From the Pages of Vine Line: Christian Villanueva prospect profile

Villanueva-Scott-Jontes_Daytona-Cubs

(Photo by Scott Jontes, Daytona Cubs)

For hundreds of professional baseball players, the season doesn’t end when the Wrigley Field ivy turns red.

In the Sonoran desert, nearly 2,000 miles southwest of Chicago, Cubs third baseman Christian Villanueva is manning the infield for the Yaquis de Obregon of the Mexican Pacific League. Villanueva, who was born in Guadalajara, Mexico, was acquired from the Rangers in July as the main return for Ryan Dempster and finished the 2012 season at High-A Daytona. Baseball Prospectus recently named the 21-year-old the Cubs’ No. 9 prospect in a front-loaded system they believe now easily ranks in the top half of baseball.

“Villa’s a great kid,” said Jason Parks, who heads prospect coverage for BP. “The Rangers were absolutely heartbroken to see that kid go. This wasn’t, ‘Let’s look at a list because Texas is calling.’ The Cubs scouted Villa. They knew what they were getting.”

What they got was a player who commands the hot corner at a young age, and has the offensive potential and makeup of a future big leaguer—even though he’s not expected to be a prototypical power-hitting third baseman.

“The kid can really, really play third base. I think he has—some people are afraid to say it, but I’ll say it—a seven [out of eight], plus-plus glove,” said Parks, specifically noting Villanueva’s quick reactions and strong, accurate arm.

Villanueva, who was recently added to the Cubs 40-man roster, has struggled at the plate in Mexico. In 51 at-bats, he’s hit only .176 with two home runs and 25 strikeouts. But he posted solid numbers between Myrtle Beach of the Carolina League and Daytona in 2012, hitting .279/.353/.427 (AVG/OBP/SLG) with 14 home runs.

The extra experience Villanueva is getting this winter may be particularly valuable as he prepares to make the large leap to Double-A. He’s already shown he can square up velocity inside, but in the high minors, he’ll be tested by advanced pitchers with quality offspeed stuff.

That’s what Cubs farm director Brandon Hyde says Villanueva is seeing right now in Mexico.

It’s a real advantage, from a player development standpoint, to be playing more competitive games,” Hyde said. “A lot of those teams—like the one Jae-Hoon Ha is on [in Venezuela]—they’re looking to win.”

Villanueva’s Obregon team has been at the center of many of the league’s—and the Caribbean’s—best games in recent years. After a 26-year title drought, the Yaquis have won three league championships in five years and the 2011 Caribbean Series crown. The team’s stadium can hold up to 13,000 fans—more than almost any minor league venue—and tends to play to raucous crowds.

Parks said Villanueva has the mature demeanor to thrive in that kind of environment. He gets along socially with teammates across cultures and has proved a quiet leader whose work ethic rubs off on teammates.

It also seems to leave an impression on talent evaluators. Parks last saw Villanueva in October, when Obregon played several exhibitions in the Arizona instructional league. Because the jerseys bore no names, one MLB team scout approached Parks to ask who the third baseman was. Parks told the scout it was Villanueva.

“And he goes, ‘Oh, that makes sense. That kid’s good,’” Parks said. “[And I said] ‘Yeah, he’s good. He’s a major leaguer.’”

—Sean Ahmed

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