Valdespin maturing as teammate, player for Mets
Versatile defender looking to find spot in team's Opening Day lineup
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Upon finishing his fourth year of bachillerato, or high school, in the Dominican Republic, Jordany Valdespin decided to end his schooling altogether and concentrate full-time on baseball. Though Valdespin did not receive a professional contract as a 16-year-old like many top Caribbean talents, his potential was clear.
At 19, he was playing for a local Dominican team when a Mets' scout spotted him, approached him and organized a workout at the team's Dominican complex. Valdespin impressed the baseball men present. The Mets signed him that day.
What followed was a five-year trek to the big leagues, in which Valdespin sprinkled flashes of electric talent amongst moments of maddening immaturity. To harness the former, he has come to realize he must overcome the latter.
"He's gotten a lot better," Triple-A Las Vegas manager Wally Backman said. "We've seen huge improvements from last year to this year. His attitude has gotten much, much better."
Still, the reputation of an immature talent is difficult to shed. Valdespin sometimes wears a T-shirt with his own picture on it. He owns a bright red hat with the lettering "JV1" -- his initials and uniform number -- splashed across the front.
It was a different cap that drew the ire of Mets fans over the winter, when Valdespin tweeted a picture of himself grinning in a black Miami Marlins hat. Upon arriving to camp this spring, Valdespin said his cousin posted the photo without his knowledge or consent. But he never deleted the picture, nor explained why he was wearing the hat in the first place.
Such are the types of actions for which Valdespin has become known. Last August, after he wore a T-shirt to the clubhouse in clear violation of the team's self-imposed dress code, his teammates stole the shirt from his locker, cut tassels into it and wrote on it as a way of teaching him a lesson. An enraged Valdespin began screaming at his teammates when he discovered the altered shirt, complaining later that he felt disrespected.
In those ways and others, he demands attention. If Valdespin notices a photographer shooting pictures during batting practice, he often turns toward the camera and poses. When he hits home runs, he grows animated as he jogs the bases. It all runs counter to baseball's unspoken expectation that young players should be seen but not heard, and is part of the reason why Valdespin initially struggled to reach the big leagues. His history of Minor League disciplinary issues is well known around camp.
In his early days, Valdespin fostered the impression that he cared more about himself than the team. It is a perception he is still working to change.
"I've seen him become a better teammate," Backman said. "I'm not saying he was a bad teammate at all, but you've seen his actions out there just like the players have seen them. And he's calmed down."
Attitude aside, Valdespin's lack of offensive consistency has been equally damaging to his young career. Manager Terry Collins gave Valdespin significant rope as a pinch-hitter last season, in part because of what he did early in the year -- a game-winning, three-run homer against Jonathan Papelbon in Philadelphia, then a string of five home runs over 29 at-bats in early July.
But from July 25 through the end of the season, Valdespin hit .192 with one homer in 109 plate appearances, striking out in almost a quarter of them. His .515 OPS over that span ranked 10th-worst in the Majors among players with at least 100 plate appearances -- two of the nine hitters worse than him were teammates Josh Thole (.452) and Jason Bay (.461).
That will not fly for a player without a clear defensive home. A natural second baseman, Valdespin made a nifty running catch in foul ground Thursday against the Marlins, but will rarely play there as long as Daniel Murphy is healthy. He is still learning the outfield, a job he first began tackling last spring, and the Mets do not view him as a shortstop.
Of course, Valdespin's ability to man all of those positions is a strength -- perhaps his most marketable skill at this point. But without his organization's trust, versatility only goes so far.
"One day you play second, one day you play outfield, it's very different," Valdespin said. "I'm ready for any situation. The only thing I know is helping the team how I can."
"He does bring a lot to the table," Backman said. "He's got power. He's got speed. So he's an asset in that sense."
Though he stopped short of calling Valdespin a future everyday player, Backman did say "it would be interesting to see" his stat line given 500 at-bats. That will not happen this year, with New York's starting and backup infield already crowded, Valdespin will have trouble enough simply making the team. He could easily wind up back at Triple-A.
For now, he will look to continue padding his .350 Grapefruit League average, which includes one home run and one stolen base in seven games. Though Valdespin went 0-for-3 on Thursday, Collins praised what he described as a markedly improved offensive approach.
"He's a real aggressive player, a real aggressive swinger," the manager said, citing reports of increased patience in winter ball. "All of the sudden, he's started working the count."
Improvement is incremental. But when asked what type of player he can ultimately become, Valdespin did not hesitate.
"Like Jose Reyes," he said. "Good player. Good attitude. I can't say I'm going to be like Jose Reyes in a couple years, because I don't know. But the thing is, I keep working hard and see what happens."