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Only 17, George Valera Is Growing Into His Own

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GOODYEAR, Ariz.—By the age of 13, Indians minor league outfielder George Valera was well on the way to having the rest of his teen years figured out. Born and raised in New York, where he lived with his parents and siblings, Valera was a good student and had scholarship offers to several quality high schools. He was also turning into a pretty good baseball player.

But then Valera's life turned upside down. His father was in a serious accident in which he was struck by a truck, and the metal rods inserted in the senior Valera's arms and legs caused him to be sensitive to cold temperatures. The decision was made to move the entire family to their ancestral home in San Pedro de Macoris, Dominican Republic, where George's mother and father both lived through part of their youth before their families migrated to the states.

Needless to say, the differences between New York and San Pedro de Macoris were drastic, with the move being quite a culture shock for Valera. While he spoke Spanish with his parents at home in the states, he had really never learned formal Spanish.

“At the beginning it was like the worst,” Valera said. “(I) didn't know how to speak as well, and I didn't have any friends.”

However, Valera adapted quickly to one part of life in the Dominican Republic.

“What really got me into loving the Dominican Republic was the baseball,” Valera said. “It was way better baseball, way more aggressive. Everyone was competing in baseball every day, the sun's out all of the time, and it was just amazing fun.”

Valera pointed out that in the Dominican Republic he had more opportunity to compete against older players, which helped him develop his baseball skills and acumen faster than he would have back in New York.

This advanced level of baseball and the frequency in which he got to play the game helped Valera develop into one of the top hitters for the 2017 international class, when at 16 he signed with the Cleveland Indians for a $1.3 million bonus.

Since reporting to the Indians' minor league complex in Goodyear, Ariz. in March, the lefthanded hitter initially played in minor league spring training games and now is in extended spring training in preparation for his professional debut this summer, likely with one of two Arizona League teams that the Indians will field. 

Valera has already impressed observers with his advanced skills at the plate, showing a compact stroke, whippy bat speed and outstanding plate discipline.

“I've seen him enough to know that he can hit,” said a scout for a National League organization covering the backfield games during extended spring training. “He is one of the best hitters down here.”

At this point in his development, Valera is more of a pure hitter than a slugger—and that's alright with him.

“I want to be a contact hitter, gap-to-gap type of guy,” Valera said. “Of course, I want to keep getting stronger. I want to get mentally stronger as well.”

Valera continues to add strength to his 6-foot, 170-pound frame, so more power should come with physical maturity. AZL Indians first-time manager Jerry Owens sees Valera's burgeoning power as inevitable.

“His batting practice is pretty impressive,” Owens said. “He hits balls way up the net, out to right field and to right-center field. He's hit a couple of home runs to left field in batting practice. I know that the power is there … I think his mind is in the right place as far as wanting to be a good hitter first. He's got the pop and when he becomes disciplined, when he learns his swing and when he's able to control his bat and barrel through the hitting zone, the home runs are going to come.”

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The 2016 first-rounder may be repeating the Midwest League, but he's also repeating his power-speed exploits while hitting for a higher average.

Valera has primarily played center field this spring. While not flashy, he's impressed observers with the instincts, jumps and reads he gets in the outfield. But ever since he signed with the Indians, it's been projected that his slightly below-average speed will dictate a move to a corner outfield spot in time, with his above-average arm being enough for either corner position. Valera doesn't buy that opinion.

“To be honest, I hope not,” Valera said, when asked about a possible move from center field. “That's why I'm working so hard, trying to get my legs stronger, trying to move quicker, trying to get better with reads, (getting) more experience, playing every day out here in Arizona, working extra with the trainers and coaches … I hope to stay in center field.”

Owens was a center fielder throughout his 14-year professional career, including parts of four big league seasons with the Chicago White Sox. He had the advantage of being a plus runner for the better part of his career, but he doesn't see the lack of blazing speed holding Valera back.

“George wants to get better every single day. I know he wants to play center field, and he believes in his mind that he's a center fielder, which to me is half the battle,” Owens said. “Speed isn't necessarily a 'must have' in center field. It does help, but jumps, reads and instincts … Understanding positioning and putting yourself in a good position to have success is also an important part of the equation in playing a good center field.”

While Valera has been in Arizona since early March and won't get back home until after the end of the Arizona League season, he hasn't completely put his life in the Dominican Republic behind him. He's taking online classes from his high school there to complete the course work needed to get his diploma.

The learning doesn't stop there, as he often heads to a nearby book store after practice to pursue his latest avocation—reading books. For Valera, improving the mind is as important as strengthening the body. It's all part of growing into adulthood.

“I always had someone to take care of me,” Valera said. “But now that I'm living by myself, I've got to man up and step up and do things right, like a man would do … I'm really trying to be a Hall of Famer. I'm 17 now, but that's my goal. Why? Because I want to be one to follow, an example to society that hard work pays off, and I promise you it will.”

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