Switching Valdez to Relief Again is a Mistake

Spring Training is always a time to get a look at the high-level prospects and see what they might become, and when they might make the majors. To that end, one of the most talked about young Giants is Merkin Valdez. But the recent talk that he might be switched to relief (again) is very unsettling.

Who is Merkin Valdez?

One answer to that question is that he is the last player the Giants still have remaining from a series of horrifyingly bad trades general manager Brian Sabean made from 2003 to 2005.  Valdez came over in the Russ Ortiz trade, the first of the group that includes such disappointing names as Sidney Ponson, A.J. Pierzynski, Rickey Ledee and LaTroy Hawkins.  He is the last chance for redemption out of that black hole of acquisitions, and yet he seems to have connections to almost all of them.

But another answer to that question is more important to people who don’t dwell on the past, but on the future.  That answer is that he is the last very good starting pitcher prospect in a string of more than half a dozen young pitchers that have populated the Giant rotation since 2000.  While some names (Noah Lowry, Matt Cain) have worked out better than other (Kurt Ainsworth, Jesse Foppert), the Giants have started every season this century with a pitcher with less than a year’s experience in the rotation or ready to go in it.  But after Valdez, there aren’t any top shelf guys for a few years, unless someone steps up and moves through the system quickly.

Now, the Giants are even thinking about taking that away from Valdez.

For some reason, there’s been this assumption floating around that Valdez is not actually a starting pitcher, despite having started 60 games the past three seasons.  A lot of that seems to come from the misguided attempt to turn Valdez into a reliever in the middle of the awful 2004 season and bring him up to the majors and save the bullpen (which was in trouble, of course, from the results of the Pierzynski trade), a mistake that even Sabean acknowledges as an attempt to catch lightning in a bottle.  Ever since then, that’s all some people think Valdez is or can be, even though he was switched back to being a starter after a disastrous major league debut in which the first three major league hitters Valdez faced were Scott Rolen, Albert Pujols and Ken Griffey, Jr.

Now, because of a fireballing spring training, Sabean has discussed the possibility he might start the season on the major league roster as a reliever.  Haven’t we learned?  Trying to switch Valdez is a mistake for the player and for the team…with one exception.

For Valdez, it’s a mistake because when he tried to switch before, Valdez never seemed comfortable on the mound.  There’s a much different mindset to being a reliever than a starter, and Valdez had nearly no time to adjust before that major league debut.  But even in the minors, Valdez had mixed results as a reliever, despite having had a very strong start in both San Jose and Norwich as a starter.

Part of the reason is Valdez’s pitches and how he uses them.  For most of his career, Valdez has been a fastball/slider pitcher.  The fastball is great, and the slider has been heavily underrated.  But he also has a changeup that he’s still developing.  It’s not major league ready yet, and may never be anything more than a show-me pitch to keep batters off-balance, but that’d be enough with his other pitches.  Some people see that, and salivate over that fastball-slider combo in relief, but only the best pitchers can use that effectively, and the Giants have been witnesses to two who haven’t been amongst them.

Remember Felix Rodriguez?  Remember LaTroy Hawkins?

Both had those great fastballs.  In truth, Hawkins had other pitches, while Rodriguez only claimed to but never used them.  But both had the same problem: when they got rattled or fired up or had an emotion of any kind, they would keep going to the fastball.  And they would get hammered.

This is a huge risk with Valdez, who has shown similar tendencies.  He seems almost happy to stop throwing the changeup, and the slider can be forgotten, too.  But when he works as a slider, he is forced to concentrate on his pitch selection and mixing them up.  He can’t forget them, and he works better with them.  My biggest fear in Valdez is seeing him go from being a top starting pitching prospect to an eternally frustrating setup man who can’t get over the hump to closer, but won’t be allowed to do anything else because of the fascination with the fastball, both on the ends of the pitcher and the decision maker.

The reasons such a move would be bad for the team go deeper, though.

For one, the Giants are lean on starting pitching prospects behind Valdez.  There’s Jonathan Sanchez, a strikeout pitcher who’ll likely be in High-A this year, but he’s shown a propensity to be hit hard.  And there are other pitchers like Dan Griffin, Shairon Martis and Waldis Joaquin below that, but all of them are 3-4 (if not more) years away.  No, at the high levels are pitchers like Pat Misch, Chris Begg, Garrett Broshuis.  All are decent prospects, but are as likely (if not more) to end up as relievers with their stuff (or lack thereof) as they are to become starters.  That gulf between Cain and Sanchez will be magnified if the Giants don’t have Valdez to soften the distance between them.

And that brings up another issue with the Giants farm system: they have a ton of relievers.  5 of the Top 20 prospects on the SFDugout Top 50 Prospects List were relievers.  Three of them are competing in a crowded bullpen picture right now, along with possible converted starters Kevin Correia, Jaret Wright and Brad Hennessey.  Then there’s Brian Wilson and Joe Bateman, two closers at the high levels.  Wilson even has the traditional closer stuff, with a high 90’s fastball, and a great curve and good changup.  And there’s the mentioned fringe starter prospects who could move to the bullpen.  Not only do the Giants not need any more relievers this season, but they don’t have a particular need in the future.  It won’t serve the Giants particularly well to try rushing Valdez again, when they have no desperate need to prompt the push.

But that’s not all.  There’s also the possibility that Valdez’s biggest value to the 2006 Giants won’t be as a pitcher at all, but instead as trade bait.  The Giants are a solid playoff contender, but there are plenty of possible holes that may need to be filled if the Giants are to get over the hump midseason.  But who would the Giants trade to fill those holes?  They aren’t going to touch Lowry or Cain.  Todd Linden’s had enough troubles that his trade status isn’t high.  And they also probably won’t trade local kids Kevin Frandsen or Nate Schierholtz, nor top hitting prospect Eddy Martinez-Esteve, considering how few hitters in the system the Giants have.  But there is Valdez.  The Giants won’t be particularly desperate for young starters in 2007, either, so he’s expendable.

But if the Giants attempt to convert Valdez to relief, either at the big league level or in the minors, his value is diminished greatly.  Most people still agree that a guy with #2 or #3 potential in the rotation outweighs a kid who might be a good closer, but has no experience in it or much evidence to say so.  That difference in value might be the difference between the Giants being able to pursue a top mid-season acquisition or going after a second-tier player.

Like I said, there is a legitimate reason to consider moving Valdez, and that is his health.  He had elbow problems to start 2004, though they didn’t reappear.  But his 2005 was shut down early with shoulder issues.  And there might be a chance someday that arm problems may prompt him moving to relief to take the pressure off of his arm.

But that day is not today.  His spring has been healthy so far and buzz-inducing.  There is no reason to make a switch that could potentially hurt his production and potential, not to mention his value to the team, both for their own use and in trade.  Until his health becomes an issue again, switching Valdez will be just one more way to garner yet more disappointment out of the last piece of the most disappointing Giants era in recent years.

Love me, hate me, idolize me, or laugh at me, just don't ignore me. Let me know what you think: write me at kevin@ugcfilms.com .

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