Christian Villanueva came to the Cubs in the Ryan Dempster deal at the 2012 trade deadline. A J2 signing by the rangers in 2008, Villanueva cuts a less than imposing figure, standing 5'11-160. His 2011 campaign hinted at the potential for surprising pop, however, as he ISO'd .186 for the Rangers' Low-A Hickory affiliate. Combined with his sterling glovework at third, Villanueva's time at Hickory earned him the attention of the scouting community, with Baseball America slotting him as the 9th ranked prospect in the Rangers system and 100th overall.
2012 saw a promotion to high-A Myrtle Beach and a .50 point drop in ISO for Mr. Newhouse before the trade deadline. That, combined with the Rangers' system depth at third-base dropped his stock enough that he could be acquired for two months of an aging Ryan Dempster. Arriving at Daytona seemed to help Villanueva find his power-stroke again, as he completed his 95 PAs there with 4 homers after hitting only 10 in the 425 PAs previous.
2013 brought with it a promotion to Tennessee and the hope that the power outage for the lion's share of 2012 was an aberration.
You could say that 2012 was a mixed bag for Villanueva. The power stroke returned, posting an ISO of .208, a career high in slugging (.469), hitting 19 homers and leading the southern league in both doubles and extra base hits. But the overall slash line left something to be desired, as he hit .261/.317/.469. Villanueva had never hit for a high average, nor had he shown a particularly patient approach (never posting a walk rate over 7% for a full season). What he had done, before arriving at Tennessee, was show an impressive ability to get on base via the HBP, stepping in front of 12 pitches in 2011 and 21 in 2012. He was only plunked 9 times in 2013, however, and combined with his worst walk rate since rookie ball, the result was his lowest OBP in pro ball.
He was recognized by Baseball America as being the best defensive 3B in the southern league, reflecting the excellent value Christian brings with his glove. He was also recognized as the third-base representative on the Southern League postseason All-Star Team. That's the good news for Villanueva: as good as his glove is, a .317 OBP in AA isn't completely damning to his value as a prospect, particularly if he can continue to hit for power.
One thing to note is that Villanueva got off to a frigid start, batting .205/.275/.313/ in April and .257/.312/.450 before the All-Star Break. His .270/.328/.509 line in the second half is quite encouraging, and hopefully is a prelude to a 2014 offensive breakout.
BA had this to say in the Prospect Handbook before the season:
Blocked by Adrian Beltre and Mike Olt in Texas, Villanueva's chances for future playing time improved dramatically when the Rangers dealt him and strike-throwing righthander Kyle Hendricks to the Cubs for Ryan Dempster. He still has to worry about Jeimer Candelario and perhaps Javier Baez (if he moves to third base), but Villanueva suddenly has a lot more upward mobility. On the 20-80 scouting scale, one Cubs official described him as having 80 makeup, 70 defense and questionable power. Villanueva's short stroke is conducive to line drives more than longballs, and he tends to inside-out quality fastballs and serve them to the opposite field. He has the potential for average power, but he'll have to get stronger and turn on more pitches to get there. He can hit for solid average and provide some doubles. He has fringy speed but has the instincts to steal bases if the defense doesn't pay attention to him. Defense is where Villanueva really shines. He has the first-step quickness, hands, arm strength and savvy to make tough plays look routine. Chicago added him to its 40-man roster and will send him to Double-A in 2013. He could get a big league audition sometime the following year.
2013 has changed a few things for Villanueva on this front; for one, Mike Olt is now theoretically blocking him once more, although the gap between their perceived value is shrinking quickly. And while the latest rumors have Javier Baez moving to second base now instead of third, the drafting of Kris Bryant muddles Villanueva's future at the hot corner, and Candelario is still a factor. Another year of solid pop has at least quieted some of the questions about Villanueva's power stroke, but with it have come steadily increasing K-rates, adding a point in K% at each stop along the minor league path. Meanwhile his walk rate continues to drift somewhere between crappy and untenable, with BABIPs that are solid but not extraordinary, hovering mostly around the .300 mark for the lion's share of his minor league career.
All that said, the defense is the carrying tool, and his bat really just has to be decent for Villanueva to be a valuable player.
The third-base situation in Des Moines figures to be fairly messy next season, with Villanueva, Olt, Bryant, and potentially Baez all at decent odds to find ABs there. Given this, I wouldn't be at all shocked to see Villanueva get traded as part of a package for a starter this winter, as his value is more on the uptick than Olt. In an ideal scenario (barring a trade), Olt lights the world on fire in March next season and earns a spot on the big league roster, leaving Villanueva to man third at Iowa until Bryant is ready to move on from Tennessee. Regardless, I would be fairly surprised to see Olt and Villanueva both in the organization come next year's trade deadline. Third base is one of the few areas of serious organizational depth at the moment, and the major league club is going to need pitching badly if it plans on contending anytime soon.
For his part, Villanueva should be a useful piece for whatever major league club decides to give him a look. I'd set his floor as a Barney-esque defensive replacement bench bat, his ceiling as a first-division starter if the power plays in the majors and the strikeout rate stays under control, and splitting the difference as a second division regular being the most likely outcome for his career.