3. Ryan Vilade (345 points, 13 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. Now though, based on reports from the alternate site and fall instructs, Vilade appears to be preparing for a life at the outfield corners.
Assigned to High-A Lancaster for 2019, Vilade (who turns 22 next week) 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). His 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 has followed 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 scouting reports, these high error totals are mostly due to inaccuracies in Vilade’s throws (where he sacrifices accuracy for a quick release).
Vilade spent 2020 at the alternate site and fall instructs. In MLB.com’s Rockies alternate site report, There, he was named the top offensive prospect. From that piece:
“[Vilade] started to get his man strength” Rockies farm director Zach Wilson said. “Now he’s 225 pounds, it’s strong, put together and still athletic. The way the ball came off his bat last fall, then this spring and into summer camp. He’s squaring up more balls than ever, the power is really showing up now. He understands his swing now. The approach started to click last summer, you can see it in the numbers. The rest started to click last fall.
“The power, the understanding of his swing path based on pitcher and pitch type, the intricacies of becoming a good hitter. It’s carried all through with hitting homers, driving balls in the gap. He’s really maturing as an all-around hitter.”
He’s done all that while continuing to learn a lot more about playing a new position. A shortstop in high school who shifted to third as a pro, Vilade is becoming more and more familiar with playing an outfield corner.
“You look at the work he’s done in the outfield now, he holds his own there now, to say the least,” Wilson said. “He’s starting to feel at home, in left field in particular. He’s put things together. I can’t wait to see him in games.”
In fall instructs, Wilson’s praise of Vilade continued:
“[Vilade has] really taken to left field now,” Wilson said. “His routes are better, he’s figured out the intricacies relatively quickly of where to throw the ball, who the cutoff man is, that sort of thing. And he and [Aaron] Schunk are stepping up as leaders, he’s making sure guys are doing stuff right here.”
2080 Baseball has some video of Vilade from June 2018:
Vilade is ranked 3rd by Baseball Prospectus in their pre-2021 list. Here’s Jeffrey Paternostro on Vilade:
Going into 2020, Vilade was prepared to play the outfield for the first time. It wasn’t going to work as a shortstop, although we felt the Rockies may have given him more leash as a third baseman given his relative inexperience there before the 2019 season. There is much less uncertainty about Vilade at the plate, as he uses the whole field, doesn’t strikeout often, and can put a charge into baseballs. Given the large dimensions of Coors Field, expect to see a lot of extra-base hits. But he keeps moving down the defensive spectrum, putting more pressure on the bat to perform.
Vilade hasn’t faced Double-A pitching yet. He will have to do that next year while playing a new position. Coors Field isn’t exactly small, and being a below-average runner might be an issue even in the corners.
Vilade really came into his own as a hitter in 2019, particularly in the second half, then took another stop forward during the Rockies’ informal instructs program last fall. He’s added a lot of strength, which in turn has helped him impact the ball more as he’s made mechanical adjustments to barrel up the ball more consistently. His uptick in extra-base authority was not a product of playing in Lancaster or the California League, but rather his maturity as a hitter. He doesn’t strike out much and draws walks, is very comfortable driving the ball the other way and uses all fields while also developing a much better feel for pulling the ball with power. While Vilade doesn’t have great speed, he has very good instincts on the basepaths.
Where Vilade will end up defensively long-term remains to be seen. His days as a shortstop are more or less over after an up and down season defensively overall, and he started to see a lot of time at third in 2019. The Rockies introduced the outfield corners to Vilade over the fall and he should play a lot of both in 2020, with his bat likely to force its way to Colorado sooner rather than later.
Baseball America ranked Vilade 8th entering 2020:
Vilade figures to develop more power but already has come to grips with basics of hitting — using the right side of the field, staying in the gaps and focusing on line drives to the middle of the field. He generally makes whatever adjustments he needs to and has the physicality and aptitude to drive the ball consistently and be at least an average hitter with average power. Vilade’s challenge remains defense. His range, glove and arm are all below average at shortstop and questionable even at third base.
Vilade was ranked 3rd in the system with a 45+ Future Value tag prior to 2020 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 ... 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.
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 his future will unfold defensively. It appears that Vilade legitimately expanded his positional utility to encompass the outfield corners and indeed seems likely to continue in that capacity as a pro. As such, he instantly becomes a nice counter-balance to the lefty-hitting pile-up currently atop the outfield depth chart. The change also allows his 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 and third (likely second base too), that’s some super utility potential right there.
That’s not to say I think Vilade will stay a reserve for long in MLB. I think he’ll be a big league regular in some capacity. At his current trajectory, he could be in the majors at age 23 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. Vilade will probably start 2021 in Double-A but he could well finish the year in Triple-A or even in MLB (as he’ll need to be added to the 40-man roster after the season).