Conor Glassey is at the Excellence Tournament, Puerto Rico's annual event to spotlight the top high school baseball players on the island.
Day One: Correa, Big Arms Stand Out
CAGUAS, P.R.—Jesmuel Valentin Diaz has grown up around the game. His father, Jose Valentin, spent 16 years in the big leagues. He debuted in 1992, and his first full season was in 1994—the same year Jesmuel was born.
Valentin has loved the game for as long as he can remember and spent summers tagging along with his father and hanging out in big league clubhouses.
"It was a lot of fun every single day going to the ballpark and into major league locker rooms," Valentin said. "Paul Konerko and Roberto Alomar played with my dad, so I grew up watching a lot of guys and learning from them and it was a really good experience."
Jesmuel has a similar build to his father at 5-foot-10 and 175 pounds. He's primarily a shortstop, but plays a lot of second base in deference to his high school teammate at Puerto Rico Baseball Academy, Carlos Correa. He's a smooth defender with a strong arm and is an average runner with good instincts on the bases. Valentin said he doesn't particularly care which position he plays—which must run in the family.
"I grew up watching my dad play shortstop and second base and third base, so that's what I learned and what I watched and I want to be just like him," Valentin said. "I'm really proud of my dad. Thanks to him, I'm the player that I am because I grew up watching him. He taught me a lot about being mentally and physically strong and was a lot of help."
In Jose Valentin's 16 big league seasons, he hit .243/.321/.448. Of all players since integration to spend at least 75 percent of their games in the middle infield, Valentin ranks seventh in home runs with 249. At the plate, his son has a line-drive approach with good bat speed. A natural righthanded hitter, he has been switch-hitting for about a year and half and is still working to feel comfortable as a lefty.
Jose Valentin is now managing at low Class A Fort Wayne in the Padres organization. His final year in the big leagues was 2007 with the Mets, a team that included eight different players from Puerto Rico at some point during the season. In addition to Valentin, there were Carlos Delgado, Carlos Beltran, Ruben Gotay, Ramon Castro, Sandy Alomar Jr., Pedro Feliciano and Willie Collazo. But for the younger Valentin, who was 14 at the time, his favorite player was from the Dominican Republic.
"I played a lot with Jose Reyes," Valentin said. "I threw a lot with him and would hit in the cage with him and that was a really good experience. He's one of my guys. He's a guy I love to watch play, and I want to be like him because he's not only a star in baseball, but he has energy and has fun with the team and he's a guy every team needs to have. He's always happy, that's the guy he is."
Valentin likes keeping things upbeat, but he said his best attribute is his persistence. In addition to the tools he inherited from his father, he said the biggest thing he learned during all those summers around big leaguers is to play hard every day.
"I come in every single day and not only give 100 percent, I give extra in every single game, every single at-bat and every single opportunity," Valentin said. "I'm always moving, I'm always talking and trying to help out my teammates . . . I'm one of those guys that will never quit, no matter what. It doesn't matter if we're winning 10-0 or we're losing in a blowout, I'm always going to try hard."
Commitment To Excellence
• The most exciting part of Thursday's action at the Excellence Games was a home run hit by catcher Angel Merced. Hitting lefthanded, Merced crushed the pitch. There was no doubt from the second he hit it, and he showed some swagger with a bat flip and a slow walk to watch the ball sail nearly 400 feet over the right-field wall.
"When I step up to bat, I only think to hit it up the middle," Merced said. "But the pitcher gave me a pitch I could drive and I put a good swing on it."
Merced, who also attends Puerto Rico Baseball Academy, doesn't get cheated at the plate. He hits with a wide base and takes ferocious cuts from both sides of the plate. Unlike Valentin, Merced has been switch-hitting since he was 5.
Merced grew up playing shortstop and eventually outgrew the position. He now stands 6-foot-1, 205 pounds and started catching about two years ago at the recommendation of Pepito Centeno, who scouts for the Major League Scouting Bureau. So it's understandable that Merced is still working to smooth things out behind the plate.
"The hardest part is blocking," Merced said. "I catch the ball and throw good, but blocking is the hard part."
Merced is one of the youngest players in this year's draft. He won't turn 18 until Oct. 30.
• Several former big leaguers have been spotted at this year's Excellence Games, including Delgado, Javier Vazquez, Alex Cora, Ramon Martinez and Hiram Bocachica.