Villar Finds Out He's In Demand

LANCASTER, Calif.—His value outside of the organization was unknown to the Dominican-born shortstop. Focused only on what he could do for his team, Jonathan Villar was unaware of the particulars.

The Phillies farmhand was enjoying an all-star season with low Class A Lakewood and excited about a berth in the playoffs.

All was simple to the 19-year-old.

However in the shadow of all this success were stopwatches, radar guns, charts and daily reports. Tucked behind the fans of the South Atlantic League were scouts. The same ones that would change Villar's path to big leagues.

On July 30, Astros ace Roy Oswalt waived his no-trade clause for a chance to contend with the Phillies. Unaware of any dealings, Villar was pulled into manager Mark Parent's office and delivered the news he was the centerpiece of a package being traded to the Astros for Oswalt.

"I had no understanding of how everyone is being watched all the time and scouts are taking notes on what you are doing," Villar said. "I had no idea it was like that. I just thought you are with your organization and that is who you are with."

"Then (manager Mark Parent) called me into his office and said, 'Congratulations you were part of a trade because of the good work that you've been doing.' Then I understood what being traded was about. It was because I did good and someone thought highly of me."

The Phillies sent Houston J.A. Happ, Villar and two premium young prospects that included Villar. Immediately the other prospect,Anthony Gose—whom the Astros dealt to the Blue Jays for first baseman Brett Wallace.

But the one Houston held onto was special.

Villar exemplifies everything the Astros want in a young player growing in their system.

"In our mind the key element of the trade was to get contributing players to help the big league club now and in the future," Astros general manager Ed Wade said.

The Centerpiece

While Happ and Wallace are already making an impact in the major leagues, Villar remains a work in progress three levels down in Lancaster. It could be several years until Villar sniffs Minute Maid Park.

Although this under-development factor doesn't take away from the value the youngster has to his new suitors. W However without Villar, Oswalt would not be a Phillie today.

"We would have not made the trade if (Villar) was not part of the deal," Wade said. "We made that clear to Philadelphia."

Houston's scouts had their eyes on Villar since early in the season. However the first time he popped onto Wade's radar was right around when the Oswalt trade talks began. In New York for a weekend series with the Yankees in early June, Wade was able to break away for a Lakewood game. The shortstop's raw talent was undeniable and all the physical tools were there. A switch-hitter with good power and great speed, and a defender with an above-average arm and range was enticing.

"Coincidentally when the Oswalt conversations began I had chance to see Villar play at that time," . "I was excited at what I saw," Wade said

Rumors had the Astros pushing for another BlueClaw, power-hitting first baseman Jonathan Singleton—the Phillies top hitting prospect. In the end they wound up with arguably the Phillies best infield prospect.

But Astros farm director Ricky Bennett insisted they got the player they wanted—Villar.

"We talked about Villar a lot and we are happy with the players that we received," Bennett said. "Our scouts and staff had a chance to see Villar the last several weeks before the trade and we really liked what we saw as far as upside and athleticism at a premium position. He fit the profile," Bennett said. "He was a key piece in the deal. A premium young player at a premium position."

The acquisition was so valuable to the Astros that they passed on several trade offers for Villar, promoted him from his previous Low-A level to High-A,and sent their special assistant for Dominican player development, Julio Linares, to California to welcome him into the organization.

Though Villar had never met Linares, he was familiar with the Dominican legend. Referred to as "El Capitán" among Latin American players, Linares immediately helped Villar feel at home.

"I was really happy when Ricky told me to come out (to Lancaster) and do this job,""(Villar) looks pretty good. He has good intensity playing the game and that's what you like to see from young players," Linares said.

Room For Improvement

The first impression Villar made on his suitors was better than expected. A clean debut set up a career night in his second game with the JetHawks. The switch-hitter went 4-for-4 with four RBIs, a walk and a stolen base.

After 13 games with his new organization, Villar was hitting .288/.348/.458 in 59 at-bats with 13 runs, four doubles, three triples, one home run, 11 RBIs and seven stolen bases. And more importantly he had helped the JetHawks go from last place in the California League's South Division to within a game of first place. Since he joined the team Lancaster was 11-3."At first I felt a lot of pressure in the first game with the team," Villar said. "Now I'm just going out to work hard everyday and doing what I need to do."The news of his departure from Lakewood, was bitter-sweet. The shortstop had become comfortable with the operation he was a part of. So comfortable that when rumors began to spread throughout the club that someone might be on the trading block, he dismissed any consideration.

"At first it was uncomfortable and I didn't know what to expect," Villar said about being shipped from one coast to another. "I had my friends back there and it was tough to leave.

"I thought it was going to take me awhile to get accustom over here and wasn't sure how (the players) were going to view me," he added. "But honestly everyone has been real good to me and I feel at home." Benefitting from the Astros acquisition is JetHawks manager Tom Lawless. The former big leaguer is has been impressed by the natural ability of his new shortstop.

"When you make a trade that you are giving away a very valuable commodity, you are hoping to get back valuable commodities also. You expect to get cream-of-the-crop minor leaguers and that is what Villar looks to be," Lawless said. "He has some special things about him. He just lacks game experience," Lawless said. "He'll make a mistake here and there and that's just because he's young. But when you tell him once, he probably isn't going to make it again. That is the difference."

At first glance Villar's most impressive tools appear to be his range in the infield and once he fields them his strong arm. His soft hands make fielding the ball look easy, however his tendency to rush has left him with 50 errors this season—eight of those in his short time as a JetHawk.

"If you play shortstop you are going to make errors," Lawless said. "When you slow down the game your ability takes over, you don't make what I call dumb errors. He's got all the ability, he's got all the tools. Now its just just about getting better and refining your craft."

His hot start at the plate in Lancaster proved Villar enjoys a new challenge, but once the adrenaline of the trade wore down so did his production. The teenager often can be caught chasing balls in the dirt at the plate and over-swinging when ahead in the count. His ability to adjust quickly, though, has put him back on track.

His speed on the basepaths make him even more of a weapon. His 45 steals, seven with the JetHawks, rival teammate and the Cal League's top stealer Jay Austin for the most speed in the organization.

"He's got all the actions. He's a switch-hitter, he's got good feet, good hands, a good arm, and he can run and he can steal bases," Lawless said. "He'd be a perfect fit on your ballclub at the big league level."

Jason Gonzalez covers the JetHawks for the Antelope Valley (Calif.) Press