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40 in 40: Danny Valencia

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Danny Valencia arrives in Seattle with a fair amount of baggage, on his seventh team in as many years. Will he be able to find a long-term home in the Pacific Northwest?

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On November 12th, the Mariners acquired utilityman Danny Valencia for the measly price of Double-A right-hander Paul Blackburn. The acquisition was lauded as a solid get from all over the industry. This, coming from Jeff Sullivan at the time of the trade:

Over the past two seasons, he’s been as good a hitter as Buster Posey, Kyle Seager, and Christian Yelich. The drawbacks are that Valencia won’t be a defensive plus at first base or in the corner outfield, but he certainly fits a hole on the roster, and his 2017 will be affordable.

The 32-year-old has been tossed around organizations like a hot potato. The Mariners will mark his seventh team in the same number of years. For the first half of his career his inability to stick with an organization was understandable. He was a backup third baseman with dramatic platoon splits. As Sullivan notes in the above article, Valencia hit for just a 65 wRC+ against right-handed starters between 2010 and 2014.

But now -- as our own Jake Mailhot noted -- he can thrive against righties too.

All of a sudden, Valencia is demolishing pitches in the upper half of the strike zone. Even more impressive is his success on pitches up and away. If he’s pulling those pitches, he’s not going to have the type of power we see above. That tells me he’s adjusted his approach at the plate. Instead of trying to pull everything to generate his power, he’s going with the pitch and hitting for power to the opposite field.

Yet even since his breakout in 2015, nobody has held onto him. So what gives? Apparently Valencia’s fiery clubhouse personality has been the main detractor, as this piece from the Toronto Sun describes about his time with the Blue Jays:

What’s inside a clubhouse and outside a clubhouse so often differs. From the outside, it was easy to indicate the Blue Jays would miss Danny Valencia, the bat lost on waivers to Oakland. From inside the clubhouse, the opinion is clearly the opposite. Valencia wasn’t exactly Mr. Congeniality with Jays players or clubhouse workers.

His tendency to cause dissent in the clubhouse ultimately led to his departure to Oakland. There, the intensity came to a head when Valencia got into an altercation with designated hitter Billy Butler. The argument started when Butler told a representative from Valencia’s endorsement company that the third baseman had not been wearing the company’s cleats during games. Valencia got angry, Butler retaliated, and it escalated from there.

One player said that the men leaned in, bumped heads and then started pushing each other, then Valencia started swinging and hit Butler in the temple. After the players broke things up, Butler told the players he was OK.

Butler, who then took part in batting practice, was not scheduled to play that night against right-hander James Shields, but he missed the next two games against left-handed starters with what manager Bob Melvin described as nausea and vomiting.

As it turned out, Butler was not OK. He was diagnosed with a concussion and missed nine games as a result. Less than a month later the A’s got rid of their problem by releasing Butler, who signed with the Yankees just a few days later. Oakland then dealt Valencia to Seattle two months after that.

Valencia is a vast change of pace from the rest of Dipoto’s acquisitions. He’s on the wrong side of 30, strikes out a lot without drawing a ton of walks (20 K% and 6 BB% for his career), and isn’t a defensive wizard. And on top of all of that, you now have the personality concerns. So what did Seattle see in Valencia that convinced them to take this risk?

For starters, he’s very offensively sound. Valencia’s wRC+ in 2016 was equal to the likes of Jose Abreu, Jackie Bradley Jr., Buster Posey, and Kole Calhoun. He’s certainly no superstar with the bat, but the ability to be an average-to-slightly-above hitter on a consistent basis is very valuable.

He’s also capable of playing at both the infield and outfield corners defensively. The team is reportedly looking at Valencia as mainly a first baseman and right fielder, but he’ll likely see time all over the field. This way the M’s will be able to keep his bat in the lineup no matter what kind of starter they’re facing.

It’s this versatility that makes him such a valuable asset for the team in 2017. While his main role will be as a platoon with Vogelbach at first, he should get the opportunity to play all over the field. With right field up in the air right now, Valencia could play a game or two a week at the position while Tyler O’Neill gets seasoned in Tacoma. He could also spell Kyle Seager at third on the rare occasion.

Valencia is the type of player that the Mariners desperately lacked in 2016. Franklin Gutierrez was the closest thing the team had to a true lefty-neutralizer. But Guti was defensively limited and extremely fragile. He also couldn’t get a hit off a right-handed pitcher to save his life (19 wRC+ in 66 plate appearances). Valencia can play adequate defense at a number of positions while still remaining somewhat effective against same-handed starters.

Scott Servais and Andy McKay have a tall task ahead of them: solving Valencia’s attitude concerns. If the M’s can tame the beast, they’ll have a solid and versatile bat in the lineup for years to come. If they can’t, he has the potential to be a PR disaster once again. Dipoto, Servais, and McKay have spoken about the importance of clubhouse chemistry. We’ll see if the team is able to make Valencia fit and give him a long-term home for the first time in his career.