GREENSBORO, N.C.—His numbers may not jump off the screen, but that doesn’t mean any of the shine has come off Angel Villalona. The top international signing from 2006 after signing that year for $2.1 million, is hitting .253/.303/.410 through 388 at-bats for low Class A Augusta while showing steady improvement over the course of the season.
"He’s really matured faster than we thought," Augusta hitting coach Lipso Nava said.
Villalona, who turns 18 on Wednesday, hit a combined .278/.338/.434 in 212 at-bats last year between the Rookie-level Arizona League and short-season Salem-Keizer. He started 2008 slowly, hitting just .213/.273/.325 in April. But his numbers have improved each month since then, and he’s hitting a respectable .274/.316/.408 in the second-half of the South Atlantic League’s season.
His plate discipline is still a work in progress, as he’s struck out 104 times in his 388 at-bats while drawing only 18 walks. He can’t be judged too harshly for that, however, since he’s been the youngest player in any full-season league for most of the year, although he had to surrender that title when the Red Sox promoted fellow 17-year-old Michael Almanzar to low Class A Greenville.
"My hitting has come along," Villalona said through a translator. "Before, I had trouble hitting breaking pitches; now I stay back and let the ball get to me."
He even earned to a trip to Yankee Stadium for the Futures Game, where he was, as usual, the youngest player on the field.
"Knowing that (Yankee Stadium) will be torn down this year, I will never forget being able to step on the same field Babe Ruth did," Villalona said.
Villalona has hits in 11 of his last 12 games. His 13 home runs not only lead Augusta, they are the most by any 17-year-old in the SAL since Adrian Beltre–who was believed to be 18-years-old at the time–hit 16 for Savannah in 1996. Villalona’s been particularly deadly against lefthanders, posting a line of .320/.355/.570 against them in 100 at-bats.
"I know I can handle pitches inside," Villalona said. "So I keep myself going through the middle and the other way, and working hard on my defense at first base."
Villalona has also worked hard on keeping his weight in check. His body already precipitated a move during spring training across the diamond from third base to first base, where he’s currently listed at 6-foot-3, 200 pounds, but he’s shown a good aptitude for his new position after offseason workouts with former gold glover J.T. Snow.
"The organization is really high on him," Nava said. "They know he’s really young. He has to mature as a player. This is their baby—he’s only 17 years old.
"He’s a legit hitter. He’s a big league hitter, and he will be there. He needs to get more at-bats, more experience and I think he’ll be there sooner rather than later."