One of the overlooked and sometimes forgotten players in the Cubs’ system is spending his off-season playing baseball in the Mexican Pacific League. And Christian Villanueva wrapped up regular season play with rather impressive numbers.
The Cubs acquired INF Christian Villanueva along with RHP Kyle Hendricks in the deal that sent Ryan Dempster to Texas in July 2012. Villanueva played in 25 games for High-A Daytona after the trade and put together a very good season with Double-A Tennessee the next year. In 133 games for the Smokies in 2013, the slick fielding third baseman hit .261/.317/.469 with 41 doubles, two triples and 19 home runs for a .787 OPS.
The next season was a struggle for Villanueva. After starting the year as Iowa’s third baseman, Villanueva switched spots with Kris Bryant when he was ready to be promoted. Villanueva struggled mightily at the plate and needed to spend more time at the Double-A level to rebuild his confidence.
The Cubs sent Villanueva back to Tennessee at the beginning of last season. Villanueva played in only six games for the Smokies and was bumped up to Iowa when Bryant received The Call.
Villanueva had a good stretch with Iowa from May through July that is not reflected in his final numbers due to a poor final 36 games of the season. Villanueva ended up hitting .259/.313/.437 with 23 doubles, two triples and 18 home runs for a .751 OPS in 123 games for the I-Cubs.
Defensively, Villanueva spent a majority of his time at third base (85) but also played first base (35) and lined up at second base for one game. Over the past two years between the Cubs system and winter ball, Villanueva has played third base, second base, first base and left field.
In the final game of the regular season in the Mexican Pacific League, Villanueva went 0-for-3 with two walks, a run scored and a strikeout in Obregon’s 8-3 win over Hermosillo. Villanueva was Obregon’s designated hitter once again.
Christian Villanueva finished the regular season with a .322/.434/.480 line. Villanueva hit nine doubles and nine home runs for a .914 OPS. Villanueva had more walks (41) than strikeouts (31) in 227 at bats over 64 games.
Villanueva finished sixth in the league in batting average (.322), second in on-base percentage (.434), sixth in slugging (.480) and third in OPS (.914). Villanueva was second in walks (41), tied for seventh in home runs (9) and tied for fifth in RBI (38).
Unless Villanueva is included in a trade in the next seven weeks he will be in big league camp this spring competing for a job on Joe Maddon’s bench. Villanueva is out of minor league options.
Christian Villanueva has shown the ability to hit left-handed pitching rather well in the minors (.294/.350/.503/.854 in 2015). And he’s done a lot of damage against right-handed pitchers this winter (.359/.462/.529 with eight doubles, seven home runs and .991 OPS).
Villanueva’s defense at third base is highly regarded within the organization. His ability to play multiple positions could pay off in the spring.
And while it may seem like Villanueva has been around for a longtime, he is only 24 years old and does not celebrate another birthday in June 19.
When looking toward a possible Opening Day roster for next season, players like Christian Villanueva and Matt Szczur should not be overlooked. Both players are out of options. If Villanueva and Szczur are still in the organization, the positional versatility and late-inning defense could lead to roster spots on April 4.
While it is unclear how Christian Villanueva fits in the Cubs’ plans moving forward, he helped increase his value over the last calendar year with the way he performed in the minors and winter ball.