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Viva Valencia

Twins rookie third baseman Danny Valencia will pass the 100 plate appearance threshold in his two-month big league career today, and will do so having grabbed hold of a position that has haunted the organization since Corey Koskie (though Nick Punto deserves credit for his great glove in 2006). Valencia is an unlikely Major Leaguer — 19th round draft picks always are — but has worked really hard in the Twins system, and was ranked third by Marc Hulet and sixth by Baseball America among Twins prospects this offseason. Still, I didn’t think anyone would have guessed Valencia would arrive on the scene in such style, batting .400/.449/.511 through 29 games. In his last four, he’s been the hottest hitter in baseball: 14-for-19 with four doubles and his first big league home run, off Zack Greinke no less.

The man is certainly tempting Dave’s post from yesterday about accepting randomness. Yes, however unlikely, even a 25-year-old with a lifetime .298/.353/.469 minor league batting line (and just .289/.322/.421 in 484 Triple-A PA’s) can be baseball’s MVP over a four-day stretch. I checked his minor league game logs, and he was never even this good for four days in the minors. The closest he came was back in 2006, during his pro debut in the Appalachian League. From July 27 to July 30 that year (interesting, and coincidental, how similar the dates are), Valencia went 11-for-15 with three doubles and two home runs.

While you don’t need me to tell you that Valencia will cool off, the question is whether he can be a viable option at third base for the Twins going forward. He’s amassed just 1.4 WAR in 98 plate appearances, not just because of his .427 wOBA, but also because he’s generated 1.5 UZR in 214 innings, computing out to +13.7 over 150 games. John Manuel’s scouting report last year said “[Valencia is] just not consistent defensively,” with praise for his arm strength and first-step, but minuses for his concentration and footwork. His minor league TotalZone numbers, like they often are, were a mixed bag: +18 in 2008 between High-A and Double-A, -10 in 2009 between Double- and Triple-A.

The defense is going to have to be good, because once Valencia’s BABIP comes off its insane .449 mark, his offensive weaknesses will become apparent. The University of Miami product is below average in both the power and patience categories. The latter has been highly inconsistent during his minor league career, averaging out at just 7.8 BB%, though it comes with wild variance. Valencia spent each year 2007-2009 splitting half the season between two levels, and had these BB% splits each year: 2007 (10.3 then 6.4), 2008 (10.8 then 6.3), 2009 (12.3 then 2.8). This year, so far, a promotion has actually brought improvement, going from 6.9% in 200 AAA plate appearances to 8.8% in his 100 in the bigs. Going forward, I think anything from 6.5 to 11% in his walk rate wouldn’t surprise me, which over the course of a full season is the difference between 39 and 66 walks.

His power numbers should be a little easier to predict. Valencia has always been praised for gap power, and scouts have never confused his power with harboring some projection. In 2008, he hit 37 doubles, 5 triples and 15 home runs. In 2009, he hit 38 doubles, 4 triples and 14 home runs. While his home run rate (HR/FB) in 2010, including his Triple-A appearances, is something like 1.1%, I imagine that will stabilize some. Valencia has consistently hit doubles in 5.5 to 8.5% of his plate appearances, with the number going higher when his HR/FB goes lower. Whether you think he’ll hit seven home runs or 15, his likely extra-base hit total for a full season should consistently be 40-50.

Valencia is a good contact hitter, and sometimes, that can lead to a 14-for-19 stretch. While discounting him for this hot streak is easy, I do think Valencia can become a pretty solid player. Something like a .350 wOBA and +2.5 defense is about 3 WAR, and given their recent performance at the position, Valencia is a nice extra piece for a competitive Twins ball club.