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Can Christian Villanueva Emerge as a Top Third Base Prospect?
Minor League Prospect Report: Christian Villanueva, 3B, Chicago Cubs
The Chicago Cubs acquired third base prospect Christian Villanueva from the Texas Rangers in the Ryan Dempster trade this summer. Rookie Josh Vitters hasn't exactly distinguished himself in a positive manner in the majors. Can Villanueva supplant him as the Third Baseman of the Future in Wrigley Field?
Villanueva was signed by the Rangers out of Mexico in 2008. Listed at 5-11, 180, he is a right-handed hitter and thrower born June 19, 1991. Originally a shortstop, he moved to third base in 2009 following a knee injury. His middle infield background shows up at the hot corner: he is very impressive defensively, featuring above-average range, soft hands, good reliability on routine plays, plus unusually and consistently high double-play rates, generally a sign of quick reactions in a third baseman. He has Gold Glove potential as a third baseman if he hits enough to play regularly.
So what about that bat? Villanueva is primarily a line drive hitter, though he does have some power. He hasn't been a huge batting average guy so far, hitting .278 in Low-A in 2011 and .279 in High-A this year. His overall slash before the trade was .285/.356/.421 with 24 walks, 83 strikeouts in 375 at-bats for Myrtle Beach in the Carolina League. Transferred over to Daytona in the Florida State League after the trade, he hit .250/.337/.452 with 10 walks and 24 strikeouts in 84 at-bats.
He was actually a bit more productive after the trade, raising his OPS to +13 percent compared to FSL average, compared to +9 percent in the Carolina League, granted the perils of sample size. Other metrics show a similar improvement, his wRC+ moving from 113 to 126 after the trade. In any event, he had a productive year in High-A at age 20/21, giving him age-appropriate success.
Villanueva's strike zone judgment needs some work; he posted a 34/107 BB/K, although he did show a bit more patience after the trade. Scouting reports fit the numbers quite well: his approach is inconsistent; at times he shows excellent hitting instincts, pop to all fields, and a feel for the zone. However, he will also go through periods of excessive power-consciousness, trying to pull everything and getting himself out. He'll be tested by Double-A pitchers next year.
Although he has some issues to address, overall I think Villanueva is a solid prospect. He's at least a year away, but if no one seizes the third base job by 2014, he will certainly be in the picture for the Cubs. His defensive ability could give him an edge while he works the offensive kinks out.