Looking Like the Odd Man Out, Christian Villanueva’s Play Could Force the Cubs to Make Decisions

Is it possible for a guy who’s hitting .301/.358/.549 with a .907 OPS with 8 doubles and 7 homers in AAA to fly under the radar? It is when that guy is Christian Villanueva and he’s playing in a system that has produced Kris Bryant and Addison Russell already this year and still boasts names like Javier Baez and Kyle Schwarber.

A primarily a third baseman, Villanueva started the season in Tennessee after being pushed aside in favor of Bryant earlier in the year. When Bryant was called up to Chicago, Villanueva got a promotion to Iowa, where he had played 63 games in 2014.

It wasn’t as though a better prospect was the only reason for the initial demotion though; the young Mexican had batted only .211 in his AAA stint last season and really needed the opportunity to build confidence through consistent at-bats. Then again, he was only slashing .208/.321/.458 through 6 games in Tennessee prior to being promoted.

At first, it appeared as though the Cubs had been a little hasty in bringing the corner man back to Des Moines; Villanueva started 3-24 with no home runs and before something clicked for him. In 110 at-bats since, however, he has batted .328 with those aforementioned 7 longballs. Those are the kind of numbers that would usually have your name being thrown around in promotion talks.

But with Kris Bryant still blocking his way, such a promotion was not going to be in the offing at that corner. And to complicate matters further, the Cubs recently decided to give Javy Baez some reps at 3B, which meant that Villanueva had to be displaced once more in favor of a sexier prospect.

The move hasn’t slowed him down a bit though; over the last 4 games (2 each at 3B and 1B), Villanueva has gone 9-19 with 4 HR’s (1 in each game) and 12 RBI. Now he’s flashing a hot bat and showing that he can play a different position. He played 2 games at SS in A-ball back in 2011 and 7 games at 2B in the past as well, but those probably aren’t options at this point.

But with Anthony Rizzo at first and any number of options at third, there’s really no room for anything other than a bench player at either corner infield spot. Villanueva has gotten some reps in left over the past few offseasons in the Mexican Pacific Winter Leauge, but, again, that spot is probably ticketed for someone else as far as the Cubs are concerned.

So what does the future hold for this young man? He and Dan Vogelbach are pretty much in the same boat together as guys who are playing really well but who have a hard cap on their upward mobility with the Cubs organization. But if both keep hitting like they have been, they may very well find themselves shipped elsewhere in a trade for a piece the Cubs can utilize right away.

I don’t mean to reduce these men to mere commodities, but that’s in essence what they’ve become. In the end, trading the two V’s away (the Cubs actually got Villanueva as part of the Ryan Dempster trade) is not only helping the Cubs, it’s the best thing for their development. It’s great to have them as part of this system, but I’d love to see them get the chance to realize their dreams, even if that is with a different club.

Despite the hot hitting and the slick glove, it’s still going to take a lot more than just Christian Villanueva — and/or Dan Vogelbach — to pry away the type of player(s) the Cubs will need for a legit stretch run. Still, the way things are setting up makes it pretty clear that some desirable pieces would be expendable in a trade.

The difficult part of all this is that the Cubs might not be ready to pull the trigger on a move quite yet, preferring to wait a bit longer to see how things shake out with Chris Denorfia and others. Then again, there’s no guarantee that Villanueva will continue to rake like this and they might want to strike while the iron is hot if they hope to solidify that shaky bullpen.

It would be futile for me to project any possible swaps — though the flailing Oakland A’s continue to be mentioned as a potential trade partner — so I’ll stop short of that here. But the way things are progressing, it’s looking like the best option for both Christian Villanueva and the Cubs may be for him to be moved elsewhere. And that’s a good thing.

After so much attention has been paid to building up the minor league system, the Cubs are now in a position to use that talent to go out and acquire the pieces they really need in order to fill holes in their major league roster. It’s really pretty excited to be able to envision this team being a buyer in the near future, despite the fact that the cost will be young players for whom we’ve developed an affinity.

The Cubs went out and spent a lot of money this past offseason, and now the time is coming for them to pay in prospects as well; such is the price of success. We’re seeing the value of homegrown talent directly impacting the big-league product, but a player like Christian Villanueva may be more valuable by not playing for the Cubs.


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