The Giants infield may be crowded, but David Villar is coming in with incumbent status
Spend a few minutes conversing with Giants third baseman David Villar, and your first impression will likely fall somewhere between personable and polite. He will provide thoughtful answers to your questions. He will even be gentle when he has to correct you.
Now that he’s made his major league debut, now that he’s found some success at the top level of the game, and now that he’s been declared the Giants’ incumbent at third base by authority no less than club president Farhan Zaidi , how does it work? Is his outlook this spring different from last spring?
“Well, I didn’t have a locker here a year ago, so…” Villar said.
Oh right. It’s easy to forget. Villar was not invited to major league camp last March. Under normal circumstances, his stellar 2021 season, when he hit 20 home runs to set the affiliate record at Double-A Richmond, would have earned him a big league locker. At least for a week or two. But when owners and players finally agreed on a new collective agreement, ending a 99-day lockdown in early March, teams didn’t have the time or reps to stay in an accelerated camp. So Villar locked himself away in the minor-league complex, slinging a gear bag over his shoulder when asked to fill out an exhibition list and happily sucking up random at-bats at the end of games.
“Sixth or seventh inning, it’ll be cold,” he said, smiling. “But hey, that’s part of the business. You have to earn your spurs here.”
Villar now has a locker at Scottsdale Stadium, and it offers more than just a place to hang his street clothes. The combined 36 homers he hit last year (27 for Triple-A Sacramento, nine of 156 Major League at-bats) were the most anyone in the Giants organization had amassed in a single season since Barry Bonds 2004 45 Achieved Consistent power generation in the upper underclasses, combined with the .897 OPS he released after a second promotion on September 2, convinced management that Villar deserved more than just the right to compete for an everyday job. He has already been entered as a third baseman.
Villar is the first to point out: pencils have erasers.
“It’s a blessing to have the front office behind me and to believe in me,” Villar said. “It gives me confidence. I never thought I would be at this point in my career. But I would never say, “Yes, that’s my position in the big leagues.” Yes, it’s great to hear that they believe in me, but they won’t just give me a job. It never is. I need to come here and implement some of the positive things I’ve created this offseason and show what I can do at camp.
“Having her behind me really means a lot. But I would never set my expectations just because I’ve had a good month. It’s a long season. Things can change quickly. In my first month in the big leagues, I was a completely different ball player compared to the last five weeks. So I know it can change.”
The roster is set up to handle changes. The Giants have two other right-handed corner infielders, Wilmer Flores and JD Davis, who will play significant roles this season. And Villar is one of the few players being considered for the opening day squad with minor-league options. If you’ve ever tried to hamper spring roster decisions, you know that options play is often the deciding factor. Teams typically try to protect as much of their player inventory as possible. You never want to sacrifice potential game depth at the start of a 162-game season.
While Villar, Flores and Davis appear to be potential layoffs, Zaidi expects there will be at least 300-400 at-bats for each player this season. They’ll likely all be in the lineup (at the infield corners and designated batsmen) against left-handed starters. And because the Giants are the most aggressive team in the major leagues when it comes to using their bench, there will be plenty of opportunities where they miss a gimmick in the fifth or sixth inning and stay in the game.
But layoffs often don’t survive the weekly vagaries of a season. The Giants are thin at mid-infield depth. If Brandon Crawford or Thairo Estrada are caught, calling up someone like left-hander Isan Diaz or Brett Wisely, both on the 40-man list, could become a priority.
That’s what makes the Giants’ explanation of Villar so remarkable. There are aspects of his game that he has yet to prove. There are reasons for concern. There’s no great major league track record and shiny pedigree (Villar was selected in the 11th round from the University of South Florida, where he was deemed not talented enough to play in the Cape Cod League as a collegiate junior) To fall back on. And there’s plenty of coverage of his role at the club.
But in the Giants’ assessment, Villar simply deserved a shot.
“I feel like what he did went a bit under the radar,” Zaidi said. “We obviously have other guys like Wilmer and JD, other guys at camp. But we see him as the incumbent and hope he takes it and runs with it like a regular guy.”
What remains to prove? That his power will play out in San Francisco, for starters. Villar’s strength so far has been function, not flash. His average exit speed (86.8 mph) last season was only the 24th percentile among major league players. He is fully aware that all nine of his home big league races have been on the road. He’s proven time and time again that he can hit the ball from the park to the center right. But those parks didn’t have a 25-foot brick arcade in right span.
He’s eager to get that first home run out of the way in San Francisco. But he’s not curious about how his power will play out at the Giants’ Waterfront Park in the long run.
“No, I think I saw it,” said Villar, who hit .182 in a small practice at home but collected a triple and two doubles from his 10 hits. “Everyone knows that hitting the right field is difficult. But there are plenty of hits out there. I’m sure there are easier parks out there, but I won’t complain. I’m in the major leagues with the San Francisco Giants. I know I can score in this stadium. I look forward to doing it.”
It’s Villar’s defensive work that’s under the most scrutiny this spring camp. The Giants are betting that a series of incremental improvements will be enough to tackle last season’s bottom-ranked group in the major leagues, down 53 on runs. Club officials and coaches can afford to be patient with Villar when he’s crumpled at the plate for a while. They’ll probably have less patience unless he’s proven to be a significantly better defender than either Flores or Davis.
So this winter, Villar trained to improve his explosiveness and overall range. He took bench coach Kai Correa’s advice to practice certain moves, such as: Raising his arm slot should result in throws that have more carry and less cut.
“You have to get that arm slit where you have it in your back pocket when this game happens,” Villar said. “You can’t count on hurling it. So I will continuously work on it in the camp. The other arm angles are pretty comfortable for me. I’ve always liked throwing on the run.”
Villar laughed as he was recalled stepping in front of and nearly colliding with four-time Gold Glove shortstop Crawford in one of his first major league games. It’s a mistake he hasn’t repeated.
“We’ve had constant conversations about it,” Villar said. “He was great at it. He gave me the comfort of saying, ‘Look, if you can do a play and you think it’ll be easier for you, go get it.’ But with his reach and the plays he can make, he’s head and shoulders above anyone I’ve played with at shortstop. So I need to know where it’s positioned, especially now that it’s not (moved).”
A little extra reach at third base will be important for more reasons than the obvious as teams now need to play two infielders on either side of second base. Infielders must also have both feet on the infield dirt when the field is released. In seasons past, third basemen often played the outfield turf for slower baserunners to increase their effective lateral reach. Even with Albert Pujols coming out of retirement and standing in the batter’s box, the third basemen have to stay on the dirt.
Zaidi cited Villar’s defensive metrics in the minor leagues, along with internal player development team ratings, as reason to believe the Giants haven’t seen Villar’s best defense in the major leagues. They think enough of his reach and athleticism that they plan to feature him at second base this spring. If he shows enough skill, he could snag a few starts against lefties there if Thairo Estrada slips to shortstop to give Crawford a day off.
“He looks great physically and we think he can handle the reach at second base even in a post-change world,” said Zaidi. “So that’s something to watch out for. He will get a lot of work there.”
Being branded as an incumbent brings a number of benefits to Villar. He can focus more on the process and preparation and less on his Cactus League OPS. There is a sense of comfort but not complacency.
“That’s how I see it,” Villar said. “I’m here to prove I’m the best player and I’m capable.”
(Top Photo by David Villar: Sergio Estrada/USA Today)
https://theathletic.com/4221860/2023/02/17/giants-david-villar/ The Giants infield may be crowded, but David Villar is coming in with incumbent status