Name: Jose Valdespina
Position: Starting Pitcher
DOB: March 22, 1992 (20)
Acquired: 2011 International Free Agent, Dominican Republic
Between his 6-foot-6 frame and overpowering velocity, right-hander Jose Valdespina is one of the more intriguing young arms in the Texas Rangers' system. Aside from his pure velocity, however, Valdespina is quite raw––particularly with his command and secondary stuff.
Despite his big fastball, the Dominican Republic native signed to little fanfare––just a reported $27,500 bonus, per Baseball America––about a month before his 19th birthday in February 2011. But it didn't take long for Valdespina to get on the prospect radar, as he ran his fastball up to 96 mph while posting strong results in the Dominican Summer League later that year.
With the DSL Rangers in 2011, Valdespina posted a 2.82 earned-run average in 15 appearances (10 starts). Over 51 innings pitched, he yielded 40 hits, walked 22, and struck out 40.
Valdespina showed enough in his debut campaign to earn a trip to Arizona for spring training last March. While his lack of secondary stuff was evident, he pitched well in game action––until he was featured in Surprise Stadium at the late-camp ‘prospect game,' a closed scrimmage played in front of the organization's front office and scouts.
"Coming out of spring training, in the prospect game, (Valdespina) got under the lights for the first time, and he was all over the place," said Rangers minor league pitching coordinator Danny Clark.
The prospect game marked the first time he'd played under the bright lights of a big league stadium, albeit of the spring training variety. Assigned to the Rangers' extended spring training squad out of camp, the hurler put on a dominant performance and showed impressive work ethic, building off the rocky spring training finish.
"He took from that (prospect game performance)," Clark said. "I know from talking to the pitching coaches there that they were really happy with his work ethic. He was really wanting to learn more about pitching. I think he started to see the curve kind of turn."
Rangers extended spring training manager Corey Ragsdale agrees with Clark, believing Valdespina's biggest progress early last season came mentally––not mechanically.
"When he first came in, it was just a little erratic and a little timid," Ragsdale said last May. "It was a lot of feel and uncertainty about it. Now, he goes out there and he's throwing three pitches with conviction. . .He has come a long way."
Valdespina's fantastic extended spring performance earned him a spot in the short-season Spokane starting rotation. History repeated itself quickly, though, as the 6-foot-6, 220-pound righty had something of a flashback to his prospect game performance in his Northwest League debut; Valdespina failed to retire any of the six hitters he faced, walking four and allowing two hits.
The next time out, he righted the ship by tossing five innings of three-hit, shutout ball.
"Obviously he goes to Spokane, and in his first outing, he doesn't get an out," Clark said. "Then he follows it up with his next outing. He goes five innings, and he seems to be able to get back in order.
"I think it's a long-term process for him, but also it's some kind of ability to project. I think his work ethic will allow him to be on a quicker pace than what a lot of people think."
Often erratic in Spokane, Valdespina had a small handful of poor starts, but he also showed his big talent in glimpses. During his penultimate start last summer, the prospect punched out 10 batters over six innings of one-hit ball, walking only one.
Overall, he finished the summer with a 5.58 ERA in 15 starts. He gave up 67 hits in 59.2 innings, walking 34, plunking 11, and striking out 54. The numbers reflect both the raw nature of his game and fantastic stuff. Despite the iffy stat-line, Valdespina missed some bats, and his heavy, electric fastball helped him induce more than 2.4 groundouts per airout.
Most scouts believe Valdespina and his potentially dominant fastball will ultimately find a home in the bullpen, where he could develop into a powerful late-inning reliever. For now, though, the Rangers will develop him as a starting pitcher to maximize his chances for development––especially when it comes to the secondary stuff.
In fact, Valdespina entered professional ball without a breaking pitch. He didn't even really know how to throw one, Clark says.
"He didn't really even know how to grip a curveball even leaving instructs last year and coming back into spring training," the pitching coordinator said. "It was more of a guided pitch for him."
That was somewhat evident during Valdespina's work on the mound last spring. His lack of feel for a breaking ball was so extreme that it stood out––even on a field of raw lower-level prospects. His curve clocked at around 64 mph on the radar gun, lacking really any spin or shape.
As with the mental side of his game, Valdespina worked hard to improve his curveball during extended spring. By May, he was showing a 71-75 mph pitch that, while still below-average, had much better shape with a little depth.
