Monday, March 14, 2016

The Most With The Least: Jose Valentin (2006)

Before anyone had ever heard of Bernard Madoff and Ponzi schemes, the Mets were a free-spending team.  Under general manager Omar Minaya, the team gave Carlos Beltran a seven-year, $119 million contract, then topped that three years later when Johan Santana signed a six-year deal for $137.5 million to pitch for the Mets.

Along the way, Minaya doled out four-year contracts to a quartet of thirty-somethings when he recruited Pedro Martinez, Billy Wagner, Luis Castillo and Jason Bay to play for the team.  The foursome went on to spend as much time on the disabled list or in the doghouse as they did on the field.

Omar Minaya loved to make a splash with lucrative free agent signings, even if they ended up hurting the team in hindsight.  But one acquisition that cost the team less than $1 million ended up paying unexpected dividends for the Mets on the way to their sole postseason appearance in the Minaya era.  Minaya signed many former All-Stars near the end of their careers.  But this player never made an All-Star team, nor did he ever win a Gold Glove or Silver Slugger award in his 16-year career.  He did, however, play a key role in the Mets' push toward the playoffs, surprising everyone who thought he would be nothing more than a bench player.

Jose Valentin went from bench player to everyday middle infielder on a division-winning team.  (Al Pereira/Getty Images)

Jose Antonio Valentin was signed as an amateur free agent by the San Diego Padres on his 17th birthday in 1986.  Twenty years after signing his first professional contract, he became a member of the New York Mets, inking a one-year deal worth $912,500.  Valentin had just come off an injury-plagued season with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2005, batting .170 with two home runs in 56 games.  But Minaya was confident in Valentin's versatility and ability to produce off the bench in the late innings, citing those attributes as reasons for the signing of the 14-year veteran.

"(Valentin) can play anywhere," said Minaya.  "He can hit the fastball at the end of the game.  He's got power."

Valentin did hit a career-high 30 home runs in 2004 as a member of the Chicago White Sox, which was also his fifth consecutive season of 25 or more homers.  (Valentin was one of 18 players to hit 25+ HR in each season from 2000 to 2004.)  However, the version of Valentin being acquired by the Mets was 36 years old, battling injuries and coming off the worst season of his career.  At best, he was expected to be the team's top pinch-hitter, occasionally getting a start in left field for the injury-prone Cliff Floyd or allowing one of the infielders to get a day off here and there.  And that's exactly what Valentin did during the first month and a half of the season, although he didn't do it very well.

Through May 12, Valentin appeared as a pinch-hitter in 23 of the team's first 35 games.  He also appeared in three other games as a left fielder and once as a first baseman.  Valentin batted a mere .167 in those 27 games with no extra-base hits and just two RBI.  But in a rare start against one of his former teams in Milwaukee (Valentin spent the first eight seasons of his major league career with the Brewers), Valentin produced a two-run single and a two-run homer to help the Mets to a wild, 9-8 victory.  The following afternoon, Valentin delivered four hits and drove in two more runs in the Mets' 6-5, extra-inning loss to the Brewers.  Four days later, manager Willie Randolph gave Valentin a start at second base for the first time as a Met.  Although Valentin had started just nine games at the position prior to 2006, Randolph's decision ended up being one of the most important choices he made all year.

Although the Mets lost on May 18 to the St. Louis Cardinals, Valentin homered and scored two runs in the 6-3 defeat.  He also played flawless defense at second base, handling seven chances (five assists, two putouts) without an error.  Even before Valentin's first start at the position, the Mets' incumbent second baseman, Kaz Matsui, had fallen out of favor with the team and its fans.  Matsui was struggling to keep his batting average above .200 and as a result, was being constantly booed at Shea Stadium.  Following Valentin's impressive debut at second, Matsui continued to start at the position.  However, Matsui put up a horrendous .129/.182/.161 slash line over the next eight games, causing Randolph to give Valentin another start at second base on May 28.  Valentin rewarded his manager by driving in two runs in the Mets' 7-3 victory over the Florida Marlins.

