4. Ryan Vilade (570 points, 22 ballots)
Even though he was a second round pick in 2017, Ryan Vilade has often been thought of as a first round pick by Rockies fans since he was the first player taken in that draft by Colorado. Though he was a high school shortstop, most expected the 6’2” righty to move to third base immediately after he signed for $1.425 million. Surprisingly, Vilade stuck at the position through most of his first three professional seasons, seeing time at third base for the first time in a secondary capacity in 2019.
Assigned to High A Lancaster for 2019, Vilade (who turns 21 later this month) was one of the youngest players in the hitter friendly California League — on average 2.5 years younger. As he did in 2018, Vilade started slowly (with a .758 April OPS and .656 May OPS) but heated up as summer arrived (.912 June OPS) and finished at a blistering pace (1.028 OPS August). Vilade’s final line in 587 plate appearances was a strong .303/.367/.466 with 49 extra base hits, including 12 homers (more than double his 5 from 2018) with 24 steals in 31 opportunities. That’s a 128 wRC+ for one of the league’s youngest players at a premium defensive position.
Vilade actually dropped his K% (from 18 to 16.2%) and slightly increased his BB% (9.2 to 9.5%) despite the move up in competition, though he clearly feasted on his home park (.980 OPS at home vs. .685 on the road). The question of how “real” offensive numbers are for Lancaster prospects is one that will follow all Rockies prospects up the ladder, fair or not. Defensively, Vilade played mostly at shortstop (83 games, 23 errors) but also at third base (46 games, 14 errors). Per the scouting reports below, these high error totals are mostly due to inaccuracies in Vilade’s throws (where he sacrifices accuracy for a quick release).
2080 Baseball has some video of Vilade from June 2018:
Vilade is ranked 3rd in the system with a 45+ Future Value tag by FanGraphs:
A 2019 swing change — what was an open stance with a leg kick has now been closed off and features none — awakened some of the big, dormant raw power that made Vilade such an enticing amateur prospect. He simply could not time his previous cut and was late on many pitches, pushing them the other way or into the ground. The tweak brought his groundball rate closer to average (50% previously, down to 42% in 2019) and more than doubled his home run output from the prior year.
It’s necessary progress for a player who began a long-anticipated fall down the defensive spectrum, and will likely continue to do so. Vilade began seeing time at third base in 2019, and was taking reps in the outfield during the Rockies’ fall workouts. He looked noticeably bigger and stronger on the Salt River backfields than he did during the summer, and we now anticipate Vilade will branch out and play both outfield and infield corners, which makes sense considering how entrenched Nolan Arenado is at third base. Is the tumble troubling? Somewhat, but it’s counterbalanced by versatility, and it’s encouraging that Vilade has now shown an ability to make relevant swing adjustments to get to his power. This is a rather magmatic prospect currently transitioning in several ways, but they’re generally positive.
Vilade is also ranked 3rd by Baseball Prospectus, who give him a 55 OFP designation. Here’s Jeffrey Paternostro on Vilade:
After a slow start to the 2019 season—Vilade hit .250 in April and May—the 20-year-old infielder slashed .330 and hit all but one of his 12 home runs in his final 80 games at High-A Lancaster. He has a relatively flat stroke, but stays inside the ball well and generates consistent hard contact to all fields. He ultimately led the California League with 10 triples, which along with his 27 doubles—fifth most—and 24 stolen bases, showcase his natural strength and athleticism. At 6-foot-2 and 195-pounds, he’s demonstrated adequate range and ability as a shortstop, but appears best-suited for the hot corner, where he played 46 games in 2019. He prefers to throw from a low, side-arm slot, enabling a quick release, but also affecting the carry and accuracy on longer throws, contributing to his 37 errors in 128 games last season. Vilade’s combination of advanced skills and raw athleticism set a high-floor for the 20-year-old prospect. The ceiling may be an all-star caliber, five-tool third baseman.
Vilade’s ability to shake off a terrible start in the South Atlantic League as a teenager speaks volumes about his ability to learn and make adjustments as a hitter. He has a tremendous feel to hit with excellent bat speed and a quick swing from the right side of the plate. There’s a lot of raw power to tap into, with the chance for Vilade to eventually have plus pop that he’ll get to thanks to his approach. While few doubt he’ll hit, there is more question about what position he ultimately plays. The Rockies like moving infielders around during development, doing it with top prospect Brendan Rodgers, for example, and Vilade will do the same moving forward after only playing shortstop in his first year-plus as a pro.
Vilade will have the opportunity to stay at shortstop, but given that he’s already bigger and stronger than he was when last season ended, it’s easy to see him outgrowing the position. He could slide over to third or across to second full-time in the future. One thing the Rockies love about positional flexibility is that it will be easier to get Vilade’s potent bat into a big league lineup once he’s ready.
The FanGraphs report in particular provides some insight as to why Vilade’s power spiked (no leg kick, the opposite of many such stories) and some clues as to how Vilade’s future will unfold defensively. If he can indeed legitimately expand his positional utility to encompass the outfield corners, Vilade instantly becomes a nice counter-balance to the lefty-hitting pile-up currently atop the outfield depth chart. It also allows Vilade’s bat another avenue into the big leagues, where even in a 26 man roster positional utility is valued for reserves. With Vilade’s offensive potential and his ability to fake it at shortstop (likely second base too), that’s some super utility potential right there.
Not that I think Vilade will stay a reserve for long in MLB. I think he’ll be a big league regular in some capacity, making Vilade the first such player in this series about who I feel that level of confidence. At his current trajectory, Vilade could be in the majors at age 22 providing above average offensive production while not killing the Rockies on defense. I ranked Vilade 3rd on my ballot with a 50 FV tag as a regular contributor, position TBD. He’ll get a big test next year in AA, but I think that’s a test he’s fully equipped to pass.