FORT MYERS, FLA. - Mindy Valencia has tried to gauge her son's standing in the Twins clubhouse the past two years from words spoken and unspoken by manager Ron Gardenhire.
Naturally, she's biased.
Danny Valencia, in her words, is "a really, really good kid. He works hard. He doesn't drink. He doesn't do drugs. He's the most kind, when it comes to the fans."
But after a promising 2010 rookie season, Valencia's performance sagged last year with the rest of the team. There were suggestions the third baseman had grown complacent, and his University of Miami swagger was wearing thin, especially on Gardenhire.
"I'd like to think it's tough love, that Gardenhire thinks he's got the ability to do better," Mindy said. "Do I know? I don't know. But it's a man's world. And in my opinion, men pretty much care about how you perform between the lines."
Valencia's OPS (on-base-plus slugging percentage) was .677 last year, down from .799 as a rookie. Gardenhire sensed he lacked focus defensively, at times, because he was thinking about his at-bats. Valencia committed 18 errors, the most for a Twins third baseman since Gary Gaetti made 18 in 1990.
But on an injury-laden team, Valencia led all Twins in games played (154) and RBI (72). By September, he started regaining his manager's praise.
"Danny made a lot of improvement toward the end of last year," Gardenhire said. "I thought he was handling himself a lot better. He wasn't out there, trying to be in Danny World. He was fitting in really nicely."
Valencia, 27, put himself through a grueling offseason workout routine and arrived at spring training looking stronger and leaner. He worked especially hard on his defense, which seems to have him on the same page as Gardenhire. Only last Saturday, for example, the two spent several moments near Valencia's locker, talking defense.
"Honestly, our relationship's great," Valencia said. "It's not like it's hostile ground. He's the manager; if it wasn't good, I wouldn't be here. Gardy does a good job of managing personalities. He knows how to push guys, and I guess I'm a guy that he feels he needs to push and challenge all the time.
"That works. I like that."
Valencia's outgoing personality has long invited scrutiny.
"He likes attention," Mindy said. "And I think that most people around here [in Boca Raton, Fla.] understand that. Then there are other people who are more conservative and just don't quite get him."
As a rookie, Valencia led the Twins in Kangaroo Court fines, saying he practically financed the team party by himself. His fashion sense is Miami chic. Last week, after a game in Bradenton, Fla., he wore a pair of royal blue pants that were so bright, he said he had to plug them in.
Valencia has a black T-shirt that says "The 'U' invented swagger." That's 'U' as in University of Miami. But his own journey to and from the Hurricanes baseball program is a fairly humble story.
"As much as we get on Danny, he's a dedicated guy with a lot of desire," said Mike Radcliff, Twins vice president of player personnel. "He was not a high-profile, big-time recruit. He deserves credit to get where he's at."
Valencia's parents, Mindy and Michael, met in Chicago when they were both working as accountants for Arthur Andersen. They settled in Boca Raton and raised two children. Valencia's sister, Laura, works in New York for baseball agent Peter Greenberg.
The family always loved baseball. Mindy remembers taking Danny to countless Miami games when he was a kid.
Valencia was a four-year starter at shortstop for Spanish River High School. He was a second-team all-state selection twice but went undrafted out of high school and barely got a look from the state's three biggest college baseball programs -- Miami, Florida and Florida State.
"There weren't many scouts coming to Boca Raton," Mindy said. "They're in Miami, but they're not in Boca."
Valencia went to the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, where he was named the Southern Conference Freshman of the Year. When he transferred to Miami, most of the team's scholarship money was taken, so the school covered his books, and he paid the rest with a $30,000 student loan.
As a sophomore, Valencia moved to first base because Miami had a pretty good third baseman named Ryan Braun. As a junior, Valencia batted .324 with nine homers and 61 RBI. But on the first day of the 2006 draft, 18 rounds passed, and Valencia was still on the board.
"You can't imagine the pain of it," Mindy said.
The Twins took Valencia the next day, in the 19th round, with the 576th overall pick, and signed him for $75,000. He rose through their system gradually, stopping at most levels twice, despite never batting below .284.
"I had to play with a chip on my shoulder," he said. "I rubbed a lot of people the wrong way early on because I felt I was always being overlooked. And when you're a 19th-round draft pick, you're one bad year from being released."
After finally reaching the majors in June 2010, Valencia was a revelation for a playoff team, batting .311 with seven homers and 40 RBI in 85 games. Gardenhire often complimented Valencia's defense, as the rookie committed only six errors at the hot corner.
When things went south last year, Valencia didn't mope or pout. In fact, he baffled teammates when he told the Star Tribune, "If this is a bad year, I'm going to have a really bright future."
Maybe he was trying to convince himself.
"This game is so mental," he said last weekend. "I've seen great players get down on themselves to the point where they ruin their careers. No matter how bad you're doing, you've gotta treat yourself with a belief that you can dominate."
Valencia said his defense always will be a work in progress, but he's determined to improve his first-step quickness.
"He wants to be one of the better third basemen," Mindy said. "He doesn't like to be considered a defensive liability."
Offensively, Valencia hopes to use the opposite field more this year. Last year, he tried pulling too many pitches in a quest for home runs, and it backfired. He hit 15 homers but his average fell to .246.
For what it's worth, he's been better this spring. Through Tuesday, he was batting .293 with four homers and an .845 OPS.
Still, Valencia is far from satisfied. He's engaged to marry his high school sweetheart this fall and knows this is a pivotal year in his Twins career.
"I've always been a guy who didn't get in trouble," Valencia said. "I'm not by any means a partier. It's not like I've never had a drink before, but it's just not something for me.
"I'd rather eat healthy and drink water and feel good every single day because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I don't want to look back 10 years later and say I wish I would have done something different."