Jose Valdez is one of those players that you feel like has been toiling around the Tigers' minor league system for an eternity. In reality, the 25-year-old Valdez was signed as an amateur free agent out of the Dominican Republic in 2009. He spent three years in the Dominican Summer League before finally coming stateside in 2012, where he allowed two earned runs in 22 innings in the Gulf Coast League.
After a solid 2013 season pitching for West Michigan and Lakeland, Valdez spent the entire 2014 season with Double-A Erie. He finally ran into some resistance at this level, as his hit rate and ERA both jumped. After allowing a .186 batting average in 2013, opposing batters hit .257 with a .723 OPS against him in 2014. Part of this is due to a .340 BABIP allowed. His home run rate also jumped, but he actually allowed a lower isolated power (ISO, .128) than in 2013 (.140).
Despite the higher ERA, there were encouraging signs from Valdez. He continued to strike out over a batter per inning, fanning 66 batters in 57 frames. He also lowered his walk rate to a somewhat respectable 4.11 per nine innings. This resulted in a 2.54 strikeout-to-walk ratio, a slight improvement over the 2.29 he posted in 23 innings at Advanced-A Lakeland last summer.
As one might expect, Valdez has fared a lot better against right-handed batters than lefties in his career. He allowed a .427 on-base percentage and .972 OPS to left-handers in 2013 thanks in part to an outrageous 18.3 percent walk rate. Valdez lowered his walk rate against lefties to 12 percent in 2014, leading to a more tolerable .361 on-base percentage and .813 OPS allowed. Righties finally had a fighting chance, though. Valdez held righties to a .123 batting average and .445 OPS in 2013. They hit .248 with a .655 OPS against him last season, though he did strike out 29.7 percent of the righties he faced.
Valdez has yet to reach the majors, and he will make the league minimum when he finally gets called up. Assuming he only spends part of the season at the major league level in 2015, he will still have six years of club control ahead of him heading into the 2016 season. Of more importance to the Tigers this season are the two minor league options Valdez still has remaining. He can be sent down to the minors without needing to clear waivers, making it all the more likely he starts the season in Erie or Toledo.
Stats and projections
Valdez has finished on our "honorable mentions" list for Tigers top prospects the past two seasons. Jordan Gorosh saw him pitch in Lakeland during spring training last year and did not come away very impressed.
Valdez was straight over the top with a long arm swing that makes it relatively easy to see the ball the entire way. His delivery had no deception and the fastball was straight. However, his velocity improved in Lakeland to the mid-high 90s, and the slider was a bit sharper. I see him as a mid-leverage reliever, and even though he's currently closing games, I don't see a closer's ceiling.
TigsTown's Mark Anderson was a bit more encouraged ($) after Valdez's 2014 performance. Anderson confirmed that Valdez can hit the upper 90s with his fastball, but thought that his delivery was a bit more deceptive. Mark noted that Valdez "can miss bats" with both his fastball and slider, which helps explain the high strikeout totals.
Valdez isn't necessarily a ground ball specialist, but his fastball can induce some weak contact when he locates it down in the strike zone. He allowed a 42.5 percent ground ball rate in 2014 resulting in six double plays turned behind him in just 246 batters faced. Valdez has a power arm and the fastball-slider arsenal to match, but his stuff works better when he locates in the lower half of the strike zone.
Valdez will likely spend most of the 2015 season in the minor leagues, especially if the pitchers already holding on to bullpen slots stay healthy and effective. He isn't being mentioned among the contenders for the final bullpen slot, but some more seasoning in the minors should do him some good. If he can continue to improve on his command -- especially against left-handed batters -- he could provide some solid innings for the Tigers in the future.