Nearly 3 years after debut, Vilade's perseverance pays off

May 10th, 2024

This story was excerpted from Jason Beck’s Tigers Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

DETROIT -- paused when he was asked what the wait was like. Maybe he was trying to figure out how to sum up the 962 days between his Major League debut and his first big league hit. Maybe he was trying to hold back emotions. Maybe he was trying to be symbolic of the patience.

“It was long,” he said after two hits and three RBIs in the Tigers’ 11-7 win Tuesday at Cleveland, “but I’m just thankful for God’s timing.”

It was quite a path, but an example of perseverance for a former highly ranked prospect.

Vilade was a second-round pick by the Rockies in the 2017 Draft. He made his way up the system as a productive hitting third baseman/shortstop, highlighted by a .303 season with 27 doubles, 10 triples, 12 homers, 71 RBIs and an .832 OPS at High-A in 2019, then shifted to the outfield once he reached Triple-A in 2021. He rose to the Rockies’ No. 4 prospect per MLB Pipeline, with comps as an everyday run producer in the Matt Holliday mold.

After batting .284 with 28 doubles, seven homers and 44 RBIs in Albuquerque and appearing in the All-Star Futures Game at Coors Field that summer, Vilade made it to Denver as a September callup. After debuting on the road by going 0-for-4 against the Nationals on Sept. 18, he went 0-for-2 at home against the Dodgers a few days later. A pinch-running appearance Sept. 23 closed out his season.

Vilade never made it back to the Majors with Colorado. A frustrating 2022 season saw him start slow and struggle to recover with limited power. Just when he seemed to regain momentum, he lost a month with a midseason injury, and he hit .249 with a .697 OPS for Albuquerque that year.

The Rockies took Vilade off their 40-man roster at season’s end. The Pirates claimed him off waivers and outrighted him to Triple-A Indianapolis at the end of Spring Training. He hit decently there, batting .270 with 23 doubles, six homers, 56 RBIs and a .752 OPS, but he wasn’t getting a look in their deep farm system.

Vilade became a Minor League free agent last fall. With a chance to choose his spot, he signed with Detroit on the promise of a non-roster invite to Major League camp.

“There’s that period of time you start questioning,” Vilade said, “but you have to keep going, you have to keep working. And that’s what I did. I was just looking for an opportunity, and that’s why I signed here with the Tigers.”

Vilade made an impression in Spring Training this year, batting 9-for-34 (.265) with a homer and five RBIs, but after a 1-for-17 start in Toledo, Mud Hens hitting coach Mike Hessman and Tigers instructor Jeff Brandon gave him an idea of how to change his swing and add a leg kick to get his best swing off more often.

“I did it and felt good with it,” Vilade said. “It kind of just took off. I feel really good with it. I’m glad I did it.”

The adjustment worked. Vilade tore up Triple-A, batting .333 (26-for-78) with eight doubles, three homers, 17 RBIs and a .949 OPS. He raised his average launch angle from 7.9 degrees in 2022 to 10 degrees last year to 13 degrees with the Mud Hens this season, according to Statcast. His hard-hit rate has improved from 38.8 percent in 2022 to 39.1 last year and 43.6 this season. He recaptured his early-career baserunning with eight steals in nine attempts, and he provided positional versatility, playing every spot but catcher and shortstop. Still, a lot of circumstances had to come together for Vilade to get back to the Majors.

The Tigers could’ve waited for Gio Urshela to return from injury before optioning struggling center fielder Parker Meadows. But with a series of left-handed starters looming, including Astros All-Star Framber Valdez on Friday, the Tigers decided not to wait for another right-handed bat. No. 7 prospect Justyn-Henry Malloy could’ve been an option, but doesn’t have the same positional flexibility, and hasn’t played since May 3 due to injury.

Vilade was enjoying an off-day in Toledo when he got the call from Tigers vice president of player development Ryan Garko. He got a ride to Cleveland and was activated on Wednesday, then found himself in the lineup in right field against Guardians lefty Logan Allen.

“It felt like debuting all over again,” said Vilade, who is still just 25, “but it was different. I was nervous, but confident. I’m older now and just ready for the opportunity, really.”