07/04/08 10:00 AM ET
Present and Futures bright for Villalona
Giants prospect shows vast potential at just 17 years old
By Tim Britton / Special to MLB.com
The third time he steps into the box, something's different. He's striding through the ball with authority, driving it into the left-center field gaps. The fourth and final time up, he forgets the gaps and goes successfully for the fences. Again and again.
This is the No. 1 prospect in the Giants organization. And don't forget, he's only 17 years old.
Sure, Angel Villalona doesn't exactly look like he's 17. Then again, nobody looks 17 when they suit up in a Minor League uniform and bat in the middle of the order on a nightly basis. Villalona's 6-foot-3, 200-pound frame has a way of masking the youthful face that still retains a little bit of its baby fat.
And then there are the home runs.
Villalona, a first baseman, has hit 10 of them this season for the Class A Augusta GreenJackets of the South Atlantic League. He's added 35 RBIs while batting .239.
"He's a very young kid in a very fast league, so we're proud of the fact that he's been able to keep his head above water and really contribute," said Augusta manager Andy Skeels. "He's been getting better each month."
Villalona has indeed showed steady improvement at the plate as the season has progressed. He got off to a rocky start in April, hitting .213 with a lone home run. A lot of that had to do with the transition from the short-season leagues -- where he spent 2007 -- to his first full year of pro ball.
"This league has been somewhat of an advanced league the last five years in terms of age, so he's playing against guys who have a lot more experience than he does and frankly are a lot older than he is," Skeels said of the Sally League's youngest player. "The things he's been able to accomplish to this point are exceptional."
One of those accomplishments was nabbing an SAL Player of the Week award in May. Villalona earned the prize by hitting .385 with three homers and eight RBIs in a six-game stretch before Memorial Day. He hit .250 for the month of May, matching that in June.
However, Villalona's placement on the Futures team is a reminder that, for the precocious 17-year-old, it isn't all about the here and now. Giants fans are already counting down to his Major League debut, which they predict to be around 2011.
Villalona has his eyes on a different appearance in a Major League park: his first-ever trip to Yankee Stadium July 13.
"I'm very happy," Villalona said through his Augusta hitting coach, Lipso Nava. "It's something I never expected, but I've been working really really hard. It's a gift from God to let me be there and actually play in Yankee Stadium."
The native of the Dominican Republic has struggled at times adjusting to life in the United States. It's already the longest he's ever been away from his family, but he knows this is the best way to support them long-term.
Nava, himself a native of Venezuela, seems to have taken the young slugger under his wing. In his first season with the GreenJackets and just two years removed from manning the hot corner for the independent Atlantic League's Newark Bears, Nava recognizes Villalona's immense potential.
"He's a special kid," Nava says, emphasizing the adjective. "He's got talent, he's got tools. He's a model for his age."
Nava has worked with Villalona recently on staying back on the ball and keeping his head still -- part of the reason his early batting-practice swings to right field look so perfunctory. The adjustment appears to be working, as Villalona is hitting over .300 in his last nine starts, including two long balls.
Skeels is quick to point out, though, how far the first baseman still has to go. And it all starts with developing a professional approach to the game.
"For most players at this level, this is their first full year or maybe their second, so there's a lot of adjustment to how to act and work like a professional," Skeels said. "Applying the things we work on in practice and in BP and in extra work, carry them over, concentrate, and apply them in the game -- that's difficult for a lot of players. And that's something he needs to continue to work on."
If his work with Nava is any indication, Villalona is showing adeptness beyond his years. But don't be surprised if the 17-year-old in him reemerges next Sunday, when he strides onto the fabled field at Yankee Stadium for the first time. Villalona smiles widely just thinking about it. Language barrier or not, the message is clear.
His future -- near and far -- is bright indeed.
Tim Britton is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.