Newberg Report: More talent on deck
Villanueva polished, while Akins needs time to hone craft
Parts 23 and 24 in a season-long series projecting a hypothetical 25-man roster made up solely of prospects from the Rangers' Minor League system.
When the Rangers' winter work was complete, among the things the club felt very good about was the flexibility of the roster. Four players expected to give the club at least 400 productive at-bats -- Michael Young, Mike Napoli, Mitch Moreland, and David Murphy -- were capable of playing multiple defensive positions, and Andres Blanco would be around to play all over the infield as well.
Versatility is an important factor when it comes to exploiting matchups, keeping players fresh and withstanding injuries over the course of the season. It's also a positive for a young player trying to break into the big leagues.
Edgardo Alfonzo, Placido Polanco and Chone Figgins each established themselves as role players who could help at multiple big league positions before developing into core everyday contributors. They each held down basically one position at a time, however, until reaching Double-A.
You won't find many in the Rangers organization who would limit the futures of third baseman Christian Villanueva or outfielder Jordan Akins and label them as future role players off the bench, but there are those who believe they might be equipped to handle the assignment if the situation called for it.
|No. 1 starter: Martin Perez
|No. 2 starter: David Perez
|No. 3 starter: Neil Ramirez
|No. 4 starter: Cody Buckel
|No.5 starter: Luke Jackson
|Long reliever: Barret Loux
|Right-on-right: Johan Yan
|Left-on-left: Joseph Ortiz
|7th-inn. reliever: Justin Grimm
|RH setup: Roman Mendez
|LH setup: Robbie Ross
|Closer: Tanner Scheppers
|Catcher: Jorge Alfaro
|First baseman: Chris Davis
|Second baseman: Luis Sardinas
|Shortstop: Jurickson Profar
|Third baseman: Mike Olt
|Left fielder: Engel Beltre
|Center fielder: Leonys Martin
|Right fielder: Nomar Mazara
|Designated hitter: Ronald Guzman
|Backup catcher: Kellin Deglan
|Utility IFer: Leury Garcia
|Corner IFer: Christian Villanueva
|Fourth outfielder: Jordan Akins|
Rangers international scout Bill McLaughlin took an immediate liking to Villanueva when he saw him in Guadalajara, Mexico, one of nine brothers who played together as a team in an adult baseball league. That extraordinary experience, McLaughlin recalls, helped separate the young infielder.
"Christian is one of the most driven people that I have met," said McLaughlin, who also serves as the organization's manager of cultural enhancement. "Playing with his brothers against adult competition helped him mature as a player and a person. His tremendous work ethic and makeup will be a huge part of his success."
Villanueva was a shortstop in Mexico and an effective one. On McLaughlin's recommendation, Rangers director of international scouting Mike Daly saw him with Team Mexico at the 2008 Junior World Championships in Canada, recalling that the 17-year-old "had good hands and caught everything." The Rangers signed Villanueva two weeks after the August tournament ended and, shortly after that, moved him to third base. The transition took hold right away. "It was really good from the get go," said Daly.
Villanueva's physical growth -- and the confidence the Rangers had in his bat -- factored into the decision to move him to a corner. When he was assigned stateside in 2010, he hit .314 with 14 doubles in 188 Arizona League at-bats but only two home runs. Asked to skip an entire level in 2011, his batting average dipped to .278 for Low Class A Hickory but he cut his strikeout rate and walked more frequently, and the production arrived in a big way. The right-handed hitter was in the top 10 in the 14-team South Atlantic League in total bases and RBI, and the top 15 in doubles (30), home runs (17) and slugging.
While Villanueva doesn't have plus speed, he's an excellent baserunner. After attempting only eight stolen bases in 2010, he set his mind to contributing in that phase of the game in '11.
"This year he wanted to show us that he had the ability to steal bases," said McLaughlin. "He was able to do that not because of pure speed but due to his ability to get good reads and good jumps. He's just a baseball player."