Clark believes the breaking ball improvement also ties into the mental side of Valdespina's game.
"I think it's confidence," he said. "He started feeling it more in his flat ground. The pitching coaches there did a really good job of getting him to throw it in his long-toss program from 90 to 100 feet. He started gaining confidence, and then you started seeing the arm action balance out with the rotation. And I think that was a correlation with both things, and he became comfortable with it."
As Valdespina began learning how to spin a curveball, the Rangers threw a curve of their own at him late last summer by giving him a slider––a pitch that should better benefit his arsenal long-term. A slider should play better off Valdespina's mid-90s fastball, as it attacks the hitter on a more similar plane and with more velocity than a mid-70s curveball would.
Valdespina's slider is now a definite work in progress. Speaking personally, I did not see him throw it in Spokane, and I did not speak to any scouts who did. But the Rangers were pleased with it down the stretch last summer, and Valdespina finished strong after introducing the slider into his repertoire.
Also See: Rangers Spring Training Notes (March 21, 2012)
Lone Star Dugout Q&A: Corey Ragsdale (May 10, 2012)
Lone Star Dugout Q&A: Danny Clark (June 26, 2012)
Repertoire: Fastball, Slider, Changeup.
Fastball: Valdespina's fastball is a potential 70-grade offering, but his present well below-average command keeps the pitch from playing at that level right now. Big and strong at 6-foot-6, 220 pounds, Valdespina features easy plus velocity and shows an ability to maintain it through starts. He'll often work anywhere between 91-96 mph, sitting at 93-95 and reaching up to 97. Thrown with good angle from his tall frame and featuring heavy late life, Valdespina's fastball has the potential to be a seriously dominant offering––especially in short bursts and if the command becomes even fringe-average. There isn't much room for growth remaining on his already big frame, but he may add just a slight tick more velocity down the line.
Other Pitches: The 20-year-old's secondary stuff isn't nearly as developed as his heater; both his breaking ball and changeup are very raw. As mentioned above, Valdespina featured a mid-60s curveball that floated out of his hand in spring training. He made gradual strides with the pitch during extended spring and began working with a slider in Spokane. One scout who saw Valdespina's slider at instructs commented that he "flashed one or two good ones" but that the offering was still "very raw" and "not very good at present." Still, a slider should play better off his mid-90s heat than a curveball would, and the Rangers were satisfied with the overall progress last season.
Valdespina shows some feel for an 81-86 mph changeup, but the pitch lacks life and, like his breaking ball, it's a well below-average offering at present. Purely a one-pitch hurler at the time he signed with the Rangers, Valdespina will long be a work-in-progress with his secondary stuff. Neither offering has plus projection; the hope is that they're eventually enough to be workable.
Projection: The good news is that Valdespina has ideal makeup and work ethic for a talented young hurler; the bad news is that his command and secondary stuff don't project as above-average assets. With his big 6-foot-6 frame and bigger fastball, Valdespina will continue getting a chance to start at the lower levels. But the most likely scenario is that the Dominican eventually finds a home in the bullpen, where he can ride his plus-plus velocity with good life. It's not a stretch to think he could ultimately work in the mid-to-upper 90s in short bursts.
If Valdespina throws enough strikes, his elite velocity and fastball weight alone could get him to the major leagues a la Wilmer Font. The development of his command and secondary stuff will determine his ceiling. He's a decent athlete but struggled to repeat his delivery (particularly out of the windup) last summer, hindering his command. While the righty has a changeup now, it wouldn't be a shock to see him eventually pick up a splitter if he moves to the bullpen. Like the slider he began throwing late last season, the splitter is more of a ‘grip-and-rip' pitch that high-octane hurlers like Valdespina can find success with out of the bullpen.
2013 Outlook: Valdespina will likely progress forward to Single-A Hickory out of camp this spring. Even though his 2012 summer in Spokane was filled with peaks and valleys, he kept his head above water, and his strong makeup should encourage the organization to push him just a bit. Still raw with his command and secondaries, the right-hander probably won't produce dominant results from the outset in full-season ball; it's more important that he shows gradual progress. While Valdespina likely profiles as a reliever long-term, the Rangers will continue starting him at the lower levels to maximize the development of his slider and changeup. Expect him to work in a full-time starter or piggyback role this coming season.
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