Since his arrival into the Chicago Cubs’ organization at the trade deadline in 2012, it’s as if every turn in the script was designed to overshadow Christian Villanueva.
When the Cubs picked up the then 21-year-old third baseman in a trade from the Rangers, it was something of a consolation prize for the infamous Ryan Dempster/Randall Delgado swap that didn’t quite happen. Moreover, the guy who came over with Villanueva—Kyle Hendricks—rapidly ascended the Cubs’ farm system, won some organizational hardware along the way, and was posting quality numbers at the big-league level just two years after the trade.
Oh, and then the Cubs drafted a third baseman with the second overall pick in 2013. His name was Kris Bryant, and, you know, he’s kind of a thing.
Oh, and then the Cubs traded for a high-upside, big-league-ready third baseman named Mike Olt at the Trade Deadline in 2013.
Oh, and then the Cubs traded for a tip-top shortstop prospected named Addison Russell in July 2014, adding him to an infield stable that already included Bryant, Olt, Starlin Castro, and Javier Baez at the upper levels/in the big leagues.
Consider this the third reminder about one of the best defensive third basemen in the minor leagues, whose bat is taking off at Triple-A this season.
Heading into the 2014 season, even the BP Annual was doing its part to tell the Villanueva story: “The Rodney Dangerfield of Cubs prospects, all Villanueva did last year in his first taste of the upper minors was hit more doubles and extra-base hits than anyone else in Double-A, launch 19 home runs and flash Gold Glove-quality defense at the hot corner. Yet there are those who dislike his hitchy swing, see little power projection in his slim frame, and fret over the utility of his hit tool. Villanueva may not have the highest ceiling, but his mature approach, gap power, proven production, and solid makeup give him a better chance to reach it than most 22-year-olds.”
A disappointing offensive campaign in 2014 between Double-A and Triple-A dropped Villanueva back in the minds of most evaluators, and, although he fell of the BP top ten prospect list coming into 2015, he did get some love among the potential 2015 contributors: “Were it not for the logjam of potential impact infielders populating the organization, Villanueva might have an opportunity to prove himself as a worthy everyday contributor at the major-league level. The glove plays to plus at the hot corner, and there is plus raw pop in the stick, but Villanueva’s contact issues were magnified between Double-A and Triple-A in 2014, calling into question whether the profile is ultimately that of a regular or corner backup with some pinch-hit utility. The timetable for Russell and Bryant could eat into Villanueva’s opportunity to see time in Wrigley next summer, making him an obvious candidate to figure into any offseason discussions involving trade partners in search of an inexpensive upside play at third.”
To the extent Villanueva risked cementing himself as a glove-only third baseman—and risked losing his 40-man roster spot by the end of the year—he’s done just about everything he can so far at Triple-A Iowa to show that he can still hit a bit.
Although he opened the year back at Double-A Tennessee, it didn’t take more than a week for the Cubs to decide he needed another shot at Triple-A (the timing of Kris Bryant’s promotion to the big-league club, of course, helped open up that third base job).
Heading into Wednesday night’s game, Villanueva had eight hits in his last four games, two of which were homers, one of which was a triple, and one of which was a double. In 37 Triple-A games thus far, again, heading into Wednesday night’s game, Villanueva sports a healthy .290/.348/.500 line (.369 wOBA, 123 wRC+)—not too shabby for a guy known for his killer glove at third base.
But here’s the number that gets me really intrigued by Villanueva: 14.5.
That’s his strikeout rate this year at Iowa, by far the lowest of his career at any level. When he first got a taste of Triple-A last year, Villanueva was striking out at a 25.8 percent clip. For a guy who won’t walk a ton and won’t offer Gallo-like power, that just isn’t going to fly, especially when it bumps up even further at the big-league level.
Now, of course, I’m not saying that Villanueva is suddenly a high-contact guy with decent pop, but, with 138 plate appearances under his belt this year at Triple-A, it sure seems like that 14.5 percent strikeout rate means something.
Once you factor in his defensive abilities and his age (Villanueva is still just 23 for another two weeks), he starts to look like a guy with a big-league future and far from someone you want to overlook.
It’s not hard to imagine Villanueva being able to add second base and the corner outfield spots to his tool belt – at least passably – making him a potentially interesting utility man in the near-term future.
It’s also not hard to imagine a team or two out there wanting to give Villanueva a look as their own full-time starting third baseman, making him an intriguing trade chip as July approaches.
We’ll see what happens to Villanueva’s position, what with Javier Baez now seeing time at third base. It’s possible the Cubs will use this as an opportunity to increase his own versatility, or it’s possible that he’ll be considered for a look at the big-league level at some point sooner rather than later.
Photo courtesy of Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports