In 2009, Angel Villalona was a 19-year-old first baseman with a limitless future.
He was the San Francisco Giants’ first baseman of the future, a slugger with Bondsian power and an athlete with agility that belies the 260 pounds he carries on his 6-feet, 3-inch frame.
The Giants thought enough of Villalona to give him a $2.1 million signing bonus as a 16-year-old, which _ along with his baseball prowess _ made him a Grade A celebrity in his hometown of La Romana, Dominican Republic.
It almost came crashing down on a single night. Just days after returning home at the end of the California League season, Villalona was named a suspect in a murder. The available details of the story have well-documented, but charges against Villalona were dismissed. Whether a reported $138,000 he was said to have paid to the victim’s family had anything to do with the charges going away remains an unanswered question.
But the bottom line is that after missing two full seasons of baseball, then returning last summer to get 155 at-bats in the Dominican Summer League - a league for teenagers, not veterans - Villalona is back in San Jose.
The long-time rival team of the Modesto Nuts is in town this week for a three-game series that opened Monday night.
Now 22, Villalona is back trying to climb the Giants’ organization ladder. He’s four years older, but has the down time damaged his career? San Jose manager Andy Skeels doesn’t think so.
“As a player, he’s a lot stronger and a lost faster, and maturity has a lot to do with that,” Skeels said. “He’s done everything we’ve asked. He shows up early and works hard and works extra. His attitude is great and he’s been a great teammate. I couldn’t be happier with where he’s at right now.”
Villalona’s numbers overall aren’t great. He’s hitting .237 with 35 RBI and continues to strike out a lot. But let’s break down those numbers a little further.
Upon returning to the California League, Villalona began the season two-for-41. Since then he’s hit a solid .287. And in his last eight games he’s hit .353 with six homers and 10 RBI.
“He handled that early stretch like a pro,” Skeels said. “It’s hard to say you can identify turning points for a player, but for me, the way he handled that situation answered a lot of questions I had in a very short time about how he was going to be under the pressure of trying to make up for lost time.”
Despite missing two full seasons and a part of a third, Villalona remains a young man with a baseball future that could be bright. With 25-year-old Brandon Belt at the major league level for the Giants, Villalona might not figure into San Francisco’s plans.
But as long as he’s hitting, someone will be able to find him a lineup spot.
“He’s been gone a while,” Skeels said. “It’s not going to happen for him overnight, and he’s still a young man. It takes a while for all players to figure things out, and in that way he’s been remarkable.”