Friday, May 20, 2011
What Does the Future Hold for Angel Villalona?
I was reading a piece on Beyond the Box Score about Wily Mo Pena, and it got me thinking: who in the Giants system has or had the kind of raw power like Pena and came from a similar background? (e.g. signed when he was young, free swinger, well-sized, but athletic kid out of Latin America.)
The first player that came to mind was Angel Villalona.
Yes, the same Villalona that signed a then-club record $2.1 million signing bonus in 2006.
The same Villalona who was once a Top-50 prospect in all of baseball in 2008 and 2009, according to Baseball America.
And yep, the same Villalona who is currently accused of murdering a 25-year old man at a night club in the Dominican Republic on September 19, 2009.
The former "free-swinging" first base prospect is currently out of jail and on bail, and his defense team swayed the family of the victim drop charges against him, but Villalona's life is far from being back on track. First off, the prosecution is still following through on the case, even without the victim's family involved. Secondly, Villalona's visa was revoked after the murder, and it is murky in terms of when or even if Villalona will get another visa to come back stateside and play ball. And lastly, after serving some time in jail and undergoing this exhausting legal process, he hasn't played organized baseball since July of 2009, where a leg injury ended his season early in San Jose.
It's a shame that Villalona's professional career in the United States may be over before it ever started. He's only 20 years old, but he hasn't played in almost two years. While he has been practicing a little bit in the Dominican Republic (as evidenced by this video announcing his release from jail), he certainly hasn't faced the caliber of pitching or been in the kind of practice schedule or environment he had been accustomed to the past couple of years.
A top prospect in the Giants system for a couple of seasons, Villalona was very much in the Wily Mo-mold: he had tremendous size, tools and pop, but he was a free swinger with poor strike zone judgment, who had to make strides in terms of improving his plate patience. In three seasons in the minors, Villalona's walk rate declined each season (from 6.7 percent in Arizona to 3.6 percent in Augusta to 2.9 percent in San Jose), as did his BB/K ratio (0.36 to 0.15 to 0.12). His power numbers weren't mind blowing in the AZL (five home runs, .160 ISO in 224 plate appearances) or the Sally (17 home runs, .172 ISO in 500 plate appearances), but considering he was only 17 and 18 years old at the time, many people saw the semblance of power a comforting sign since he was so young and his tools were so raw and undeveloped. With more exposure to minor league pitching, Giants fans and even management figured the power would start to come in bunches and the plate approach would improve as well, which would help him increase his batting average over time.
His San Jose campaign was disappointing though, as Villalona didn't show the improvement Giants fans and management expected. He only hit nine home runs, and his ISO fell to .130. Also, his walk rate at 2.9 percent was a career low (sans the five game stint in Salem Keizer in 2007 where he had zero strikeouts), and his 25 percent strikeout rate was just .4 points lower than the previous year. Yes, Villalona hit slightly better for average (.267; four points higher than 2008), but that was about the only improvement seen in Villalona's game in his transition from Augusta to San Jose. (To make matters worse, his .327 BABIP was 10 points higher than his Augusta BABIP, as the Cal League tend's to favor hitters.)
If Villalona could get this court issue resolved this year and somehow get a visa to get back in the United States as soon as next season, there might be some kind of future for Villalona in the Giants organization or at least in professional baseball. First off, at six-feet, three inches and 200 pounds (though he's probably closer to 220 from the last I've seen of him), he still has a lot of interesting tools, especially as a hitter. Remember, prior to the 2008 season, John Sickels ranked him as the No.1 prospect in the Giants system and graded him as a B+ prospect, and in 2009 he graded him as a B prospect and the 4th best prospect in the Giants system.
Of course, Sickels cut him some slack because he was a 17 year old playing in Single A (average hitter age is 21) and an 18 year old playing in High Single A (average hitters age is 22-23). He, and many other scouts and analysts (including MLB.com, which ranked him as the 48th best prospect going into 2009), excused his poor plate discipline because in their minds he was "still learning the game." (An understandable and valid argument by the way; to play and show as much power in Single A at an age where most American kids aren't even graduated out of high school yet is a testament to his pure talent.)
With two years of his career (at the soonest) lost though, Villalona doesn't have the youth to lean on anymore. And unfortunately for him, I don't think he is ever going to be able to develop and improve upon his plate patience issues (To put things in context, the average BB/K ratio for a hitter is around 0.50). If anything, he was a couple of years away from being decent in 2009. I can't imagine what the odds would be if he came back next year (and like I said, that's best case scenario for him).
In some sad way, Villalona is a classic case of a "prospect gone wrong." He came from a poor background from a rough part of the Dominican Republic where trouble has a tendency follow those with exuberant amounts of money. Perhaps he is just a target of those who want to partake in his wealth as he claims. But, we have seen this story with Latin American ballplayers before, with some turning out in favor of the player (in Juan Uribe's case) and some not (Ugueth Urbina).
If Villalona can get that visa, it'll be an interesting story. That being said, there will be boatloads of questions upon his arrival. Will his tools be as strong as they were when he signed as a 16 year old? How will his body type look? How has his athleticism been affected since being away from the game? What's his defense like? Can he still hit? Has his strike zone judgment improved in the time off? Or has it deteriorated even worse (if that's even remotely possible considering how poor it was to begin with)?
Of course, Giants fans and management just need to worry about Villalona coming back to the United States at all, and even that seems hard to believe. If he does find a way to the States and sees the field again in a Giants uniform, he'll have the chips stacked against him, that's for sure.
Villalona turning into a poor man's Wily Mo Pena would probably be an optimistic projection at this point.