Ever since the departure of Corey Koskie following the 2004 season, the Twins have been a team trying to find an answer at the hot corner. Over the past six seasons the team has run out a carousel of under talented Minor Leaguers or well-part-their-prime veterans. Then, over the past couple seasons Danny Valencia began to emerge. He made his way onto prospect lists following a strong 2008 season, and moved up again after another solid campaign in 2009.
Drafted by the Twins in the 19th round of the 2006 draft after a strong career at the University of Miami, he was a career .298/.353/.469 (.822 OPS) Minor League hitter. Valencia had steadily hit his way up through the system, posting OPS marks of .820 or better at every level. The Twins however continued to express persistent concerns about his glove. They didn't think his hands were good enough and didn't like that he would botch too many routine plays. Still, Valencia had displayed average/plus range at the position and a strong arm, so the making of a good defender were there, and though he wasn't a standout with the bat, most expected he would be a solid MLB hitter.
At the plate the 6'2" Valencia has good but not ideal bat speed. He can use his quick hands to get the bat through the zone well, but his swing can also get a bit long and he's a bit stiff in the wrists. He initiates his swing with more of a double toe tap than a true stride, choosing to simply close out his stance and generate weight transfer through his hips. Sometimes the lack of bat speed can make his swing look slow, but he does a good job staying balanced throughout his stroke and makes good contact while utilizing the whole field.
As the team approached the 2010 season however, Valencia was still not good enough in the eyes of management to break camp with the big league team. Instead the team would open the 2010 season with utility infielders Brendan Harris and Nick Punto as the primary options at the hot corner. However, when Harris got off to a horrible start with the bat and with Punto dealing with nagging injuries throughout the year, the team was essentially forced to bring up Valencia despite a pretty slow start in AAA, where he had posted an OPS of just .720.
Valencia made his Major League debut in June 3rd and would end up playing in 16 games in June and though hehit .304, the fact that he drew just four walks and had only one extra base hit in his 50 plate appearances (a double) left his OPS at a meager .686. His first month was essentially the text book definition of what sabermetricians like to call an empty batting average. Plenty of singles, but nothing else.
Despite the lack of power, it was Valencia's glove, the same one the Twins coaching staff had been so wary of, that kept Manager Ron Gardenhire penciling Valencia's name into the lineup on a daily basis. Finally his power would begin to emerge over the second half. In the seasons final three months Danny would go on to hit .312/.349/.470 - good for a .820 OPS that was almost directly in line with his MiLB performance.
There were some disparities however.
First of all Valencia's batting average was definitely higher than what was expected, largely due to a .345 BABIP, something Valencia, a 18.8% LD hitter last year, and a 18-22% LD hitter in the Minors won't be able to sustain. That said, he should be capable maintaining an average in the .270-.280 range, which isn't terrible. While it's likely that Valencia's average will come down, it's also likely that he'll draw 1.5-2.0% more walks and that his ISO will trend upward from his 137 mark during his 2010 MLB tenure toward his career MiLB mark of .171.
Overall, I would expect Valencia's performance to dip somewhat in 2011. He's almost certain to take a hit in his batting average of somewhere between 30-40 points, but he still has room to improve in the other areas that should help offset a lot of that loss. A .820 OPS hitter in 2010, expect more walks and more power in 2011, but an OPS that comes in 20-40 points lower.
That being said, if Valencia can prove to be a .780-.800 OPS type of bat while continuing to provide very strong defense at a position that has proven to be especially difficult for the franchise to lock down - I think everyone would be quite pleased.
Corey Ettinger is a Senior Writer for Baseball Digest as well as a proud contributor to both 612Sports.net, 312Sports.com, and 313sports.com. He also provides extensive analysis of the American League Central Division at his own blog, AL Central In Focus. Be sure to follow me on Twitter @Coreyettinger for the latest updates, random thoughts and general tomfoolery.