The Iowa Cubs are not currently blessed with a roster full of hot organizational prospects. As covered earlier, much of the organization’s top-end talent has made its way to Chicago, leaving Javy Baez as the team’s talismanic talent for the moment. However, given Javy’s time in Chicago in 2014 – and the legitimate possibility that his time in Iowa may be limited – I’m not going to treat Javy as a prospect per se. You already know more about Javy than you need, just from reading this site!
So I figured I’d start my semi-regular series of Cubs minor-league profiles with a couple of the organizations’ top-20ish prospects before moving on to some of the players you may even know less about. The first in that series is Christian Villanueva.
First, the vitals:
Christian Villanueva was born on June 19, 1991 in Guadalajara, Mexico, started playing baseball at 9, and was signed as an international free agent by the Texas Rangers at 17. He stands 5’11” and weighs in at 210 lbs. Despite his size, however, he does not profile as a prototypical power-hitting third baseman. In fact, sticking in the big leagues in any capacity may hinge more on his glove than his bat.
Villanueva arrived in the organization along with Kyle Hendricks on Deadline Day 2012 as the return for Ryan Dempster. Though Hendricks has graduated the parent club’s rotation, at the time Villanueva was the higher rated prospect at number 9 in the Rangers’ organization.
Heading into the 2013 season, Villanueva was considered comfortably among the Cubs’ top 10-15 prospects, depending on the observer. He played all of 2013 at AA Tennessee, hitting .261/.317/.469 with 19 HR and 72 RBI.
In some ways, Villanueva was a victim of the rapidly strengthening Cubs farm system, and his solid 2013 season was followed by stagnant prospect rankings, still in the 10-15 range. At the time, John Sickels wrote this about this progress:
“Grade B-: Some are disappointed in him, but his 2013 Double-A season was actually very similar to his ’12 High-A season; his wRC+ actually improved from 121 to 126 as he’s hitting for more power now, and he still has a good glove. Skills look like they are holding steady to me; the problem is that he’s being pushed by guys like Baez and Bryant who have higher upsides. But on his own terms Villanueva is still an interesting prospect.”
While his 2013 season may have been disappointing to some, his 2014 was downright disastrous. He started the season in Iowa, but floundered to the tune of a .211/.283/.372 line. He was then demoted to Tennessee in mid-June (to make way for Kris Bryant), where his struggles continued, and he hit .248/.310/.385 in AA. All told, his slash numbers look pretty dismal (.230/.297/.379), and he hit for very little power (10HR, .379 SLG) and struck out at a roughly 20% clip.
With the matriculation of Bryant to Chicago, Villanueva again took up the mantle in Iowa (immediately following Bryant’s promotion). Since then, he has performed solidly, if not spectacularly, hitting .250/.314/.447 and committing 9 errors at third base in 24 games.
There are, however, within the peripherals, signs of encouragement. His walk rate currently sits at 8.14%, and he has struck out only 16.28% of his PAs. It’s also worth noting that his BABIP currently sits at .262, so some regression may be in order (though it’s also worth noting that Villanueva does not seem to be a high BABIP player, having posted only 1 season above A-ball with a BABIP .300 or above… .303 in 2013).
The future for Villanueva seems murky. No longer one of the organization’s top prospects, and seemingly blocked at his natural third base position by any number of more highly-touted names, it seems unlikely that he will see significant time in Chicago except as a possible September callup, or as an emergency replacement in the event of a multiple-injury catastrophe with the Cubs’ corner infielders.
At the same time, he is considered to have a very solid make-up, and should continue to develop into at least a fringe major league regular with who can provide above-average defense. In late-2014, Fangraphs took a look into the Cubs system, and rated Villanueva the 24th best prospect in the organization, writing this:
“There’s a chance Villanueva could end up as an everyday guy, but it’s looking more like a corner utility guy now.”
I am taking reader requests for future profiles of Iowa players. Let me know who you’d like to learn more about.