Connect The Dots...The Hourglass

I found it somewhat timely that Manager Larry Bowa just recently was talking about the hitting struggles of the Phillies and he ventured a suggestion that it could be viewed as half full, if you were the optimistic sort...or half empty, if your tastes venture toward the negative.

I could not help but think of this analogy when I contemplated the way that two players, currently teammates playing for the Scranton Wilkes-Barre Red Barons, view their future opportunities with the Phillies. I am referring to outfielder Eric Valent and second baseman Chase Utley. At first glance, there are some incredible similarities between the two. They both played ball at UCLA and were college 1st team All-Americans. They both were #1 draft choices of the Phillies and both are solidly built left-handed hitters with power. They both were asked to play positions unfamiliar to them, both for the good of the parent club and to enhance their chances of making the big leagues. Both were also given the proverbial cup of coffee with the Phillies, though with extremely different results.... and herein lies the rub.

Show Utley the hourglass and he will no doubt exclaim it to be half full.... his future is filled with promise and is merely a question of when, not if, his next chance at the big leagues will appear. But show Valent the same hourglass and he will probably see a half empty hourglass, with the sand of time sinking much too quickly for his tastes. How they have reached this stage of their careers is an interesting and revealing look at the long climb to the major leagues, and how it can be often rocky and full of twists and turns.

For Utley, the road looks smooth. His climb through the system was so swift that he was able to skip the path through Reading and jump directly from Clearwater to Scranton. Although asked to switch from his natural second base position to the unnatural position of third base, he took the change fairly comfortably last season and was voted the Phils top minor league player. However, after the free agent signing of David Bell, Utley was moved back to his natural position at second base and is currently playing well there at Scranton. His cup of coffee consisted of a quick visit to start the season with the big league club and another one-week stay with the club when Placido Polanco was disabled; he merely celebrated his first professional start with a grand slam HR against the Rockies. Though his stay was short, the Phils saw enough to project Utley as a solid .280 hitter with 20-25 HR power, potential All-Star numbers for a second sacker. Utley is playing with total confidence at age 24, secure in the knowledge that his hourglass has plenty of sand remaining.

Not so with teammate Eric Valent. There are few more interesting cases in the Phillies minor league organization than Valent, now 26. Drafted as a supplemental number one pick with Pat Burrell in 1998, he was a power hitter deluxe throughout his early days in the minor leagues. Power? If you want an example of Valent's power numbers, look no further than the UCLA record books.... on a team that boosts alumni like Troy Glaus, Garrett Atkins and our own Chase Utley. To find Valent's name start at the top because that is where he is.... the top home run hitter in UCLA Bruin history. And this was seemingly no mirage.... a quick stop through Piedmont where a .427 average showed he was too good for this league, then on to a successful run at Clearwater (20 HR, 105 RBI in a pitchers league) in ‘99, a 22 HR, 90 RBI season at Reading in 2000 and on to SWB in 2001.

It was here that the story began to unwind...but not at first. Valent began the ‘01 season solidly and was hitting very well....13 HR by the end of May. Certainly his hourglass seemed half full.... and visions of Valent, Burrell and Abreu hitting in the middle of the Phils order danced in Phillies fans heads. Then it happened! The Phils, faced with a need for a designated hitter against the likes of American League teams like the Yankees, Red Sox and Orioles decided to entrust the duties to Valent.... with disastrous results. After a steady stream of Mike Mussina, Roger Clemens, Pedro Martinez, Orlando Hernandez and Tim Wakefield, Valent took his 4-for-41 (.098) results back to Scranton.... and has NEVER been the same player.

Amateur psychologists could have a field day with this case.... and the theories have been discussed at length. Loss of confidence, a lingering illness, an unannounced injury, the difficulty of switching positions to first base last spring...all have been discussed and dissected. What is known is this.... Valent is being asked to reinvent himself for the third time this spring and is currently playing center field for the Red Barons. From right field to first base and now to center field.... and we have come full circle, for it was as a center fielder that Valent made his mark in college. If Valent can handle the switch and if he rediscovers his lost home run stroke.... and they are both big IFs, then maybe Valent, "The Talent", as he used to be called, will begin looking at the hourglass as Utley now does...half full.

Until that time, however, do not blame Mr. Utley and Mr. Valent if they see the exact same hourglass and view it from exactly the opposite ends of the spectrum.

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