photo by:Thomas Hagerty

Down on the Farm: Brayan Villarreal

2010:A-Lakeland & AA-Erie
129.1 IP 3.55 ERA 9.5 K/9 2.7 BB/9 1.15 WHIP

BACKGROUND:
At just 17 years old, Brayan Villarreal was signed as a non-drafted free agent on October 25th 2005. The 6-foot, 23-year-old Venezuelan is quickly emerging as a top pitching prospect in the Detroit Tigers farm system.

After missing a serious chunk of time due to Tommy John Surgery, Villarreal began the 2009 season in Low-A West Michigan. Villarreal started, pitched in relief and even racked up a couple saves. He finished the season 5-5 with a 2.87 ERA and a 1.15 WHIP. His jaw dropping 10.3 K/9 ratio was perhaps his most impressive stat that season. However, the fact that he was able to remain healthy and log over 100 innings was a good sign that surgery was successful and injury was hopefully behind him. The positive results were simply an added bonus, or icing on the cake. Brayan Villarreal was now once again a prospect on my radar.

NOTES & NUMBERS:
This past season Villarreal began 2010 pitching in Advanced-A for Lakeland. I was fortunate enough to catch two of his first three starts. To simply state that he began the season on the right foot would be a gross understatement. In his first three starts (15 1/3 innings) Villarreal had 26 strike outs. To put it in perspective he was striking batters out at a clip of 15.3/9! To go along with that insane ratio was a solid 2-1 record and a 2.35 ERA. His success continued and Villarreal was named to the 2010 Mid-Season FSL All-Star Team.

Shortly after the break he was awarded a mid-season call-up to AA-Erie. While his K/9 remained in the mid 9 range his HR/9 ballooned a bit to just over 1. I believe both small sample size and hitter friendly Jerry Uht Park (312/400/328) may have played a part in the elevated numbers.
THE REPERTOIRE:
Villarreal features a fastball with great late movement that sits regularly in the low 90s. On occasion he will turn it up a notch and touch as high as 95. His velocity was stated by scouts to be mid 90s plus but in the handful of starts that I witnessed I failed to observe such numbers. I don’t see much of a concern with his velocity being in the low 90s though, the strikeout numbers are through the roof!  His slider also has tremendous movement and is definitely a plus pitch. Villarreal also occasionally featured a change-up last season. At this point he is definitely a fastball/slider guy and he reminded me a lot of a younger smaller Jeremy Bonderman.

The right handed starter works fairly quick on the mound. He also posted a ground ball rate in the low 40′s last season. With a strikeout ratio as high as his any improvement to his ground ball rate would greatly benefit him. As you will hear me say a hundred times, the key to his future success will be the development of a third pitch.

HIS FUTURE:
Aside from the obvious-staying healthy-Villarreal must develop and become comfortable with a third pitch. He continues to strikeout over a batter an inning and post respectable walk ratios that hover around 3 BB/9. However, a limited number of weapons in his arsenal could likely force him to the bullpen in the show.

His small frame has also drawn a bit of concern from scouts. While listed at 6 feet, I believe that they are being a bit generous. The durability issues arise given his 5’10ish 170 lb frame. However, it is easy to over look his lack of size when you consider that he is striking out more than a batter an inning and posting solid numbers at every stop.

Given the fact that there is nothing more than a small sample size of data beyond A ball it is hard to give a realistic projection. I expect Villarreal to start 2011 in AA Erie. I believe this season should paint a much clearer picture of his future with the organization. At any rate, my gut feeling would be a ceiling of a middle rotation candidate if all goes well. Perhaps even higher if he masters a third pitch. With his amazing strikeout ratio and decent ground ball rate, worst case scenario would be a pretty solid reliever. His numbers thus far are very encouraging and I would assume that Villarreal should reach AAA Toledo at some point this season. I was quite impressed with what I observed and feel he deserves much more credit than he has been given.

Keep an eye on Brayan Villarreal as he continues to earn his stripes down on the farm.

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