Valencia in line to be Royals' sole backup infielder
Third baseman aims to prove versatility years after memorable slam at Kauffman
PEORIA, Ariz. -- Danny Valencia has fond memories of Kauffman Stadium.
And he should, considering it was the site of his first Major League home run, a grand slam off none other than Zack Greinke, and it triggered a 19-1 runaway for the Minnesota Twins.
"I remember that one," Valencia said. "It was pretty cool. It was a fastball, 3-1 count I think. He challenges up -- he's not afraid to go after guys so you knew what you were going to get -- and I was fortunate enough to get a pitch to hit."
That came in the first inning on July 26, 2010, and the ball landed in the left-field bullpen. Not only that, but Valencia had four of the Twins' 20 hits in what matched the Royals' worst beating in history.
Now Valencia is in the Kansas City clubhouse, hoping to make memories with the Royals at Kauffman Stadium. He has to make the team first, and he is off to a slow start at the plate (3-for-20, .150). But he is a leading candidate to be a backup infielder, perhaps the only backup infielder, on the Royals' 25-man roster.
Third base is the only position Valencia has played in the Majors, but he has played 28 games at first base in the Minors and has been working at second base in training camp.
"Danny's going to be adequate at second," manager Ned Yost said. "His natural position is third, so that's where he's going to be best, and he's going to be adequate at first. That's what you want."
Nothing is decided, of course, but it is possible the Royals could open the season with just one backup infielder. Look at the numbers: nine regulars, probably 12 pitchers, a backup catcher and two backup outfielders in Jarrod Dyson and Justin Maxwell. That makes 24, leaving room for one extra infielder.
If that infielder is Valencia -- and the Royals like the idea of his right-handed bat coming off the bench or as an alternative at first base for Eric Hosmer or at third base for Mike Moustakas -- then they would not have a true shortstop in reserve for Alcides Escobar. Valencia says he can handle that job.
"Am I a Gold Glove shortstop?" Valencia said. "Who you gonna compare me with, a J.J. Hardy or an Escobar? Am I one of those guys? Probably not, but can I do the job and hold down the fort for a game or two games? I'm sure I can."
In case of a real emergency, the Royals can have a shortstop ready to quickly move from Triple-A Omaha.
Always in the background to roster decision-making in Spring Training is the issue of Minor League options. Valencia is out of options, and so is Pedro Ciriaco, a natural shortstop who has been a big league backup there. In the outfield, Dyson, Maxwell and Carlos Peguero are also out of options. So there is a risk of losing any of them if they are not on the Opening Day roster.
Middle infielders need a certain amount of range. Valencia's range?
"I think it's solid; I think it's serviceable," he said. "Am I Escobar? No. But I think I can definitely get over there and play there. I'm faster than I've ever been. This offseason I worked a lot on my speed and agility, so I feel like I move around pretty well."
Valenica, who helped the University of Miami appear in the 2006 World Series, was a 19th-round choice of the Twins in that year's Draft. He surfaced in the big leagues in 2010 and did well enough (.311, 40 RBIs in 85 games) to finish third in the American League Rookie of the Year voting.
His slam off Greinke and four total hits came in his 28th game that year and during a hot streak.
"Coming into that, I had back-to-back three-hit games so, coming into that, I was 3-for-5, 3-for-5, 4-for-4, 4-for-5 in four games," Valencia said. "I was like, wow, I've got this thing figured out. You know how baseball is; it's up and down. It's all a process."
The 2011 season was down in terms of average -- Valencia batted .246, but with 15 homers, 28 doubles and 72 RBIs in 154 games. When he sputtered at the start of 2012, he was sent to Triple-A Rochester and in August was traded to Boston.
"I fell into the trap of being one of those guys who have struggled a little bit and started listening to everything because you want to be the coachable guy," Valencia said of his waning days with the Twins. "Some of the things they had me do and implemented into my swing in the offseason going into 2012 didn't really work for me. And it was really hard for me to figure it out that year."
That winter, Boston sent him to Baltimore, and he split last season between the Orioles and Triple-A Norfolk. Valencia said he noticed improvement after he got "back to basics." He had a .286 average for Norfolk and .304 for Baltimore. Between the clubs, he had 22 homers and 74 RBIs in 117 games.
Valencia, 29, has acquired one of those labels that are rampant in baseball: Can hit only left-handed pitchers. In fact last year, among AL hitters with at least 100 plate appearances, he led the league with a .371 average against lefties.
But bring that up, and...
"You're insinuating that he can't hit right-handed pitching," Yost said.
Not exactly true, of course. Valencia's career average of .329 against lefties is 100 points higher than his average against righties. But Valencia has batted nearly twice as often against right-handers and has 21 of his 33 homers against them.
"It started just recently," Valencia said of that label. "You don't get to the big leagues only hitting left-handed pitching. I think it's one of those things where I've had so much success against lefties -- way more success against lefties than righties -- it's easy to say that. But I think last year I felt more comfortable in the limited at-bats I had against right-handed pitching."
And don't forget -- Greinke is a right-hander.
Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.