"I think you may be a little too pessimistic in regards to Villalona's ultimate projections. While his walk and strikeout rates are abominable, I don't think you are properly taking his age into account. A .750 OPS and 17 home runs for a 17-year-old in Class A ball is pretty amazing. The age-18 season is a big one for power development (as is the age-23 season), and I think we'll see a breakout this season." - oddsmaker
"I will watch with interest this season to see how (Project Prospect) reacts to how Villalona does and whether they are willing to eat crow if they are wrong about Villalona. Obviously, if they are right, then I will bow down to them and say "I'm not worthy". However, I don't expect to have to do that." - Martin Lee
Angel Villalona will need a big breakout season over the next couple of years to justify being ranked as one of 2009's top 50 prospects. He has the potential to become an above-average power hitter who can play solid defense at first base; maybe somewhere between Jorge Cantu and Miguel Cabrera depending on his walk rate. His floor could be Joel Guzman or Wes Bankston -- a Triple-A player who may never surface as a MLB regular due to his inability to draw walks.
Largely due to his poor walk rate -- 2nd-worst in the South Atlantic League last year -- we see Villalona as a guy who still has some major adjustments to make if he's ever going to find success in the big leagues. He has youth on his side, but eventually evaluators will be forced to put more weight into his production than age. Though it's hard to deny his upside at this point, we wouldn't be surprised if Villalona never becomes a big league regular.
On the surface, Villalona's 2007-2008 performance impresses me about as much as Bill Rowell, Eric Duncan, and -- who would have guessed -- Joel Guzman's recent minor league performances. Villalona's career walk rate (4.5%) lines up with Adam Jones, Casey Kotchman, and Rod Barajas' 2008 rates. His career strikeout rate (21.9%) is on par with Milton Bradley and Adam LaRoche's 2008 rates. And his .167 career isolated power aligns with Rickie Weeks, Dustin Pedroia and Matt Kemp's 2008 rates. What do we get if we combine these skill sets into one 2008 player (wOBA)? Ryan Garko?
Of course, translating minor league numbers to the big leagues is not as simple as the exercise above, especially when you're dealing with a teenager in the low minors.
Age versus level
Villalona was the youngest player to accumulate over 500 plate appearances in full-season ball last year. He was about nine months younger than Jesus Montero, the next youngest player to total over 500 full-season plate appearances.
Villalona's early progression through the minors mirrors that of Fernando Martinez, Jose Tabata, and Elvis Andrus. It's the kind of development path that onlookers like to pair with sky's-the-limit talents; a schedule where guys are given passing grades for "staying afloat" by some fans.
Taking a quick look at the trio of teenagers above and their progression from Low-A to Double-A (two years later), I conducted a very rough study of the kind of progress Villalona could be in for -- I didn't adjust for league, park, or luck. Martinez, Tabata, and Andrus all walked slightly less in Double-A than they did in Low-A (-0.3% on average). The trio had varying fluctuations in strikeout rates: Martinez (+1.9%), Tabata (-2.6%), and Andrus (-2.0%). None of the three improved upon his isolated power from Low-A to Double-A (-.025 on average).
It should be noted that along with not adjusting the figures above for league, park, or luck, I'm well aware that it's also a risky practice to draw conclusions from such a small sample of players.
Villalona is universally praised for his power potential. And we've seen it:
My speed score had Villalona as a below-average runner last season. He's been a below-average contact hitter as well, so it's unlikely that Villalona will ever be a high-average hitter. Additionally, he's not patient at the plate. Getting on base does not figure to be one of the 6-foot-3, 200-pounder's strengths.
I was impressed with Villalona's soft hands and agility when I saw him in minor league spring training in 2007. I didn't get to see him field grounders when I visited Giants' minor league camp earlier this month. I wouldn't be shocked if Villalona can provide average defense at first base in the big leagues. For what it's worth, minorleaguesplits.com had him at +3 runs defensively per 150 games last season.
Villalona's contact improvements in the final two months of the season (19.3% K, 223 PA) are promising. I think his .354 August BABIP (16% LD) played a significant role in his success that month -- for comparison, his BABIP was .290 in May (19% LD). I wonder if Villalona was instructed to practice patience in the first part of the season then allowed to swing away (9 BB from 4/6-5/7; 9 BB from 5/8-8/31)?
Total 2008 line: 3.6% BB, 23.5% K, .172 IsoP, 17% LD
April: His worst power (.112 IsoP) and line drive (7%) month; best walk month (6.8%); .250 wOBA
May: Second-best walk (4.7%) and power (.210 IsoP) month; .326 wOBA
June: Worst contact month (33.3% K); best line drive (26%) month; .328 wOBA
July: Worst walk month (1.9%), second-worst power month (.115 IsoP), second-best K% month (19.4%); .307 wOBA
August: Best power month (.217 IsoP), best K% month (19.1%), highest BABIP month (.354 with 16% LD); .379 wOBA
The signing bonus and the hype that came with it
According to Baseball America, Angel Villalona's $2.1 million international signing bonus is the 8th-largest ever. It was the 5th-highest at the time he received it -- not including Cuban players. Five international talents received bonuses in excess of $2.0 million last year.
Going back 10 years, two teenagers became the first international hitting talents to sign for more than $2.0 million: Wily Modesto Pena and Joel Guzman.
Baseball America -- and I'm using them here because they were basically the lone authority on prospects from 1990-2006 -- just about instantly ranked Pena as the 88th best prospect in baseball (2000). They left him off their 2001 list, put him at 65th in 2002, and dropped him to 87th in 2003 (he graduated to the majors in 2003). BA was more patient with Guzman; they didn't put him on a Top 100 until three seasons after he signed. But Guzman made his Top 100 debut as BA's 5th overall prospect (2005). He then fell to 26th in 2006. Though he's still a prospect, he hasn't made any of their three Top 100s since.
So what does this brief international prospect history have to do with Angel Villalona?
We use signing bonuses in our prospect evaluations. In comparing one bonus to another, we can gather an indication of the market value a player has. Draft bonuses can be misleading due to the leverage involved. From the teams: You'll have to wait a year to play pro ball if you don't sign with us. From Aaron Crow: I'm never negotiating with you again. International bonuses, on the other hand, are affected by offers possibly coming from all 30 MLB teams. Well known international prospects have started to sign for amounts that are equivalent to upper first round draft money.
Does this mean Villalona was a better prospect when he signed than Travis Snider? Yorman Rodriguez over Yonder Alonso? Michael Ynoa over Brian Matusz? Joel Guzman over Casey Kotchman? Wily Mo Pena over Alex Rios? International signing bonuses are their own animal.
Villalona now has over 700 pro plate appearances that we can use to evaluate him, leaving little reason to put much weight into his signing bonus. Due to his age, he'll likely get a partial pass for performance over the next couple of years, but evaluators will need to put more weight into his production after that. Predicting a major breakout can be risky. A lot of things could go wrong with Villalona's development over the next five years.
Adam Foster can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.