AJ Preller is very good at finding diamonds in the rough. Some names that cross the mind are Kirby Yates, Jose Pirela, and of course, Brad Hand. One name, however, has became a fixture in the Padres’ lineup, and his name is Christian Villanueva. Thanks to the Chicago Cubs drafting Kris Bryant, Villanueva was released from the team and signed with the Padres as a minor league free agent. Now, he is entrenched at third base after the release of veteran Chase Headley.
However, Villanueva is the starter at third base for now. He has shown a lot of potential, winning the National League Rookie of the Month in April thanks to him collecting a batting line of .321/.411/.692 and swatting eight home runs. However, he has recently come crashing down to Earth after that red-hot start, going through a span of 37 at-bats without a hit while striking out 18 times and walking twice as his batting average is now a more pedestrian .250/.322/.568 with both months combined. He does seem to be snapping out of his funk, as he has gone 7-24 in his last seven games while uncorking three home runs and six RBI.
Major League pitchers have clearly adjusted to Villanueva, and it is up to him to make the necessary changes in order to become a successful big league hitter. The 26-year-old is clearly talented and has the potential to be a great third baseman. However, can Villanueva stick at third base for the future, or is he just a placeholder for someone else?
Villanueva knows his way around the plate, that much is clear, but what is most concerning is his glove. He has committed seven errors in 79 chances at third base and is fourth in the majors in errors committed (behind Evan Longoria, Alex Bregman, and Rafael Devers). He has a .911 fielding percentage in 290 1/3 innings and has a zero for Defensive Runs Saved. However, his UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating) sits at -3.5, while his RngR (Range Runs) is at a -1.2. Not only does this show that Villanueva has been a poor fielder, but he has also showcased poor range when trying to get a ball.
To stick at third base, Villanueva has to become more fleet of foot at his position and improve his ability to field the ball. Even if his bat continues to thrive, if he doesn’t get better with his glove, he could begin to lose playing time to someone else in the Padres’ system.
The biggest problem he faces is the looming presence of one Fernando Tatis Jr. If, for some reason, the Padres’ front office decides that he can’t hack it at shortstop, the next choice would be to move him to third base, shifting Villanueva to the bench. If Tatis does stay at shortstop (a much more likely scenario as he has the ability to stay there) then Villanueva could get unseated by one of two prospects in Hudson Potts and Esteury Ruiz.
Potts, a first-round draft pick in 2016, has the bat to stay at the hot corner, proven by the missiles he routinely hits at Lake Elsinore. Much like Villanueva though, he has had some issues with his fielding, committing nine errors in 319 2/3 innings at third base for Lake Elsinore. The 19-year-old clearly needs some more seasoning before he gets a shot to break camp with San Diego.
Ruiz, another 19-year-old, was acquired from the Royals in a trade that also brought Matt Strahm to San Diego. Ruiz is another person who rakes at the plate and can clearly hit his way to the Majors. However, he projects as a fringe-average defender with a slightly above-average arm and he projects more as a second baseman than as someone who can man the hot corner.
Of course, the third baseman of the future could also be found externally. Preller is known to have a fondness for the trade and could pick up a third base prospect from another team (he was known to ask for the moon for Hand last July). The free agent class of 2018-2019 is also going to have some very good third basemen in it, and the Padres will be getting rid of some payroll due to the ending of James Shield’s contract. The Padres will still have to pay for Jedd Gyroko, but the payroll should have some flexibility.
The biggest names on the free agent market, in terms of third basemen, are Josh Donaldson and Manny Machado. The chances of San Diego pursuing the services of Donaldson seem slim, as he is turning 33 at the end of the year and will be demanding a large contract with at least five years on it. Eric Hosmer was signed due to his relative youth, so Donaldson may be a stretch due to his age. Machado, however, will be the more interesting piece as he will only be 26 when he enters his free agency period and the Padres should have some money to make an attempt to sign him. However, there are also going to be other big league teams with much more financial flexibility salivating over the chance of signing Machado to a $300 million deal at the least. Will San Diego be willing to cough up the dough? Most likely not, but of the Padres chased after Hosmer, one can never count out the plucky Padres.
In short, barring the signing of a major free agent or a major breakout performance by a prospect, Christian Villanueva’s job as the third baseman seems to be safe for now. If he makes the proper adjustments with both the bat and the glove, he could end up being a great third baseman for San Diego. If he does not, then he will just end up as another temporary cog in a never-ending machine that is starting to pick up some steam.