Villar excited for third base opportunity after big '22 finish originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea
When you seriously chase a division title, that takes over every aspect of an organization. When you're on the other end, staring all summer at the likelihood of 100 losses, the focus quickly shifts to young players and the future.
But when you're just kind of hanging out around .500, neither a contender nor a rebuilder, you can get stuck. It's certainly not fun, but it's also hard to focus too much on what's ahead, as the Giants were reminded last trade deadline when they kept some core pieces in hopes of a quick turnaround.
The mediocre season kept fans and even many within the organization from getting excited about anything they saw down the stretch, but something stood out to Farhan Zaidi. The Giants president of baseball operations has mentioned on multiple occasions this offseason that not enough attention was paid to David Villar's final month.
Villar hit his second big league homer on Sept. 5 at Dodger Stadium and two days later added a couple more, including a shot off Clayton Kershaw. He never slowed, finishing with eight homers over his final 26 appearances. Villar capped the run with two homers on the final day of the season, raising his OPS to .967 over his final month, with four doubles and 17 RBI to go along with the homers.
Had that performance come in April, Villar would have started to generate Rookie of the Year buzz. Because it happened at the end of a forgettable season for the Giants, it somewhat flew under the radar, but not to his boss.
Asked in November about letting Evan Longoria go, Zaidi noted that Villar was someone "we want to see get an opportunity at third base." In December he talked about how the Giants have a potential 20-homer option at third base. Earlier this week, during an appearance on KNBR, Zaidi again mentioned Villar as a bright spot for an organization coming out of a disappointing offseason.
"Everybody kind of always looks at the top of your prospect list and the guys who are in the top 100, and Villar is kind of a guy who has sort of stealthily moved along," Zaidi said. "He was the best player in his Double-A league (and) his Triple-A league from a performance standpoint. He came up and we all kind of saw some of his ups and downs of his early experience in the big leagues, but you look at the bottom line of his performance and it's really impressive for a rookie to come up and put up that kind of a stat line."
If Villar is feeling any pressure after the runway was cleared for him to take the Opening Day job at third base, it isn't showing.
"I've always thought of it as -- and this may come off a little different than what most people say -- but I'm truly honored and blessed to have made it to the big leagues, but I wasn't a guy that was supposed to make it," Villar said on Thursday's Giants Talk Podcast. "So I take all of that into account when I really focus on this offseason and what I was able to accomplish last year and what I'm coming in to do this year.
"I have such an opportunity in front of me, and to be able to say that I made it to the big leagues and now I can become an impact player at the highest level, it's just truly a blessing."
It's not at all out of the norm for a rookie to hit a flurry of homers and then disappear down the line, especially when he's an older prospect like Villar, who turned 26 last month. But there are parts of the resume that give the Giants good reasons to think this is sustainable.
The first is that Villar showed an ability to make adjustments, shaking off a rough first call-up -- he hit .175 with one homer in his first stint -- to finish strong. Villar credits Longoria with helping him get settled in and said the biggest thing he learned was just making sure that he maintained his confidence and the belief that he belongs at the big league level.
Then, there's the track record. It's something Zaidi points to often when talking about Villar. An 11th-round pick in 2018, he never has been a highly-touted prospect, but he had a .881 OPS and 20 homers in a tough hitting environment in Double-A in 2021, putting himself on the map. Last year, he earned a promotion with 21 home runs and 62 RBI in his first 66 games in Triple-A. That call to the big leagues forced him to pass up an invite to the prestigious Futures Game.
Villar finished with 36 homers for the calendar year, including 27 in Triple-A, where he played just 84 games. It was the most combined homers by anyone in the Giants organization since Barry Bonds hit 45 -- all in the big leagues, of course -- in 2004.
Even after that two-homer game in the finale, it seemed likely Villar would open 2023 in Triple-A, but one by one, the roadblocks in front of him kept toppling down.
Longoria's option was declined and he signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks. Brandon Belt wasn't brought back, opening up additional at-bats at first base for the team's right-handed-hitting infielders. Even the Carlos Correa drama played a part; had Correa passed his physical, Brandon Crawford would have moved to third.
The Giants didn't end up signing any infielders to big-league deals over the offseason, but they're not going to just hand jobs to young players and hope for the best. Wilmer Flores and J.D. Davis will be in the mix at third base, as well, and Villar has some things to clean up. He had 58 strikeouts to 18 walks in the big leagues last year, and he also has strides to make defensively, especially with how much the Giants are losing at the corners with Longoria and Belt both gone.
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The staff believes Villar has the tools to be a good defender at third, and he spent a lot of this offseason working on his speed, lateral movement and quick-twitch muscles. He said he has taken the majority of his reps this offseason at third, but he still does work at first and second to maintain his versatility.
"I think the biggest thing I learned when I got up there is just being able to slow down the game," Villar said. "The game really speeds up on you and if you don't kind of take your breath and slow everything down, it can kind of pile on. There were for sure some big mistakes that happened -- the first one I can think of is the two errors in Colorado. I know I'm a much more capable defender than what I showed. It's just being able to get more acclimated and more adjusted to the Major Leagues.
"I know I'm more than capable of becoming a good defender and we've really just focused on what (coaches Kai Correa and Nick Ortiz) taught me. There's more in the tank with the arm, there's more lateral movement around, there's just things that we've cleaned up. I learned so much from Kai and all of the other guys and especially Longo. These people just really helped me and gave me really good direction, so now I have a better understanding of how to approach every single day and how do I treat my early work and my on-field work without killing myself and overdoing it."
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