Valdespin Emerges After Discipline Issues
Luis Castillo was released. Brad Emaus failed in a Rule 5 experiment, and now Daniel Murphy and Justin Turner are platooning at second base.
The Mets need a long-term solution at second base and eventually could turn to Jordany Valdespin, a 23-year-old who's been working toward a big league job since quitting school in the fourth grade.
"I told my mother that I didn't like school," Valdespin said. "She wanted me to get a diploma, but I knew baseball would be the best way to help my family."
Signed as a 19-year-old in the Dominican Republic, Valdespin has evolved from a Rookie-level Dominican Summer League roster filler to a legitimate prospect for the Mets. He played well at big league spring training—going 5-for-15 with a double, a triple and a three-run homer—and earned an assignment to Double-A Binghamton for another stint in the Eastern League.
"We all know that he can definitely play second base," Binghamton manager Wally Backman said. "When he played second base on the big league side (at spring training), he was unbelievable.
"He's got a little bit of power. He's got speed. He's a five-tool guy, but he needs to put all the pieces together."
Keeping His Cool
In addition to rediscovering his swing after a 7-for-44 (.159) start through 13 games, Valdespin must prove he's matured into a true professional, one able to handle the game's toughest moments without losing his cool.
In 2009, he was suspended two weeks after clashing with manager Edgar Alfonzo at low Class A Savannah. Valdespin had gotten off to a great start that year, batting .322 and ranking among team leaders, but a disciplinary issue eventually sent him on a tour through the lower tiers of the organization, including a stint in the DSL.
Valdespin declined to give the reason for his suspension, saying it was something he didn't want to talk about. According to one player, Valdespin failed to run to first base on a grounder against Lakewood and was taken out of the game. Frustrations boiled over from there, according to the source.
In any case, Valdespin has spent the past year and a half growing up and planting himself on the Mets' radar. In the 2010 Arizona Fall League, the lefty hitter led the Mesa Solar Sox with a .355 average, playing mostly second base.
After Valdespin earned a spot in the AFL's Rising Stars all-star game, the Mets added him to their 40-man roster. He showed a quick bat and the best range among second baseman at big league camp.
One month into the 2011 season, Backman's plan calls for "Valdy" to play mostly at shortstop. In the club's eyes, Valdespin has nothing more to prove at second base and might as well refine his skills at short.
The position switch also comes at a time when the Mets may explore the trade market for all-star Jose Reyes, a pending free agent.
"We know he can play second base," said Backman, a former big league second baseman. "He's outstanding. But to give him more value, we'll play him at shortstop, too. He's putting himself in a position to be able to get to the big leagues with more value."
The Mental Side
Backman, whose temper tantrums have become legendary on YouTube, seems to be an ideal manager for Valdespin in Double-A. And Backman is confident the young prospect's mental game will develop right along with the power.
"He's relatively quiet kid. He needs to mature more, but that should come in time," Backman said. "You have to go about him a little bit softer than maybe you'd go after someone else.
"He's a kid who you can't embarrass in the middle of that (clubhouse) with all the players in there. You'd want to bring him in your office if you had some sort of issue to talk to him. But I haven't had any problems. He's a good kid with a good heart."
When pro scouts talk about Valdespin, they bring up his suspension and potential attitude problem before talking about his impressive skillset. That's a label the player needs to shake.
Valdespin began 2010 at high Class A St. Lucie, batting .289/.323/.437 with six home runs and 13 stolen bases in 65 games. He ended the year in Binghamton and established himself as a serious prospect.
He grew up in San Pedro de Macoris and idolized Jose Reyes, who has taken the youngster under his wing at home and with the Mets. They were double-play partners briefly this spring.
Valdespin still models his game after Reyes, whom he may eventually replace. And if Reyes re-signs with the Mets after this season, his protégé could be there with him in 2012.
"To me, he should become a very good offensive player," Backman said. "He has great hand-eye coordination. He hasn't shown it yet with the bat this season—it's been awful cold— but he's got all the tools you look for in a young player."
Kevin Gray covers pro baseball for the New Hampshire Union Leader