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No ordinary rookie

Posted by: Nick Nelson Updated: September 1, 2010 - 1:22 AM

Their bats went into a bit of a slumber during the team's most recent road trip, but the Twins have still boasted one of the most prolific offenses in baseball since the All-Star break. Most impressively, they've done it without the services of their best hitter, as Justin Morneau remains sidelined by the lingering effects of a concussion suffered in early July.

Several players have stepped up in Morneau's absence to keep the offense on track, most notably Joe Mauer and Jim Thome. One perhaps underappreciated contributor to the team's success, however, is the kid who has taken over at third base.

Few knew what to expect from Danny Valencia when he was called up from Triple-A in early June to provide depth while Michael Cuddyer was away on bereavement. It was expected, at the time, that Valencia would be with the team for only a short period of time and that Cuddyer would return to third base indefinitely. Valencia was, after all, having a rather unremarkable season in the minors (he'd posted a .720 OPS with zero home runs in 49 games at Rochester) and the organization was understandably wary about relying on such an unproven commodity amidst a heated pennant race.

Valencia began to make an impact immediately, collecting hits in nine of his first 11 big-league starts. When Morneau went down on July 7, the plan of using Cuddyer at third base ceased to be palatable (not that it was anywhere close to ideal to begin with), and so the team looked to Valencia, owner of only 48 major-league at-bats, to take over at the hot corner.

Take over he has. Since the day Morneau went down, Valencia has started 40 of the team's 47 games at third base, including the last 35 in a row. During that span, he's hit .329/.368/.489. He's struck out only 19 times in 163 plate appearances. His defense at third base has been outstanding, as he's run up a 5.2 UZR while committing only three errors in 58 games.

Had Valencia not stepped up and proven a capable regular at third base, it's frightening to think where this team might be. Brendan Harris was so terrible early in the season that he was designated for assignment. Nick Punto hasn't been able to keep himself off the disabled list late in the season. Cuddyer has been needed at first, and probably will be for the remainder of the year. Had Valencia struggled in his initial taste of the majors -- as many expected he would, since he often took a few months to adjust to heightened levels of competition in the minors -- it's possible we'd be looking at Matt Tolbert as the club's regular third baseman right now. Or else, Bill Smith might have been forced to part with valuable assets at the deadline out of desperation for a replacement. Heck, maybe they'd have even called Joe Crede to see if he could hobble out to the field for a couple months.

Fortunately, none of that was necessary, because Valencia has been a revelation at third base. He has also provided hope that he can be a long-term answer at a position that has been a peristent liability for the Twins ever since Corey Koskie's departure. Over the past five years, the Twins have shuffled through Cuddyer, Punto, Crede, Harris, Brian Buscher, Tony Batista and Mike Lamb at third base, and never come up with a remotely suitable solution. Valencia's excellent debut suggests that he could be a competent, durable and cheap answer at the hot corner for years to come. That last factor weighs heavily, since the Twins' significant payroll commitments to core players leave them needing to save money in other spots.

To be clear, I don't expect Valencia to continue to be a .330 hitter going forward. He hit .289 in the minors and hadn't posted a mark over .300 since he was in Single-A back in early 2008. Keep in mind that Valencia has always been a streaky player and we've yet to see a cold streak, so chances are we're seeing his numbers at a high point.  His offensive production since joining the Twins has been propped up by an unsustainably high .363 batting average on balls in play and if you take away seven of his singles (less than one per week), his hitting line drops from .328/.373/.446 to a much more ordinary .294/.341/.412, which would register as only slightly above average production for an AL third baseman.

Unless Valencia can add some patience and/or power to his game, that type of performance is probably his long-term upside. But that's hardly an indictment, because the Twins would love for a player who can give them cheap, average production over the next few years. And there's certainly no saying Valencia can't improve the aforementioned aspects of his game. He's improved over time at nearly every level and while he's never been a true power hitter, his low home run output this year (only two bombs in 418 plate appearances between the majors and minors) has been an anomaly in the context of his career. While watching him drive the ball deep twice last night, including one crucial RBI double to center that closed the gap late, I found myself in disbelief that the kid has only gotten the ball over the fence twice all season.

But, homers or not, it was fun to watch him crush the baseball and jump-start the offense in an exciting comeback victory. Both at the plate and in the field, Valencia looks like a natural. Hopefully we'll have the pleasure of watching him man third for many years to come.

 

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