I got this idea from OGC, who commented on the update post, and I figured, ever certain number of posts in the Top 30 prospect list I would highlight a certain player who merits some discussion. These posts won't be as long as the Top 30 profiles, but they are pieces to highlight certain players who should still be focused on by Giants fans in 2012.
Why is Angel Villalona Highlighted?
Villalona is probably one of the most interesting stories in the Giants minor league system. In Augusta of 2006, the Giants awarded the 16 year old Villalona with a $2.1 million signing bonus, the highest in team history for an international signing at the time (it would later be surpassed by Rafael Rodriguez). Villalona at the time was considered a man among boys: he had tremendous power, and many experts felt that Villalona could develop into an All-Star calibur player who would regularly hit 30-plus home runs at the Major League level. However, toward the end of the 2009 season, Villalona was charged with murder in his home country, the Dominican Republic. Though charges against him were eventually dropped, his visa was revoked, and Villalona spent two years away from organized baseball. Despite the uncertainty of his future, the Giants still placed Villalona on the 40-man roster at the end of this year (most likely to protect him from the Rule 5 Draft).
What Makes Villalona Interesting?
Villalona has plus power and that was evident in his stints in the lower minors early in his career. He hit 17 home runs in 2008 in Augusta and posted a slugging percentage of .435 as well. While the numbers aren't eye-popping, he did this as a 17 year old, so the fact that he was able to hit with as much power as he did as a teenager against competition 2-4 years older than him is impressive. While his power did decrease in the hitter-friendly California League (his home runs dropped to 9 and slugging dipped under .400 to .397 in 310 plate appearances), he was still considerably young for the league (only 18 in a league which average 22-23 years of age), and did deal with some minor injuries that limited him to almost 200 less plate appearances from the previous season.
Furthermore, the reports from some of the coaches in the organization about Villalona initially were very positive, which gave some hope that despite the average numbers, he was progressing on the right track to stardom. The reports detailed him as a hardworking guy who was showing signs (though inconsistent) of improvement, especially over the course of seasons (e.g. he improved at the plate with more and more at-bats). Here's what Augusta manager Andy Skeels said about Villalona after the 2008 season:
"You come out of Spring Training and they're so young and never experienced a full season, so you don't know what you're going to get. For someone that young, it's a testament to what our staff did and a testament to the kind of kid Angel is. He's a tremendous talent and he dedicated himself much better to becoming a professional."
What keeps Villalona out of the Top 30?
On potential alone, Villalona could be a Top 30 prospect. He was a Top 50 prospect in baseball as recently as 2009. His power tool is that good. Unfortunately, the question of whether or not he is going to play this year stateside only compounds to an already big laundry list of factors working against him as a prospect. Originally billed as a highly athletic, "five tool" potential player out of the DR at the time of his signing, Villalona proved as soon as his first year in professional ball that he was probably a three tool player at best. He didn't have as much speed as expected, and defensively he proved to be nothing special at any level (in two of his three seasons RTZ, or Total Zone Fielding Runs, rated his defense as below average).
In addition to a lack of speed and questionable defense, Villalona had major conditioning issues, as his weight ballooned to the point where the Giants brass moved Villalona from third to first after his first full year in Rookie ball and the Northwest League. While a move from third to first base was also probably the best due to his defensive ability, it certainly hurt his status as a prospect, since his power is a premium for a third base prospect, but probably only above-average for a first base one.
While Villalona's hit tool and power tool have plus potential, his plate approach isn't (and that's putting it nicely). As a matter of fact, the biggest knock against Villalona as a prospect was his total lack of discipline and propensity for swinging at pitches badly out of the strike zone. In his three minor league seasons, his average OBP is .316 and his career BB/K ratio sits at 0.18 (which makes Francisco Peguero look like Kevin Youkilis by comparison). The main issue was his two-strike approach, as he seemingly swung at any and everything out of the strike zone. Add this with a lack of walks (only 42 career walks in 1047 plate appearances), and safe to say there were a lot of strikes against Villalona even before the murder incident occurred.
Can Villalona Improve?
I would like to say "Yes," though I do so with some reservations. I am an optimistic guy and I feel like Villalona should have a new spin on his career after such a life-altering incident. I know Osvaldo Martinez in the White Sox (previously Marlins) had a bit of a career turn-around after he was involved in a shooting in his native Puerto Rico (he was the victim though). I'm hoping Villalona can do the same and really take the bull by the horns after almost losing everything.
That being said, the odds are against Villalona. He's had two years away from the states, and his youth, one of the biggest factors working for him as a prospect, is essentially gone. With two lost minor league seasons, he now has to spend a year (maybe even two) to just get reacquainted with the game again. Also, how in shape Villalona is will be a big issue, since it was a problem when he was here stateside. After two years away from the game, it isn't likely that he's in pristine condition (though I do hope he's in at least decent shape, and despite the visa denial saying otherwise, I think he had kept okay care of himself, from reports I have read).
The Giants will need to be patient with Villalona as he works toward being a viable prospect in their system once again. He still is only 21 years old, so there is some time in his favor (though obviously not as much as before). Nonetheless, Villalona is a high risk, high reward kind of player, whose future is extremely murky at this point. So while he may have the potential to recapture the lofty status he once held, it is also highly possible that the Giants made a big mistake putting him on the 40-man roster (I don't think it was, considering how many players have turned into studs from the Rule 5 draft, but we'll see).
Whatever the future may hold for Villalona, it is unlikely that Giants fans will get a good idea of what his future projection will be after this year. Most likely, we won't know Villalona's true future projection for at least a couple of more seasons.