When Jonathan Villar gets on base — a frequent occurrence in recent weeks — the RedHawks' switch-hitting shortstop is a threat to steal second, possibly swipe third.
Projected to be the Houston Astros' shortstop of the future, the former Baseball America top 100 prospect is an electrifying player with the potential to steal 50 to 60 bases a season.
Villar's stock is on the rise.
After starting the season in a 2-for-34 slump, the Dominican Republic native has been one of the hottest hitters in the minors the past three weeks.
Since starting the season hitting .059, Villar has gone on a 33-for-81 tear (.407 average) to raise his overall average to .304.
“Jonathan has done a tremendous job,” said Astros assistant general manager David Stearns. “To fight through that adversity and come back even stronger, play as well as anyone in minor league baseball, is great to see.”
Villar has 10 stolen bases and possesses medium power. He's rapped out a dozen extra-base hits, including seven doubles, three triples and two homers to drive in 17 runs.
Last season at Double-A Corpus Christi (Texas), Villar hit .261 with 11 homers and a .335 on-base percentage, 39 stolen bases and 50 RBIs.
Impressive stats when you factor in that he missed the final six weeks of the season with a broken hand.
“Johnny can run and has a lot life in his swing, someone who can be an offensive/defensive shortstop,” said RedHawks hitting coach Leon Roberts. “He's a little bit inexperienced. Being 21ish, playing in Triple-A, you sometimes have to season guys a little bit. But he has a bright future ahead of him.”
Villar, who turned 22 last weekend, could spend much of the summer at the Brick. But it would be shocking if he isn't handed Houston's starting shortstop job at some point this season, even if it's August or September.
Houston has a shortstop vacancy. The Astros claimed veteran Ronny Cedeno off waivers for insurance, but Marwin Gonzalez (who is hitting .238) currently is filling the void.
Villar is a key piece of the Astros' rebuilding project.
His speed, combined that of second baseman Jose Altuve, could give the Astros two speedsters that could wreak havoc on the bases. Villar has 128 stolen bases the past three-plus seasons, including 10 steals with the RedHawks.
“Johnny is a five-tool player,” said RedHawks manager Tony DeFrancesco. “He has good speed, a great arm and is a plus defender. And he can hit for power. We're just trying to continue to clean up his game, minimize his mistakes.”
One area that's a work in progress is Villar's defense. He's a slick fielder with good range. He makes dazzling, acrobatic plays but has committed seven errors, most early in the season, the majority throwing mistakes.
“He just needs to be aware what's going to happen before the ball's hit to him,” DeFrancesco said. “Johnny tries so hard to try and make the outstanding play. Sometimes there's no play to be made. Sometimes it would be best just to eat the ball.”
Villar has shown improvement the past two weeks after working on his defense with infield coach Tom Lawless.
“It's part of the development process for any talented young middle infielder,” Stearns said. “The first step is acquiring the knowledge. The second step is consistency. He's made major strides with his (defensive) consistency the past couple of years and we feel that progress will continue.”
Pitchers appreciate Villar's range. Villar routinely turns slow rollers past the mound into outs.
“(Villar) has terrific range,” said pitching coach Steve Webber. “Even though we play on a lot of fast infields, he still gets to a lot of balls. He turns a lot of double plays. He can narrow the holes on the infield for you.”
Part of the development process includes maturing.
Villar plays with tremendous passion but must control his emotions. He broke his hand last season after punching a door in frustration.
Once Villar adds some Triple-A seasoning, he's projected to give the Astros an offensive/defensive shortstop they can build around.
“He's a young guy who has plenty of time,” Stearns said. “This is his first crack at Triple-A. There's nothing wrong with being patient. He's doing everything he should be doing. We're very happy with how he's performing.”