Jose Valentin points at all the Kaz Matsui haters.  That's a lot of people he's pointing at.  (NY Daily News/Getty Images)

Valentin's performance against the Marlins earned him another start at second base the following night against the Arizona Diamondbacks.  Trailing 1-0 in the second inning, Valentin delivered a two-run single to give the Mets an early lead.  Four innings later, Valentin homered to give the Mets a much-needed insurance run in a game eventually won by New York, 8-7.

After the game, Randolph insisted that Valentin had not supplanted Matsui as the team's everyday second baseman, despite Valentin's resurgence at the plate after his slow start.

"I have a feeling (Matsui will) be making more starts," said Randolph.  "He's not totally out of the picture.  Everyone thinks he's lost his job, but that's not the case.  He's struggling a little bit, and we want to get him going again."

One day after Randolph claimed Matsui hadn't lost his job, Valentin homered again as the team's starting second baseman.  Ten days after that, the Mets sent Matsui - and $4.5 million in cash - to the Colorado Rockies for utility player Eli Marrero.  Second base now belonged to Jose Valentin for the remainder of the season, and Valentin made sure that no one would take the position from him.

From May 28 to June 21, Valentin batted .364 with a 1.060 OPS, producing 14 extra-base hits and 13 RBI in 19 starts to raise his batting average for the season above .300 for the first time.  Six of Valentin's 14 extra-base hits came during the Mets' season-changing ten-game road trip in Los Angeles, Arizona and Philadelphia.  New York began the long trip with a 4½-game lead over Philadelphia and a six-game advantage over Atlanta.  After winning nine of ten games away from Shea, including a three-game sweep in the city of Brotherly Love, the Mets' first-place lead had ballooned to 9½ games over the Phillies and a whopping 13 games over the Braves.

By the time July rolled around, the Mets' lead in the division had grown to a dozen games and top pitching prospect Mike Pelfrey had been called up to temporarily fill a spot in the rotation.  Pelfrey won his major league debut against the Marlins at Shea Stadium on July 8, but much of the credit for the victory belonged to Jose Valentin, who hit a grand slam in the first inning and nearly hit another one in the second, settling for a three-run triple off the base of the right field wall.  Valentin became just the second player in Mets history to drive in seven runs in the first two innings of a game, joining Gary Carter, who accomplished the feat on July 11, 1986.  

Video courtesy of's YouTube channel

Less than two weeks after Valentin cleared the bases twice against the Marlins, he continued to mash in bases-loaded situations when the Mets took on the Houston Astros on July 21, as he broke a scoreless tie with a grand slam against Astros starter Taylor Buchholz.  This time, Valentin's blast helped John Maine earn his first win as a Met, as Maine completed a four-hit shutout in the 7-0 victory over the Astros.  Five days later, Valentin played the hero once again, delivering a walk-off single against Cubs reliever (and former Met) Glendon Rusch with two outs in the tenth inning to plate the game's only run.

Valentin continued to produce in August and September, coming through in a memorable way on September 18.  Valentin homered in his first two at-bats, leading the Mets to a 4-0 victory over the Marlins that clinched the National League East division title for New York - the team's first division crown since 1988.  Although Valentin had only 384 at-bats in his first season in Flushing, he still produced 24 doubles, three triples, 18 homers and 62 RBI.  Valentin also had an impressive .490 slugging percentage and .820 OPS.  And on a team filled with All-Stars, his 3.6 WAR ranked fourth behind Carlos Beltran (8.2), Jose Reyes (5.8) and David Wright (4.1).

Prior to his comeback campaign in 2006, the only second basemen in Mets history to hit more home runs than Valentin in a single season were Jeff Kent (1993, 1995) and Edgardo Alfonzo (1999, 2000).  In addition, the only second sacker in club annals to boast a higher slugging percentage than Valentin's .490 mark in 2006 was Alfonzo.

