When you look back at the team Christian Villanueva originally signed with, everything starts to make sense. That team was the Texas Rangers, who signed Villanueva as an international free agent out of Mexico in 2008. If you’re trying to figure out the connection, yes, A.J. Preller was a member of the Rangers’ international scouting department when Villanueva was signed. Now, 10 years later, Villanueva finds himself once again in an organization with Preller.
A knee injury sidelined Villanueva for most of his first professional season in rookie ball, but he came back strong in 2010. Villanueva played 51 games as an 18/19-year-old back in rookie ball, slashing .314/.365/.431 with a 126 wRC+. Villanueva didn’t show much power, but his overall offensive profile looked solid. Villanueva followed with a full season in Low-A ball in 2011, slashing .278/.338/.465 with a 116 wRC+. Although his overall slash line took a step back, Villanueva found his power stroke, swatting 17 home runs in 126 games and raising his ISO from .117 to .186.
Moved to High-A to start the 2012 season, Villanueva had a very similar offensive season, although his power took a step back, as his ISO fell back down to .136. Halfway through the year, Villanueva found himself traded to the Chicago Cubs with Kyle Hendricks in a deal that sent Ryan Dempster back to the Rangers. Over his last 25 games, Villanueva experienced another power spike, slashing just .250/.337/.452, but posting a 125 wRC+ and ISO over .200 in 95 plate appearances.
Villanueva had easily the best year of his career in 2013, as he not only posted a career-high wRC+ but also a career high in home runs and isolated power (ISO). However, his on-base percentage continued to decline, creating question marks about his big league future. In 2014, Villanueva took a step back, posting a 92 wRC+ in 62 games in Double-A before struggling mightily in 64 Triple-A games, posting a 65 wRC+ and .211/.283/.372 slash line. At this point, it was clear Villanueva was on the outside looking in, with Kris Bryant now a member of the Cubs’ organization.
Villanueva spent the entirety of the 2015 season back in Triple-A, and although he was able to perform a lot better, he still posted a sub-100 wRC+ for the season. With Bryant already in the big leagues, Villanueva’s time in Chicago seemed to be coming to an end. After being invited to spring training in 2016, Villanueva’s bad luck continued, as a broken right fibula sidelined the infielder for the whole season. About a month after their World Series victory, Christian Villanueva was non-tendered by the Chicago Cubs. Villanueva quickly got back on his feet, signing a minor league contract with the Padres.
Despite no longer being blocked by one of the best players in baseball, Villanueva was still blocked in San Diego. However, the Padres were interested in seeing how Villanueva fared with a full-time job in Triple-A. In El Paso, Villanueva was pretty much given the starting third base job, and he certainly ran with it. In 109 games with the Chihuahuas, Villanueva slashed .296/.369/.528 with a 129 wRC+, which were easily the best numbers of his career and his best showing since 2012 or 2013. Not only did Villanueva post an ISO back over .200, but he also maintained the highest full-season walk rate of his career at 9.5 percent.
Given all his success, Villanueva finally earned a big league call-up when rosters expanded in September. On September 18, Villanueva made his big league debut. Over the last two weeks of the season, Villanueva came to the plate 32 times over 12 games, collecting 11 hits and smashing four long balls. However, Villanueva did not walk a single time and posted a strikeout rate just over 30 percent. The offensive potential was certainly tantalizing, but walk to strikeout ratio was a concern. In the field, Villanueva was nothing flashy, putting up slightly below average defensive numbers.
2018 Projection and Long-Term Outlook
With the Padres’ infield logjam, led by Cory Spangenberg, Chase Headley, and Carlos Asuaje, it’s hard to envision Villanueva winning a starting job in 2018. Despite the trade of Yangervis Solarte, the Padres’ acquired Headley, which did nothing to open up playing time in the infield. Given all this, it seems likely that Villanueva will have to really impress during spring training to receive a major league roster spot to start the year.
It’s more likely that Villanueva spends more time in the minor leagues until a more consistent opening can be found. Based on his late season showing last year, the Padres should at least give him a chance. At 26 years old, it could be a make or break season for the third baseman out of Mexico. If he doesn’t get an opportunity to show what he can do in San Diego soon, he may end up finding his way to his fourth big league organization. Only time will tell on that front.