The Tigers have essentially announced the roster they will be taking to New York for Opening Day Thursday. I say essentially because all the reports yesterday seemed to be about the three players re-assigned rather than being phrased as the Tigers announcing the 25-man roster. Whatever the reason for that, one of the last men standing was Brayan Villarreal.
Villarreal was not just one of the last players to be told he'd be making the Opening Day roster. He's also the only player on the team who won't be familiar to somebody who only follows the major leagues. He's not the only one who will be eligible for the Rookie of the Year - Casper Wells is the other - but we saw Wells wearing the D last year.
Since a vast majority of baseball fans' real interest in a player is piqued when they actually make the majors, I thought it would be good to introduce Villarreal and talk about the route he took to get to the 2011 Detroit Tigers.
Villarreal was signed in October of 2005, which was back before the Tigers had a strong presence in Venezuela. In fact, signing when he did allowed him to be on the first squad the Tigers fielded in the Venezuelan Summer League, a team they shared with the Florida Marlins. That was in 2006 and a 19-year-old Villarreal threw just 41.1 innings.
His numbers were less than stellar, but his professional audition must have been good enough because the Tigers brought him stateside for 2007. Of course, I'm sure his relatively advanced age played a part in that decision as well. Once in the States, Villarreal was assigned to the Gulf Coast League for his first domestic season but lost all but four innings to injury. That shoulder injury and the resulting surgery cost him not only most of 2007, but all but forty innings of 2008 as well.
Heading into the 2009 season, this left him in the undesirable position of being a soon to be 22-year-old pitcher (his birthday is in May) who had an injury history and just 86 innings of work as a professional. Not only that, nearly half those limited innings had come in Venezuela. Fortunately for Villarreal, talent can allow a player to work through a lot of obstacles.
Assigned to West Michigan in 2009, and serving as something of a swingman (26 G, 16 GS) as he built up his endurance, Villarreal was impressive. In 103.1 innings, he gave up just 85 hits, 5 homers and 34 walks (3.0 BB/9) while striking out 118 (10.3 K/9). The control wasn't quite as good as that might suggest if you consider he also hit 13 batters. Still, with those kind of numbers and stuff to match, he established himself as a pitcher to keep an eye on.
Predictably, he saw a promotion to Lakeland in 2010. In 16 starts in the Florida State League, he spanned 85.2 innings and was nearly as impressive as he had been a level lower the year before. He had given up a higher rate of home runs (8 HR) and earned fewer strikeouts (90 K, 9.5 K/9) but a dip in walks (23 BB, 2.4 BB/9) enabled him to improve his strikeout-to-walk ratio to nearly four.
It was a good enough performance to let the Tigers feel comfortable moving him up to Erie when the SeaWolves needed another starting pitcher. Against Double A batters, it wasn't surprising that his home run rate jumped again (6 HR in 43.2 IP). In his eight starts at the level, his walks also jumped (16 BB, 3.3 BB/9) but he was able to maintain his level of strikeouts (46 K, 9.5 K/9). All in all, it added up to a season (129.1 IP, 110 H, 14 HR, 39 BB, 136 K between Lakeland and Erie) that had people talking about Villarreal as one of the Tigers' most impressive pitching prospects.
Despite the promising results Villarreal has achieved the last two seasons, his recognition as a prospect would still not come if he didn't have the exciting arm to back it up. He has a good fastball that is usually described as coming in around 93 or 94 mph with good command. He complements that with a nice slider that Baseball America described as the best in the system after the 2009 season. (Chance Ruffin's won the distinction this year.)
It's notable that the discussion of his plus pitches stops at two. While it's a good fastball and a promising slider, I don't think they're the kind of pitches that would let him get away without a decent changeup as a starting pitcher. Then consider the Tigers' hesitance to let smaller pitchers (6'0" and 170 pounds) crack their rotation. Now mix in his injury history (he's missed time with muscle strains each of the last two seasons in addition to the shoulder injury) and starters higher than him on the depth chart and it's not surprising he's getting his break as a reliever.
I doubt Villarreal is complaining. If he would have been able to make it as a starter at all, he likely wouldn't have been in a Tiger rotation until 2012 at the earliest. Moving to the bullpen has allowed him to skip all but a few starts in Double A and jump right to Detroit. I'll be curious to see how the Tigers use him. Will he come in as a sixth or seventh inning guy or will the Tigers take advantage of his history as a starter and let him stretch to five or six outs from time to time? That will likely depend on how well he's going to be able to use his arsenal to keep left-handed hitters in check.
In any event, it's always exciting to see young pitchers groomed in the Tigers' system get their shot. That's especially true when it's a young player who has had to overcome both preconceptions about his size as well as past injuries in order to get here.