CLEARWATER, Fla. — The storm had passed through Puerto Rico a week earlier, and the damage was still visible as Jesmuel Valentin drove through his hometown in the middle of October.
Trees covered the roads. Light poles were ripped from the ground. Homes were flooded and without electricity. Grocery stores were either closed or without food. There was not enough gas to run generators. Valentin’s town of Manati — on the island’s northern coast — was hit hard when Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico.
“That was hard to see,” Valentin said. “But, thank god, we have done a really good job, and everything is coming back to normal, little by little.”
Valentin, who enters spring training in competition to make the Phillies as a reserve infielder, used those images as motivation when he represented Puerto Rico earlier this month at the Caribbean Series. The island finally had a distraction from Maria’s damage. It seemed as though everyone was watching, he said. And Valentin’s squad delivered, defeating the Dominican Republic to capture Puerto Rico’s second straight title.
“Giving that joy was one of the biggest motivations for us,” Valentin said. “We didn’t go there just to have fun and play, but we were thinking about giving as much as we can and putting our Puerto Rico name as high as we can to let everyone know that not even a hurricane can stop us.”
Valentin, 23, played a key role with a pair of hits and a run scored in the series-clinching win. He batted .287 this winter in 24 games at second base, shortstop, and third base. It was his first action in eight months, and Valentin proved that he was healthy. His season ended in May, after just 29 triple-A games, when he underwent shoulder surgery. It was a crushing blow in a season that began with a terrific spring training and was expected to end with Valentin’s major-league debut.
“It was a tough year for me last year,” Valentin said. “Knowing what I did in spring training, I think I opened a lot of eyes. I thought it was going to be my debut year. Then that happened. But God has a purpose. Now I’m here. I have a big chance, I just have to keep doing the same thing I did last year — don’t put pressure on myself, and keep playing the same baseball that I’ve always played.”
The Phillies expect to start the season with a shortened, four-man bench, opting to add a pitcher to their bullpen. Bench spots are at a premium, and manager Gabe Kapler expects his reserves to be versatile. Valentin can move all over the infield and could possibly play some outfield, which he has done in winter ball.
He will compete with a cast of veterans the team brought into camp on minor-league deals. Pedro Florimon joined the Phillies in August but broke his ankle two weeks later. Adam Rosales batted .225 last season in 105 major-league games. Will Middlebrooks has played just 32 major-league games over the last two seasons.
Valentin is the only one of them on the 40-man roster, and it will be difficult to send him to triple A again if he replicates what he did last spring.
“Knowing everything that’s going on in the world, it just motivates me to keep working hard,” Valentin said. “I saw a lot of people with no food and nowhere to live, just sleeping on the streets or under bridges because of the hurricane. That motivates me to keep working hard.
“I have to be more than blessed because God gave me these talents, and there’s no looking back for me.”