Profile: RHP - 6'0" - 170lbs -BT:R - TH:R - 2011 Age: 24
• FB 92-94: Plus command but straight without great plane. (55-60)
• SL 83-84: Tight rotation with hard late break. Tough pitch for he hitter to pick up. (55-65)
• CH 83-85: Still working to improve arm action and consistency. (35-45)
Villarreal was an amateur free agent signee in 2005, but shortly after signing underwent shoulder surgery and ended up missing much of the 2005 and 2006 seasons dealing with the rehab and subsequent setbacks from that injury. He didn't make his US debut until 2007, and even then, missed a majority of that season. Finally he got healthy enough in 2008 at age 21 to begin throwing some innings and he immediately started to make progress.
At just six feet tall, Villarreal doesn't have ideal height, but he still works with solid to above average velocity and carries that velocity into games. He's an athletic player and repeats his delivery well, allowing him to pitch with above average command, something that's especially impressive to me given how much of his early professional career was lost to injury. The biggest problem for Villareal is that he doesn't work with great plane and his fastball is fairly flat. This leads to him being fly-ball prone, and he could end up being a rather extreme fly-ball pitcher at the MLB level.
He'll come at you with two off speed offerings, including a really nice slider. The pitch doesn't have huge break, but it breaks late and it breaks hard. He gets really good rotation on the pitch making it really tough for hitters to pick up out of his hand. His changeup is still a work in progress but with work it could be effective vs lefties, which is all he really needs to for it to do.
For someone who is essentially just emerging on the prospect map, Villarreal has been around for a long time. In fact at age 24, 2011 will be his sixth professional season. Obviously that has everything to do with all the time he lost rehabbing his shoulder issues. Thankfully, over the past two years he's managed to throw over 100 innings each season and has shown no signs of the injuries that once troubled him so much. Beyond any performance metric, that innings pitched number is huge for him. He needs reps to catch up.
Beyond simply staying healthy however, Vallarreal has shown an impressive game with the ability to miss bats while also showing good command of the zone - two things that usually don't go together. The biggest area of concern for him is that he's trending toward being a very fly-ball heavy pitcher. That will lead to a lot of home runs at the next level and will lower his ceiling.
My guess would be that the Tigers will be aggressive with Vallarreal in 2011. He's shown an ability to get outs at AA and if, after a brief stop there to open the season he can duplicate that success, he'll get a chance in AAA and possible a call to the show this year.
The Tigers of course have a full rotation right now and prospects in Jacob Turner, Andrew Oliver, and perhaps even Casey Crosby who would rate higher on the starting pitching pecking order so Vailarreal's role could eventually be in the bullpen, where he his fastball/slider combo could play up while limiting his exposure to fly-balls.
Corey Ettinger is a Senior Writer for Baseball Digest as well as a proud contributor to both 612Sports.net, 312Sports.com, and 313sports.com. He also provides extensive analysis of the American League Central Division at his own blog, AL Central In Focus. Be sure to follow me on Twitter @Coreyettinger for the latest updates, random thoughts and general tomfoolery.