It’s been nearly four years since Giants farmhand Angel Villalona, now 22, set foot on a baseball field in the United States. Once a highly regarded hitter who was signed for a club-record of $2.1 million in August 2006 at the age of 16, Villalona hasn’t been able to get a visa to enter the states from his native Dominican Republic since he last played in the Giants farm system in 2009.
However, as BA’s Ben Badler reported Thursday, Villalona has received a work visa for 2013 and will report to spring training in Arizona the second week of February.
There’s a good reason that Villalona, the Giants top prospect in 2008, was unable to reach the United States. He was a suspect in the murder of a 25-year-old man in the Dominican Republic in September 2009. The family of the man subsequently asked a judge to drop the case after receiving a monetary settlement from Villalona. The prosecutor still planned to pursue the case, but the charge against Villalona was dropped in early 2012.
Villalona was added to the Giants 40-man roster in 2011 with the expectation that he would make it to spring training in 2012, but his request for a visa was denied on the basis that he was not an “elite athlete” due to what was believed to be medical or conditioning issues. Villalona instead spent the summer playing for the Giants’ Rookie-level Dominican Summer League team, batting .303/.430/.497 against primarily younger competition.
After facing more age-appropriate pitching with the Toros del Este in the recently completed Dominican Winter League season, Villalona is eager to get back to the United States to get his baseball career back on track.
While he’ll always have that shadow of doubt hanging over him, Villalona doesn’t let it bother him. Observers in the Dominican Republic have noticed a more mature Villalona as he attempts to put the past behind him.
“I saw that kid play in Arizona in rookie ball before,” said Toros hitting coach Julio Bruno, a longtime manager and coach in the Royals organization. “He grew up not only as a player but also as a person. He’s a great kid to work with, he listens to people, and he applied the instruction that he can get. To me, he’s a different guy right now.”
Most importantly, Villalona has been working hard on his conditioning. Even as a teenager he was a large man, listed at 230 pounds in the 2009 Baseball America Prospect Handbook. The Toros roster shows him at 255 pounds, which based on recent visual inspection before a winter league playoff game appears to be an accurate weight. In fact, Villalona looked trim compared to a couple of Toros teammates, Jose Diaz and Franklyn German, who combined weigh in at close to 600 pounds.
Interviewed prior to receiving his visa, Villalona said he believes he is in proper playing condition, stating through a translator, “I go to the gym and work out, do some extra work . . . that’s the way I’m in shape.”
Bruno added more detail about the extra effort being put in by Villalona.
“I’ve seen that kid working out this year like nobody else,” Bruno said. “He gets to the ballpark at three o’clock in the afternoon— they are supposed to get there at 4 or 4:15 for the extra hitting, but he gets there early. We’ve got a great conditioning guy here, and he’s doing an outstanding job which helps him a lot with the agility and speed work . . . To me he’s in great shape, he’s in great condition.”
Bruno added that Villalona has added enough agility this year to even get in some work at third base, his original position with the Giants before moving across the diamond to first base during the 2008 season.
What Villalona hasn’t lost in the intervening years is the raw strength and plus bat speed that he’s had since his youth. That was never a weakness for the righthanded hitter. The rap on Villalona when he played in the Giants organization was his lack of patience at bat, as he rarely drew walks or waited for his pitch.
In addition to maturing personally, Villalona has also shown progression in his approach at the plate.
“I’ve made better adjustments, especially in hitting situations,” Villalona said. “I select my pitch . . . my pitch on 2-0 count, 3-1 count, and try to make adjustments with two strikes—be short to the ball, those little things.”
Bruno has also seen the improvement in the quality of Villalona’s at-bats.
“Unbelievable. The improvement I’ve seen in plate discipline,” Bruno said, “he knows how to hit in a count right now. He has a plan when he goes to the plate. He shows that he’s a different hitter, he takes walks, he swings at good pitches, he’s not chasing pitches out of the zone, he’s not chasing breaking balls, he has a good idea right now what to do at the plate.”
Villalona’s DSL numbers support the improvement, albeit against younger, less refined pitching. After never drawing more than 18 walks in a full season earlier in his career, he walked 23 times in only 155 at-bats last summer.
Now that he has his visa, Villolona is ready to hit the ground running.
“My main goal is to make the big leagues,” Villalona said, “try to do well the whole, year, try to get healthy, and play hard and do my best.”