September 25, 2009
The Giants have fewer than 10 games left to catch the Rockies and secure the National League Wild Card as their own, and at four games back it's going to take a serious stretch of ball for this to happen. It is possible though, thanks in part to the fact that the lineup the Giants have now-as weak as it may be compared to other potential playoff teams-is the best they have fielded all year. Part of this is due to Eugenio Velez' presence, as he's hit well enough at second base to make up for the playing time they were supposed to get from their trade for Freddy Sanchez, and has been able to spot him for some of their disappointing outfield options as well. Velez is 27 years old, though, and just now getting his footing in the majors-is his performance an indication that he's improving, or is this just the result of a few months of decent baseball during his peak?
Eugenio Velez was not drafted, but was signed by the Toronto Blue Jays and put into a Rookie-level league at age 22. Velez did well enough there, but he was also one of the few players in the league old enough to shave, and he struck out 2.7 times for every walk he collected. Despite his speed, he did not run often, picking up just one steal in five attempts. That's not a good percentage, but it's not like Velez was going to learn to be a better thief if he wasn't running. He found himself in the New York-Penn League to finish the year, but picked up just 19 at-bats in his 10 games there. He did try out third base though, as well as the position he was signed for, shortstop, but that wouldn't last long, as the Jays plopped him down at second base in 2005.
The Jays wanted to see what he had to offer given his age, so he was put into the Midwest League. The results were a mixed bag-he hit .285, but his batting average was empty, as he delivered a .311 on-base percentage and little power (.121 ISO). He stole seven bases in 12 attempts, which again, given his speed, was a questionable number of attempts. Velez' problems at this point were pretty obvious. He wasn't a patient hitter, not even a little, so he wasn't drawing walks or sitting and waiting for the right pitch to drive, hence his lack of power. He did seem to have some potential for solid middle infield power, but it had not shown itself in games yet.
The Jays didn't protect Velez from the minor league phase of the Rule 5 draft after the 2005 season, so the Giants, excited to acquire a player who wasn't eligible for the senior discount at Denny's, selected him in the Triple-A phase, and put him back into A-ball, this time in the Sally League. He put up what was easily his best professional season (although he was also already 24 years old and repeating the level): over 502 plate appearances, he hit .308/.363/.548, walking in seven percent of his plate appearances, posting a .240 ISO, and stealing 64 bases in 79 attempts. (Toronto, I know stealing bases isn't really your thing, but you have to let a guy play to his strengths, and Velez is better at running than he is at walking.)
Of course, as noted, Velez was also old for the level-there were second basemen his age in the majors putting up impressive seasons-but it still represented several steps in the right direction from his time with Toronto. The Giants put him in Double-A for the 2007 season to see if he could replicate his success at a high-level affiliate, and for the most part, he succeeded-Velez hit .302/.347/.404 with 48 steals in 65 attempts. After hitting 14 homers for Augusta the year before, he went deep just once at Double-A, so the main question became whether or not Velez' power would hold up were he to continue moving up through the minors. He would end up in Triple-A for four games and stole five bases in his time there, then moved on to the majors to finish up the season, snagging another four steals there during his 14 games. Over 13 plate appearances, Velez hit .273/.385/.636, which means nothing but looks a lot nicer than most people's September cups of coffee.
Baseball Prospectus 2008 wanted everyone to keep Velez' performance in perspective:
As a Blue Jays prospect, Velez stole 11 bases in 24 attempts in three seasons. In two seasons since being taken by the Giants in the 2005 Rule 5 draft, he has 118 steals in 150 attempts. The Jays are noted for not running in the low minors, but that split seems absurd. Velez has been old for his leagues, never walks, and spent most of 2007 learning the outfield with mediocre results, so don't get too excited. He's a utility player in the making, not the new Luis Castillo.
Given his bat, Velez should not have been groomed for the outfield, but then again, a disappointing offensive performance seems to be a prerequisite to earning a spot in the Giants outfield in this post-Bondsian world. Baseball America ranked Velez for the first time in his career that same offseason, calling him the seventh-best prospect the Giants had. His issues were still obvious, though: his power came and went, and his OBP looked good when he hit .300 and not so hot when he hit .270. If he wanted to stick in the majors, he was going to have to improve his plate patience and hit for more power. Otherwise, he would end up in the same place that other speedy, no-hit, patience-lacking players did-no, not batting leadoff for the Reds, but out of the majors entirely.
Velez would split time in 2008 between Triple-A (.297/.372/.509) and the majors (.262/.299/.382). He looked to be developing in his problem areas while in the minors, posting his highest walk rate ever (nine percent!), keeping his strikeouts at a reasonable level, and hitting for power. His walk rate was nearly halved in the majors though, and while he continued to avoid striking out too often, he wasn't able to replicate the power production. Since the Giants still had Ray Durham around at second base, there wasn't as much of a rush to force Velez to stick at the keystone either, but eventually he got the job as the starter after Durham was dealt to Milwaukee, and he was better in every respect. He hit .305/.341/.429 to finish the year, but with somewhat iffy fielding.
The Giants, realizing their choices at second base may be lacking-Velez led a group that included Kevin Frandsen and Emmanuel Burriss-picked up Juan Uribe to help out in the infield, essentially dooming Velez to the minors yet again despite his strong finish to 2008. He ended up getting kicked back down to Fresno, and wound up hitting .297/.340/.451 in Triple-A before the Giants recalled him again. Though he doesn't have a set position-he's played five games in right, 12 in center, 22 at second, and 40 in left-he is now playing often. He's hit .273/.319/.429, which is by no means great-in fact, his EqA is .259, which is decisively average. He has managed to put together an average campaign defensively as well though, so Velez has been just that: average. On the Giants, with their offensive woes, that means a lot-their team EqA is .244, worst in the majors and alongside the likes of Kansas City and Seattle.
Velez may be improving as he sticks around longer in the majors as well. That .319 OBP is unsightly, but most of the damage was from his short stint prior to the All-Star break when he hit .194/.216/.222. Since the break, he's hit a much more convincing .287/.336/.464 with five homers and 22 extra-base hits overall in 209 at-bats. After literally not walking at all during limited duty from April and May, in the majors Velez walked three times in July, five times in August, and seven times in September. He may be cutting down on the number of pitches he swings at outside of the zone (down to 26 percent from over 30 percent this month), which is impressive given how little pitchers have been throwing first-pitch strikes to him as of late, hoping he'll bite to give them an easy start in the count. This is all in a very, very small sample to be sure, and not one I would base anything conclusive off of, but it's something to consider when you look at how his patience has improved from month-to-month. It's no surprise it has taken Velez a long time to come around-he's always been old for his level, given he didn't start pro ball until he was 22 years old but didn't play college ball unlike most people in that situation-but it appears as if he has slowly earned himself a place in the majors.
Velez is by no means a sure thing offensively. He's still somewhat erratic month-to-month as far as his power goes, but the Giants have nothing to lose by employing someone who isn't AARP-eligible on their roster and seeing if he can help more than hurt. They might want to stick him at one position next year so he can work on his defense, as a slight improvement in that could make his bat much more tolerable. As it is though, Velez is basically a god among Giants as one of the important pieces to the offense-as offensive as that may be, it's a reality the Giants have embraced down the stretch as they try to catch up to Colorado.