On July 31, 2012, the Chicago Cubs made a trade that proved pivotal to their rebuilding process. After seeing a deal for young Braves pitching prospect Randall Delgado fall through a week earlier, the Cubs finally swung a deal to send starter Ryan Dempster to a contender, flipping the long-time starter-turned-closer-turned-starter to the Texas Rangers for starting pitcher Kyle Hendricks and third baseman Christian Villanueva.
At the time, Hendricks was regarded as the secondary prospect piece, a command-dependent starter with an advanced brain, a strong changeup, and little in terms of raw stuff. Obviously we know that Hendricks has proven to be a far more impactful acquisition, growing into a strong starting pitcher on the strength of a genuinely elite changeup, superb command of a varied fastball, limited walks, and far greater strikeout ability than even the most optimistic Cubs fan hoped for.
But this post isn't about Hendricks. We all know about Hendricks. This post is about the other guy.
At the time of the trade, third baseman Christian Villanueva was viewed as the more attractive piece. Baseball America had ranked him as the-100th best prospect in all of baseball entering the 2012 season, with Villanueva ranking narrowly behind guys like Daniel Norris, Andrelton Simmons, Kolten Wong, and Nathan Eovaldi. Baseball Prospectus ranked Villanueva ninth among Cubs prospects that same offseason, noting that his elite glove and plus-plus arm should help to make him an average regular at third base. Prospectus foresaw the potential for average power while arguing that Villanueva's hit tool should be the one thing that would hold him back.
Of note: both publications predicted that Villanueva would reach the Majors in 2014.
Now, here we are in December 2015, and Villanueva has yet to make his Major League debut.
However, this piece is not about Villanueva slipping into the prospect abyss, never to be heard of again. On the contrary: by all accounts, Villanueva appears ready for a crack at a Major League job. But how will he find one?
Before we get into the nitty gritty, let's take a quick peak at Villanueva's climb through the system.
Since graduating from the confines of High-A ball, Villanueva has consistently posted below-average on-base percentages, though his numbers have been far from devastating. Even with that, his power showed up with some regularity in A ball in 2011, and he showed very strong power in his lone stint with the Daytona Cubs, posting a .202 ISO in 2012 following his acquisition. His power remained in 2013 as he blasted 19 home runs en route to a career-best .208 ISO at Double-A. Unfortunately, he hit the wall in 2014, failing completely in his Triple-A debut (.211/.283/.372) before being demoted back to Double-A.
Fortunately for Villanueva, he righted the ship in 2015, showing the power that made him so interesting at the minors' top level, launching 18 home runs at Triple-A as part of a .259/.313/.437 line. I won't pretend that such a batting line should knock your socks off, but it does show that Villanueva can hit the ball with some authority, and as a glove-first infielder, that type of offense is plenty attractive, even from a 24-year-old.
Importantly, Villanueva has continued this streak in the Mexican Winter League: over 58 games, Villanueva's .950 OPS (.337.442/.507) leads the entire league. Even though the competition may be a step below that in the Pacific Coast League, it's far better to see Villanueva producing well than the alternative.
At this point, Villanueva appears to be done with the minor leagues. His glove still rates as a plus attribute, and has bat looks like it is about as advanced as it is going to get. And while his bat doesn't look like it will ever be a real asset, he was basically a league-average hitter at Triple-A last year. There are worse skillsets than plus defense and a powerful bat that lacks on-base skills.
Let's go back to the real question here: where does Villanueva fit?
In some ways, Villanueva is actually a great fit for the Cubs. The Cubs have a starting infield that features plenty of offense, and with a number of infielders that could plausibly play outfield some of the time, carrying an extra infielder on the roster makes some good sense. Tommy La Stella and Brendan Ryan both figure to have jobs, assuming Ryan sticks around, but the Cubs could choose to carry seven infielders and four outfielders given the defensive flexibility of the roster.
Ahhhh, there's an important word: flexibility. This front office adores flexibility. Flexibility takes many forms. Guys play multiple positions. Some hitters are switch-hitters. Some pitchers can make starts or work from the bullpen. And then there are contracts. The Cubs have reached a point with their bullpen where there are too many relievers with guaranteed contracts and no options than there are jobs. This isn't a devastating problem, but the Cubs just released a reliever who didn't have a Major League job and was out of options last week when they designated Yoervis Medina for assignment.
Villanueva is functionally a Rule 5 pick. He has no options remaining, so the Cubs would have to keep him on the roster all year (or make up an injury for him to stash him on the disabled list). It might not be worth it to the Cubs to use such a roster spot on Villanueva, even after the club carried Jonathan Herrera for all of the 2015 season.
Naturally, this contractual issue with the Cubs would apply to any other team as well. This presents a significant knock on Villanueva's value.
As a player who needs to find a Major League club willing to give him significant playing time in order to determine whether he might make it as an everyday player, Villanueva would be a great fit on an obvious rebuilding club like the Phillies, Reds, Braves, Marlins, or Orioles. He could also be worthwhile flyer for a team like the White Sox or A's. I wouldn't expect that the Cubs could get much in return for Villanueva.
But I do know that his track record suggests that he is ready for a shot in the Majors. Unfortunately for Villanueva, it sure looks like there is another move in his future before that chance arrives.