The Houston Astros promoted prospect Jonathan Villar to the major league roster yesterday, replacing the deposed Ronny Cedeno on the roster and taking over as the starting shortstop. Here is a look at what we can expect, Villar seizing the mantle as today's Prospect of the Day.
Villar was signed by the Philadelphia Phillies as a free agent from the Dominican Republic in 2008, earning a $105,000 bonus. He played in the Dominican Summer League in '08 and the Gulf Coast League in '09, showing an exciting array of tools although he didn't dominate statistically, which is just fine at that level of play: DSL and GCL numbers are not very predictive, athleticism being more important at those levels for the youngest players.
Moved up to full-season Low-A Lakewood in 2010, Villar hit .272/.332/.358 with 38 steals in 51 attempts, 26 walks, and 103 strikeouts in 371 at-bats. He made 42 errors in 99 games, but scouts were intrigued with his physicality. He landed with the Astros as part of the 2010 Roy Oswalt/JA Happ trade. Sent to High-A Lancaster, he struggled with a .225/.294/.372 mark in 32 games against the best pitching he'd ever seen, while making 14 more errors in 31 games.
Villar split 2011 between Lancaster (259/.353/.414 in 47 games) and Double-A Corpus Christi (.231/.301/.386), continuing to flash talent but having problems with plate discipline and defensive reliability. He improved in 2012 (.261/.336/.396 in 86 games for Corpus Christi) but was limited to 86 games after he broke his hand punching a door. Moved up to Oklahoma City for 2013, he's hit .278/.342/.444 with 31 steals this season.
Overall, in 542 minor league games, Villar has hit .260/.334/.387 with 193 steals in 245 attempts, with 206 walks and 582 strikeouts in 2309 plate appearances.
A 6-1, 195 pound switch-hitter, Villar was born May 2, 1991. He has every tool you look for in a major league shortstop: athleticism, range, speed, quick hands, arm strength. He is an aggressive defender and can make spectacular plays look easy. He can also make easy plays look terrible: like many young shortstops, he'll lose concentration on routine chances and make silly mistakes. However, this problem has gotten better over time: his fielding percentages have steadily improved, his reliablity sharpening without any loss of range as he's cleaned up his footwork, positioning, and overall concentration. He'll be an above-average defender at shortstop and could rate as excellent eventually with continued progress.
Villar also does a good job using his speed on the bases: he's stolen 31 bases in 38 attempts this year, and his success percentage has improved as he's moved up the ladder.
Villar isn't going to be a huge power hitter, but he isn't punchless: he has wiry strength and should hit doubles and triples with the occasional home run. His biggest problem is over-aggressiveness: he was almost helpless against breaking balls earlier in his career and couldn't lay off bad pitches. Like his defense, his plate discipline is not as bad as it used to be. He still strikes out a lot, with 92 whiffs in 385 plate appearances this season, but he makes a better effort to work counts now and his walk ratio has crept upward with experience.
At this point in his career, Villar is a guy that you put at the bottom of the order. Right now, the Astros should be happy if he hits .230-.240 with occasional extra base hits, some steals, and a flashy (if erratic) glove. The idea here is that his defense will keep him employed long enough for him to work out his hitting issues, and for the Astros to see if he's going to punch more doors.
By the time Carlos Correa is ready, the Astros should have a better idea of Villar's chances to reach his ceiling. In the long run, Villar could be something like a .260-.280 hitter with 10-12 homers a season, double-digit steals, and a strong glove.