After the Mets swept the Los Angeles Dodgers in the division series (Valentin took an oh-fer in the three games), Valentin finished second on the team in RBI in the National League Championship Series against the St. Louis Cardinals.  The second baseman drove in five runs in the series, which was only surpassed by Carlos Delgado's nine runs batted in.  But much like Carlos Beltran was unjustly vilified for striking out with the bases loaded in the ninth inning to end the series, Valentin is remembered negatively by some fans for fanning with the bases loaded in the sixth inning, just minutes after Endy Chavez's leaping catch had apparently shifted the momentum of the game in the Mets' favor.  However, it was Valentin who started the failed ninth inning rally against Cardinals closer Adam Wainwright by delivering a single on a 3-2 pitch.

Just three weeks after Beltran took strike three from Wainwright, the Mets re-signed Valentin for one year and $3.8 million - approximately four times as much money as he earned in 2006.  Unfortunately, the injury bug that stayed away from Valentin during his first season with the Mets found him repeatedly in his second.  In spring training, Valentin missed some time because of a sleeping injury; he claimed to have slept incorrectly on the team bus.  Valentin then missed the entire month of May with a knee injury. 

Valentin's season came to an end shortly after the All-Star Break in a bizarre series of events.  First, he punched a wall in Puerto Rico out of frustration during the mid-season hiatus following an argument that took place while he was attempting to sell the local baseball team he owned.  A week later, a foul ball broke his leg, causing his season to come to an abrupt end.  Valentin re-signed with the Mets in 2008, but never played for the team and was released in June.  The team then gave him one last shot in 2009, signing the 39-year-old Valentin to a minor league contract, but released him before the end of spring training.  Valentin then retired to become a baseball instructor in his native Puerto Rico.  He returned to the majors as a first base coach for the Padres in 2014 and 2015, but he still holds out hope for a managerial position in the near future.

Photo by Doug DuKane/Getty Images

"I think I can be a good manager.  I would like to take my chances and see if I can be one of those Puerto Ricans that are managing in the big leagues.  Or a coach.  I would do it; start in the minor leagues.  I'd do it as a coach or as an instructor.  That's my goal - to make it to the big leagues again."

Jose Valentin had a solid 16-year career in the major leagues.  Although he hit over 300 doubles and nearly 250 homers, he never made an All-Star team or played in a World Series.  The closest he ever got to the Fall Classic was in 2006, when he had his final hurrah as a productive big league ballplayer - a last go-round that might never had happened had Omar Minaya not signed him for under a million dollars.

Valentin had one of the finest offensive seasons ever produced by a second baseman in Mets history and did all he could to help the Mets win the pennant, including leading off the ninth inning of Game Seven with a base hit.  But in the end, all he could do was watch the Cardinals celebrating their National League crown from third base, where he was left stranded along with the dreams of his teammates and the club's fans.

The 2006 season is bittersweet for anyone associated with the Mets, as the team had one of the most successful regular seasons in franchise history, only to be followed up by a disappointing postseason.  But for Jose Valentin, the 2006 campaign marked his final moment in the sun.  And no one will ever be able to take that season away from him.

Note:  The Most With The Least is a thirteen-part weekly series spotlighting those Mets players who performed at a high level without receiving the accolades or playing time their more established teammates got, due to injuries, executive decisions or other factors.  For previous installments, please click on the players' names below:

January 4, 2016: Benny Agbayani
January 11, 2016: Donn Clendenon
January 18, 2016: Tim Teufel
January 25, 2016: Hisanori Takahashi
February 1, 2016: Chris Jones
February 8, 2016: Claudell Washington
February 15, 2016: Moises Alou
February 22, 2016: Pat Zachry
February 29, 2016: Art Shamsky
March 7, 2016: Mark Carreon 

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