Danny Valencia pushing himself to improve

FORT MYERS, Fla. - When Danny Valencia assesses his 2011 season, he reveals a perfect distillation of what makes him Danny Valencia.

"I'm better than that," he said.

While an acknowledgment of a sophomore slump, it's also a bold declaration of his strength and skill as a baseball player. It's part humility but mostly hubris - and all Danny Valencia.

Say what you will about the kid who played college ball and majored in confidence at Miami (Fla.), he has made himself a major league baseball player. Entering just his second full major league season, Valencia is hardly surrounded by predators ready to swoop in and take his job at spring training.

"There are plenty of people that could play third base," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said, "but not as good as Danny should be able to; that's the key."

The Twins brought in Sean Burroughs but mostly to fill in defensively and give the lineup some good at-bats. Luke Hughes has been a steady fielder and has shown some pop, but his batting average - .223 last season - hasn't inspired management to project him beyond a utility role. Valencia, on the other hand, has shown glimpses of major league longevity.

"He's got a lot of talent. I think that's the apparent visual of him," general manager Terry Ryan said. "He can do everything most third basemen that make all-star teams can do. He can hit it a long way, he can really throw and he's a better runner than you'd think."

As a rookie in 2010, he turned a June all-up into a full-time job by hitting .311 with 40 runs batted in in 85 games and fielding his position. He had a down year all around last season, earning public scrutiny from Gardenhire for his defensive shortcomings while watching his average (.246) and on-base percentage (.294) drop precipitously. Still, he led the Twins in games (154) and RBIs (72).

Valencia, 27, went home for the offseason knowing he can be better in 2012. Rather than work out in Miami with a group that included major leaguers such as Alex Rodriguez, he stayed home in Boca Raton and worked with a trainer.

The results are evident. Valencia is noticeably bigger, almost 220 pounds, yet still lean, and his defense already is receiving positive notices from the manager.

Last year, Valencia threw away a lot of at-bats - he walked only 40 times in 608 plate appearances - and became less steady at third; after six errors in 80 starts as a rookie, he was charged with 18 in 146 starts in 2011.

"I hold myself to high standards," he said. "Obviously, I feel a little disappointed with last year, mainly my on-base percentage - that really bothers me, looking back at it. It's really unacceptable. I've got to take my walks when I can and swing at better pitches and do a better job of controlling the strike zone."

Though he finished with a .246 batting average, he hit well in the clutch, .471 with the bases loaded (8 for 17) and .444 with runners on second and third (4 for 9).

"He should hit for a higher average, but I thought he was pretty good," Gardenhire said. "I don't have all the numbers to prove it, but as far as driving in big runs for us, he was one of our better ones last year. He came up with a lot of big hits for us that I remember. Those things stick in your mind."

They also help smooth over personality clashes. Notably confident - cocky, to some - Valencia has irritated a few teammates. As a rookie, he led the team in kangaroo court fines, joking last offseason that he financed the team party by himself. A common complaint was that he didn't know his place in the hierarchy of a major league clubhouse.

For that, he is unapologetic.

"I have a personality," Valencia said. "They can't take that away from me."

But he also had a tendency to take his at-bats onto the field, which is a nice way to say he cared more about hitting than defense, a no-no in Minnesota. Gardenhire, in fact, accused him of simply not paying attention at times at third base.

"Danny had things that he knew he needed to improve on, and as I told you at the end of last year, Danny made a lot of improvement toward the end of last year," Gardenhire said. "I thought he was handling himself a lot better; a lot of guys would make the same statement. He wasn't trying to be out there all the time; he wasn't trying to be in Danny World. He was fitting in really nicely. I thought he made a great effort toward the end of last year. He worked hard on his defense. He was working hard.

"Do we all have opportunities to be better people? Every one of us in here can all be better at something, and Danny's been working at it."

If Valencia has changed the way he behaves behind closed doors, it's not evident in public. He's still smiling and chatting with fans, teammates and coaches - and swinging for the fences in batting practice. When he was hit by a Francisco Liriano fastball in BP on Tuesday, he ran out of the cage and yelled at the pitcher, "It'll take more than that to destroy this body!"

"I'm a guy who likes to be loose, but I work hard," Valencia said. "I feel like I get along with everybody. I like to keep it fun in here. We don't have too many guys here who have big personalities. I think it's a good thing; it changes things up. You don't want to get too dull and boring."

Then Valencia smiles with more than a hint of mischief and says, "It's nice to brighten people's days, you know?"

Bookmark and Share
blog comments powered by Disqus