Monday, May 16, 2011

The Murky Outlook of Ydwin Villegas

When the Giants signed shortstop Ydwin Villegas, he seemed like one of those "projects" that had some nice upside, but would take some time to develop. He was a small (5-feet, 10-inches, 150 pounds), but nimble shortstop out of Venezuela (he's from the same area as Pablo Sandoval) with a switch-hitting approach and some athletic defensive ability. Furthermore, youth was on his side, as he was 17 years old when he signed and broke into the Dominican Summer League. He wasn't the caliber of international signings like Rafael Rodriguez or Ehire Adrianza, but Villegas at the time of his signing offered some nice potential, even if it would take some time to develop.

In the Dominican Summer League, Villegas didn't hit for average very well (.219), but he did walk (40) more than he struck out (36) in 67 games and 274 plate appearances with the DSL Giants. His lack of power was deflating  (he had only eight hits and a dismal .260 slugging), but the thought was that with his defense and positive plate approach that he had enough time to hit better for average the more he was exposed to professional pitching.

He made the jump to the Arizona Rookie League in 2009, and the average came around for Villegas in Arizona. His batting average jumped to .302 and he did swipe 12 bags on 15 attempts. Granted, the slugging wasn't much better (.352), and the plate approach regressed a little when he transitioned stateside (his BB/K ratio fell to 0.43 after it was 1.11 in the DSL). Nonetheless, it was nice to see Villegas have some real impact in his US debut. Later in the year, he earned a late-season callup to the Northwest League and in a three game stint, he really showed some promise, garnering three hits, two RBI and a walk in nine plate appearances (he struck out twice). It was a small sample size of course, but as an 18-year-old, the combination of his good Arizona League campaign and brief Salem-Keizer stint gave Villegas "under-the-radar" potential as a prospect.

There was a little bit of hope about Villegas' potential around the Giants blogosphere going into 2010. When the Giants Come to Town ranked him the 21st best prospect in the Giants system, which was a little high considering he wasn't on the radar on any other prospect lists (though John Sickels noted him as an honorable mention in his Top 20 Giants Prospects list going into 2010). Here is what Dr. B said about Villegas in his January 2010 writeup:

"Ydwin Villegas is a slick fielding SS who produced a nice BA with some speed, but little power for the Arizona League Giants, essentially a younger version of Ehire Adrianza. Since he didn't turn 19 until the end of the season, he is likely to have considerable upside. I rated him behind Adrianza because they are essentially the same player, but Adrianza is farther up the ladder. The question I have is where will Villegas play in 2010?"

The Giants decided to move him up to Augusta, and unfortunately, the decision didn't prove to be the best as Villegas seemed overwhelmed by the competition in the Sally. He played 79 games with the Green Jackets and in 281 plate appearances he hit .189 with an OPS of only .458. He didn't show much power (.242) or plate patience, as he struck out 55 times and only walked nine times (a 0.16 BB/K ratio). His contact rate wasn't great either at 79 percent, but the .234 BABIP probably didn't help his cause either. Safe to say though, the campaign in the Sally was disappointing, and a classic sign that the Giants management probably rushed Villegas to Single-A ball a little too soon (even Dr. B mentioned that Villegas probably should have started the year in Salem-Keizer).

However, Villegas bounced back in the Giants winter instructional league in the Dominican Republic, as his glove continued to garner spectacular reviews from coaches and scouts (especially when he was moved to second base and teamed up the middle with phenom Adrianza). Also, according to Baseball America in their 2011 Prospect Handbook, "Villegas played much looser...running better and swinging the bat with more authority."

This year, Baseball America ranked Villegas as the Giants' 26th best prospect despite the down season in Augusta. They still noted he was still a project of sorts, but BA liked his upside, his defensive tools and the frame he was bound to grow into as he got older.

The second time in the Sally wasn't as kind as the first as Villegas hit .185 with a .425 OPS in 89 plate appearances. The same problems lingered from 2010: he looked overwhelmed (he struck out 19 times and drew only one walk, which is good for a 0.05 K/BB ratio), and he was making less contact at the plate than in 2010 (his contact rate had fallen to 76 percent). On Saturday, with the Green Jackets struggling under .500, the Giants sent him to extended Spring Training along with other notable players such as Dan Burkhart, Josh Mazzola, Sundredy Windster, Matt Graham, and Ryan Bradley, according to the Augusta Chronicle.

With this latest set-back, one has to wonder what the future holds for Villegas. It's obvious from reports that the guy has a lot of tools and talent, but unfortunately, he just hasn't been able to put it together in Single-A in two stints. He is probably a victim of too much hype, as it seems a lot of experts and analysts cut him some slack early on because of his age and athleticism. That being said, he is 20 years old, and at this point, he's probably due for another stint in Augusta perhaps even next year, which would be his third go-around in the Sally at 21 years old. Yes, breaking into the Sally at 19 is a decent feat. But to be playing in Single A at 21 when he's been playing professional ball since he was 17? Well...that's a bit harder to stomach.

Villegas is an interesting subject mainly because with some recent International Signings the Giants made (the Giants signed Simon Mercedes, a RHP and Adalberto Mejia, a LHP) and the Signing Period starting July 2nd (a couple of months away, but still close enough), it definitely is classic case of why Giants fans and analysts should always be cautious with these kinds of prospects. Yes, international prospects, especially ones from Latin America, come with considerable upside, tools and athleticism at a young age (they are playing professional baseball when most kids in the United States haven't even graduated high school yet). However, there is a significant transition step needed to succeed at the professional level, and some guys, despite their potential, struggle to make the adjustment to professional pitching when they make their way stateside.

Now, is it all doom and gloom for Villegas? I'm not so sure. Reports have him as one of the Top-five defensive infielders in the Giants system (some argue he's just behind Adrianza and Brandon Crawford). So, Villegas may just be a late bloomer who'll just need some more time to figure it out at the plate. That being said, he may not be a Top-50 prospect in the Giants system anymore, and certainly isn't the Top 30 prospect that Baseball America made him out to be going into the 2011 season.

It'll be interesting to keep an eye on Villegas as he works on some things in extended Spring Training in Arizona. However, it is probably a wise thing for Giants fans to temper their expectations on Villegas' potential from this point forward.

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