Valentin trying to leave mark

Confident he's healthy, veteran seeks spot with Orioles as utility player

Baseball

March 15, 2003|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - The large purple bruise on John Valentin's left arm looks pretty bad, until you notice the bigger one on his thigh. It seems to be spreading a little more each day.

"They're almost matching," he said.

Signed to a minor-league contract on Jan. 29, Valentin is trying to go north with the Orioles as their utility infielder. To him, that's a better match - a proven veteran hitter who plays multiple positions on a club that needs his offensive skills and versatility.

"I don't feel like that's going to be a problem," he said, "as long as I'm healthy."

Given what Valentin has overcome, a few bruises - even ones created by errant pitches that make him look like a walking Rorschach test - won't cause much angst.

Valentin, 36, had reconstructive surgery on his left knee in 2000, which ended his season on June 1. Once a regular at third base, he appeared in only 20 games with the Boston Red Sox the following year, and settled for a minor-league deal with the New York Mets in 2002.

He went through the same ordeal this winter, swallowing another heaping forkful of humble pie when no major-league deal was available to him. The Mets didn't offer him arbitration, figuring they could bring in Japanese third baseman Norihiro Nakamura to replace starter Edgardo Alfonzo. It was a decent plan, until Nakamura returned to his homeland.

"It was bad timing," Valentin said. "They had an agreement with Nakamura. They thought they had him signed. Then they were left dry."

So was Valentin before his agent, Jeff Moorad, arranged for him to participate in a January workout in Arizona. With the reports favorable, the Orioles signed him after a lengthy discussion with Moorad, who had been touting one of his higher-profile clients, catcher Ivan Rodriguez.

The Orioles lost Rodriguez, but they gained Valentin and another Moorad client, pitcher Rick Helling.

Valentin was batting .250 with four RBIs in 11 games before yesterday. Manager Mike Hargrove wants to retain four bench players, including Melvin Mora and backup catcher Brook Fordyce, and Valentin has an excellent chance of being lumped in the group. He doesn't possess Jeff Reboulet's defensive skills, but he's more likely to get a hit in the late innings.

"It was a really hectic offseason for a lot of players," he said. "The Diamondbacks wanted to see me up close and personal, so I decided to go out there [to Arizona] and show them, as well as all the other teams who were there. It was a good opportunity to show that I was healthy. They could see how I threw, hit and took ground balls."

Valentin's choice came down to the Diamondbacks and the Orioles. He wanted to return to the East Coast and the American League. He wanted to be comfortable, as well as wanted. The decision was easy.

"This is a team that has a nucleus of young players and a mixture of veterans," he said, "and I thought I'd be a good fit here."

He's adjusted nicely to a part-time role. Last season, Valentin had 13 RBIs as a pinch hitter, compared to three by Greg Colbrunn, whom the Diamondbacks needed to replace.

"You've got to use common sense and try to stay in the game mentally, watch the game as it progresses and manage with the manager in your mind, when you think you might be used, and try to work accordingly," he said.

Before he can be used, he has to make the team. Until David Segui fractured his thumb, which could keep him out through April, it appeared that Valentin and Reboulet were competing for one spot. Perhaps Segui's absence creates room for both, though the Orioles also might rethink their original plan of sending young slugger Jack Cust to Triple-A Ottawa. They also have infielder Brian Roberts, but he probably will play second base for the Lynx.

"John's major attribute is his offensive abilities," Hargrove said. "He was a good pinch hitter last year with the Mets, and he can play third, short and second. He doesn't run exceptionally well but he knows how to win. He brings a lot of things to the party."

At least Valentin is confident that his health won't eliminate him. The knee is fine, though his word isn't enough. The proof comes with each at-bat, each ground ball, each sprint up the first-base line.

"In every new situation, you're always going to have to prove a lot of different things. You're a year older. Have your skills diminished? Are you healthy? All those questions come up because they haven't seen you. Obviously me being here for the first time, they're going to want to see if I'm the same player that I was," he said.

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