capable of hitting big-league pitching.
It’s been a long run for Villalona, who was formerly the Giants’ top prospect before a murder charge postponed his career. The Giants welcomed him back with a spot on the 40-man roster in 2012, and you have to credit them for their continued patience. He spent another whole season trying to get his visa to return to America, and the Giants retained his spot on the roster. With the moves that they made in free agency this offseason, some fans believed that he would be a candidate for removal from the roster, but he stuck around.
In fact, the Giants may be more excited about him than many outside observers assume they are. They rewarded him with a spot on their Arizona Fall League team this past offseason, an opportunity that is not given to that many players. Though he’s already been sent out of major league camp, the team designated his option as being to Triple-A Fresno. While things could still change and he could end up back at Richmond, it wouldn’t be overly surprising to see them have Villalona in Triple-A to start the year, just one short step from the big leagues. The Giants have shown plenty of faith in Villalona, and they have to hope that they’ll ultimately be rewarded.
While the Giants are certainly hoping that Villalona improves his ability to make contact and can become a right-handed power threat off the bench who could also serve as a valuable trade asset, his pure power-hitting ability probably will afford him a major league opportunity even if he doesn’t realize his full potential as a contact hitter.
As an example, you can look at a hitter like Mark Reynolds, who has a .233 career batting average but has spent seven seasons in the majors because of the possibility that he’ll knock the ball out of the park. On the other end of the spectrum, Villalona could end up profiling like a right-handed hitting version of the St. Louis Cardinals’ Matt Adams if he can start to make better contact, presenting a legitimate power threat but not having such a low success rate otherwise. Whatever happens, it should be interesting to see how Villalona continues to progress, as he’s just 23 years old and has plenty of time to grow into a more polished hitter.