Name: Rolando Valdez
DOB: January 8, 1986
One of the better changeups in the entire system became an ordinary pitch through much of the year, as the converted outfielder lost its feel. That inconsistency with the changeup led to some tough outings and hold your breath moments.
Valdez began the 2007 season by not allowing an earned run over his first 13 appearances – a span of 14 innings. He was crisp, kept the ball in the zone, and had use of the changeup.
By mid-May, his bread-and-butter pitch became inconsistent and he struggled finding a rhythm. While he still managed a 2.27 ERA before the All-Star break, Valdez would go in the tank during the second half. In his final 27 games, the opposition teed off, leading to a 6.39 ERA post All-Star break.
"I was very disappointed in him this year," former Padres minor league field coordinator and current MLB scout Bill Bryk said. "I think he is better used as a starter than relief. I don't think he wanted to do it, but he did."
Valdez has been on the mound for three full seasons now in his conversion from position player. He surprised many with his plus changeup but seemed to take a step backwards this year.
"He is a great competitor," Fort Wayne manager Doug Dascenzo said. "He really gets disgusted with himself a lot when he doesn't get the job done but that just shows you the passion and competitiveness he has in him. To be a converted guy who was an outfielder before all this – he has a great arm."
A cannon arm was the reason for the initial move from the outfield, and he can still work his fastball up as high as 94 MPH but works comfortably in the 90-92 MPH range.
His fastball command has been an issue, at times, but he had always been able to go to the changeup when behind in the count – the equalizer. Without that pitch, hitters were able to guess correctly when the next fastball would come – and if he hit too much of the plate they could get good wood on the ball.
It left him little opportunity to expand the zone and get hitters chasing his pitches.
While the changeup hit a wall, his curveball improved from a below average pitch to showing plus ability, although it lacks true consistency.
The hook was a pitch he became more and more confident in as his changeup declined. The Padres believe he will bounce back in the coming year and the advancement could come fast since he had to rely on his breaking ball more to get the job done. If the feel for the changeup returns, Valdez could be a three-pitch guy with two plus offerings in the fastball and changeup and an average curveball that will be plus at times.
"He needs to continue to work on his curveball," said former Fort Wayne and current Lake Elsinore pitching coach Wally Whitehurst. "It gets a little too big. For a while in the middle of the year, his curveball was coming around. Then he lost the feel for the changeup and went to the curveball and it got too big."
"He has great command of his fastball, a good curveball and a great changeup – when it is on," said Dascenzo. "When you look at Rolando Valdez, when he has it going on, he is pretty special."
Valdez worked as a starter in the winter leagues with a focus on regaining the changeup he lost during the 2007 season. He saw a lot more success spotting the pitch on the outside corner to left-handed hitters, but his control was off and he left his curveball and fastball up in the zone, at times.
With three usable pitches, it is conceivable that Valdez sees more time as a starter to hone his abilities. He has worked mainly in relief since joining the system and has also been used as a closer, but there are some who worry about his mental makeup in continuing him in that role. He may be better suited to situations with less pressure.
"He has a great changeup, but his changeup was inconsistent this year, and he didn't trust it," said Bryk. "He was basically pitching with a fastball and inconsistent changeup and adequate breaking ball."
Valdez has been better against left-handed hitters because of his ability to nip the outside corner. He will also work inside more to a left-hander and trusts the movement of his pitches.
Alternately, the right-hander is hesitant working inside to right-handed hitters. His changeup, which has backdoor action back into a righty, is a pitch that could buckle knees but is started too much towards the outside corner. He also hit six batters during the year and all were right-handed hitters, making him even more tentative to work and own the inside part of the plate.
Valdez has an over the top delivery and gets the most movement when he keeps his elbow up and mechanics in line. He uses his legs well to drive off the mound and has a good downward plane to the plate, maximizing the movement available to his pitches. When his front shoulder opens up too soon, it will cause his pitches to become wild outside of the zone.
"He had a great winter," Bryk said. "There is potential there to be better than what I saw this year."
"He is another guy that comes in and throws strikes," said Whitehurst. "Hopefully, Rolando will come into Spring Training and tighten his curveball up a little bit and find the feel for his changeup – he does have an above average changeup. He is a strong kid that could pitch for a while."
ETA: Valdez will have to earn his playing time in Lake Elsinore for the coming year. He has to prove he has made strides and learned from past mistakes. With his repertoire, it is conceivable he puts it altogether and makes a quick ascension to the big leagues as a reliever. The 2008 season will be a big determining factor towards that goal.
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