CLEARWATER, Fla. — It would make for a nice, neat story:
Kid gets cut from the team one year because he’s a little too green, goes down to the minors and gets hurt, rehabs like crazy, reports to camp this year fitter and readier, and plays even better.
Makes the team, right?
Let’s hope not.
For the good of the franchise and the good of himself, second baseman Jesmuel Valentin should start the season in triple A. Again.
He won’t like hearing that, and he shouldn’t, because every player should want to be in the big leagues as soon as he can get there. The most invested Phillies fans — the ones who already know Valentin’s backstory — might not like to hear it, either, because they generally want to see every kid in the bigs as soon as possible. But a little extra marination didn’t hurt Ryan Howard, and extra triple-A time didn’t injure Chase Utley, and it won’t hurt Valentin, either, no matter how good he looks. And he looks really good.
He’s hitting .281 with a .361 on-base percentage and a 986 OPS. On Sunday, he hit his third home run, tying him for the team lead with fellow prospect (and fellow second baseman) Scott Kingery.
“I’m trying to do anything in my power to stay here,” Valentin said. He is.
Like Kingery, Valentin isn’t playing only second base — he’s playing all over the field, part of manager Gabe Kapler’s versatility initiative. Valentin on Sunday played right field, his fourth outfield assignment this spring. He played third base for the fourth time Friday. He has played shortstop twice.
But Kingery is the second baseman of the future, and Cesar Hernandez is the second baseman of the present, so, two weeks ago, the Phillies asked Valentin to diversify further.
He began taking extra work at catcher. He warms up pitchers in the bullpen during games and warms up pitchers at the plate between innings. In the morning, he puts on starter Jorge Alfaro’s mitt and backup Andrew Knapp’s protectors and heads to the batting cages, where, masochistically, he blocks balls fired from a pitching machine. Then he heads to the half-field to practice throwing out baserunners.
Valentin has dabbled at catcher when he plays winter ball, too, and he even caught an inning during a scrimmage in Puerto Rico when the regular catcher started cramping.
Kapler plans to carry only four bench players, and keep an extra pitcher, for most of the season. So every line on the resume helps. Valentin is doing everything right to enhance his resume.
And he should keep on doing it. Every day. For Lehigh Valley. It makes little sense to give Valentin 25 at-bats a month in Philadelphia when he could be getting 25 every week in Allentown. He’s a shortstop by trade and by birth; his father, Jose, parlayed his shortstop-based skills into a 16-year career as a utility man, and Jesmuel has handled every position with aplomb.
But he’s just 23, and he has only 201 triple-A at-bats. He needs more, if only to harness the newfound power in his 5-foot-10, 180-pound frame. Perhaps he developed the power from his eight years of sessions with famed Puerto Rico-based trainer Josue Lionel Rivera, a body-and-soul guru whose methods include having his clients push a minivan through sand on a beach.
There wasn’t much van-pushing for Valentin this offseason. He was coming off surgery to repair the labrum in his left shoulder that he first dislocated while playing winter ball in Puerto Rico, then did it again in late May with Lehigh Valley. So, Rivera said in a telephone interview, he concentrated on Valentin’s scapula and manipulated his vertebrae. The Phillies told Valentin he wouldn’t be able to play with his club in Puerto Rico, but the recovery went so well — after his regular sessions with trainers, Valentin went home and worked on his strength and mobility at night — he was cleared to play in January.
“I was, maybe, 60 percent,” he acknowledged.
He was 100 percent in early February, when he played shortstop and helped Puerto Rico defend its Caribbean Series title. He reported to Clearwater in fine fettle. Cool. The team doesn’t exactly need him right now, especially if Kapler keeps only four bench players.
The Phillies just added veteran utility player Pedro Florimon to their 40-man roster. Roman Quinn, 24, is an outfielder with infield play in his background — he played shortstop Sunday — and lightning in his legs. Knapp will be the backup catcher. Aaron Altherr will be part of the four-man outfield rotation.
Kapler won’t betray his intentions.
“Everyday reps at the minor-league level are incredibly valuable,” he said, “but because a guy is on the bench at the major-league level, that doesn’t mean his development is stunted by any stretch. Because he’s getting a different kind of experience.”
More intense experience, perhaps, but less experience, assuredly.
Valentin needs to play, because he certainly has the pedigree. The Dodgers made him a supplemental first-round pick in 2012, 51st selection overall, and he landed with the Phillies as a player named later in the Roberto Hernandez deal. He’s been a high-profile personage playing with pros in America for six years. Kapler and Valentin both insisted that his six years of winter ball should not be discounted, either.
“There’s a lot of salty veterans. A lot of cockiness. It’s not like you play baseball for fun there,” Valentin said. “They play really hard and really dirty.”
Stateside and on the the island, he has played pretty well. He has hit a combined .263 with a .342 on-base percentage in the minors and winter ball combined. Those are good numbers, but nothing like his numbers this spring, or last spring, when he hit .336 with a .422 on-base percentage and a .934 OPS.
But he’d gotten only 105 at-bats at the triple-A level, so off to Allentown he went. And that’s where he should go again.
He’s just too good to keep.