Villanueva was the Crawdads' everyday third baseman and figures to fill the same role in High Class A in 2012. But between Adrian Beltre and Mike Olt, Texas will likely be set at third base whenever Villanueva is ready for the big leagues, and there is some sentiment that his athleticism, outstanding glovework and arm strength and makeup -- not to mention the bat -- would enable him to help a team all over the infield if needed.
As polished as Villanueva is for a player who competed all year in a full-season league despite beginning the year as a teenager, Akins is on the other end of the spectrum, impressing scouts with off-the-charts tools that the Rangers know will take time to refine.
Drafted in the third round in 2010 out of Union Grove High School in Georgia, Akins decided to forgo a scholarship to play both outfield and wide receiver for the University of Central Florida and instead sign with Texas. Rangers senior special assistant to the GM Don Welke recalls traveling to Georgia with area scout Ryan Coe to evaluate Akins shortly before that year's Draft.
"Ryan and I saw Jordan in a mini-workout before one of his high school games," said Welke, who noticed a football sitting in the Broncos' dugout. "I took the football in one hand and a baseball in the other and asked Jordan: 'Which one?' He took the baseball out of my hand and said, 'This one.'
"He said 'This one' with conviction."
A physical specimen at 6-foot-3 and 190 pounds, Akins struggled as an 18-year-old in the Arizona League after signing last summer. While Villanueva made the league's All-Star Team and hit over .300, Akins hit .187 without power, fanning a staggering 35 times in 107 at-bats while drawing only five walks.
But the Rangers weren't discouraged. The building blocks were there.
"For a guy who hadn't played a lot of baseball, Jordan was a natural with his balance and bat path," said Coe, who points out that Akins struck out only eight times in high school. "He has an unbelievable ceiling if he can get to his ability."
Akins started showing flashes of it in 2011. Returned to the Arizona League, he hit just .225 in June but turned it up to .309 in July and .288 in August. He did, however, continue to strike out far too often (once every 4.3 at-bats) and drew only six walks in 180 at-bats. Akins has been exploited by breaking balls, which the organization chalks up to plain inexperience.
The outfielder's game remains raw in every phase, but this is a kid who just hasn't played much baseball and is committed to getting better.
"Jordan needs to play a lot and wants to play a lot," said Welke. "He's a great kid with huge potential. True five-tool potential."
A premier athlete, Akins has the speed to stay in center field (where Texas has played him most frequently) and the arm to be dangerous in right, should he outgrow center -- or should his greatest utility, at least early in his career, turn out be as a player whose glove and range would be weapons in center while his bat and arm would play on a corner, making him an ideal bench player.
There's a tremendous amount to be refined before any thought can be given to what Akins will become. Texas rewarded him at the end of the season with the same two-level jump it had challenged Villanueva with five months earlier, promoting Akins to Hickory for the last few days of the regular season and the South Atlantic League playoffs. He didn't appear in a game for the Crawdads, but gained valuable experience from an organization that knows that experience, in every way it can be provided, may be the foremost key to the 19-year-old's development.
Akins and Villanueva won't be teammates again when the 2012 season starts. Akins will man center field in either Hickory or short-season Class A Spokane, while Villanueva will hold the hot corner down in Myrtle Beach. The effort to diversify them defensively is something that won't take hold until much later, if at all.
For now, the two of them, the athlete and the baseball player, will each be groomed at one primary position, even though it's conceivable that the pair could end up contributing in the big leagues in different ways, depending on where their development takes them and what the circumstances dictate.
Jamey Newberg is a contributor to MLB.com. A Dallas lawyer, he has been an insane Texas Rangers fan since the days of scheduled doubleheaders, Bat Nights when they actually handed out a piece of lumber instead of a grocery store voucher, and Jim Umbarger. He has covered the Texas Rangers, from the big club down through the entire farm system, since 1998 on his website, NewbergReport.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.