Enmanuel Valdez

Recent Space Cowboys call-up Enmanuel Valdez, shown here with Double-A Corpus Christi, has made an instant impact for the Astros’ Triple-A affiliate. (Photo from Facebook)

In this week’s player profile, we’re going to take a look at a seemingly diminutive infield prospect who has done nothing but hit – and then hit some more – over the last two seasons, and could force his way onto the Astros within a season or two.

No, this is not a flashback edition of the column to a Jose Altuve scouting report circa 2009. It’s on recent Triple-A call-up Emmanuel Valdez, who made his Space Cowboys debut with a bang on June 7 by homering in each of his first two Triple-A at-bats against the Oklahoma City Dodgers as part of a three-hit night.

So far, the 23-year-old Valdez is 7 for 20 with two home runs and five extra-base hits in 21 plate appearances for the Space Cowboys.

Initial overview

Valdez initially signed with the Astros as an international free agent out of San Juan de la Maguana, Dominican Republic in 2016 at just 17 years old. He quickly showed promise on the Astros’ Dominican Summer League rookie team, accruing 24 extra-base hits in just 55 games as a teenager. He would then endure the typical ups and downs of getting accustomed to pro ball over the next few seasons. But after the 2020 season was canceled due to COVID-19, he came back as a new hitter.

Listed at just 5-foot-9 and 191 pounds, Valdez might not immediately jump off the page with raw physicality. But just like Altuve in recent seasons, Valdez has shown the ability to leverage what he does have into an elite power stroke since the start of the 2021 season, with 39 home runs and 80 extra-base hits in 144 games across three minor league levels.

So what exactly has he done to initiate the uptick in production? Let’s examine things a little deeper.

Landan’s lowdown

Truth be told, I didn’t have much idea about who Valdez was prior to probably late last season, and I’m probably not alone. He wasn’t on any league or organization top prospect list. But the deeper I’ve dug, the more I’ve come away impressed.

Valdez was leading the Double-A Texas League in batting average (.357) and OPS (1.112) at the time of his promotion this season, while ranking third in on-base percentage (.463) and slugging percentage (.649) and being tied for third with 11 homers.And more impressive than what he’s done, is how he’s done it. The increased power has not given way to a rash of huge strikeout numbers as is common in hitters with the same type of change in power – in fact, just like several prospects we’ve recently analyzed.

His 22.9 percent strikeout rate this season is not much out of the ordinary from his career 20.3 percent figure, while a 16.3 percent walk rate and career 10.3 percent walk rate shows that the plate discipline has not waned, either. He is continuing to exhibit one of the primary traits that he has long possessed, while adding new skills to the repertoire.

Turning to the quality and type of contact, we see more improvements. His line drive rate is north of 29 percent after never cracking 25 percent prior to this season, while his ground ball rate has stayed relatively constant hovering between 32-35 percent since 2017. About 27.7 percent of his fly balls have left the ballpark – breaking a career high of 18.2 percent that he set last season – despite the fly ball rate staying about the same, suggesting he’s simply hitting it much harder.

Another key thing that sticks out is his ability to hit the ball the opposite way and up the middle. Most every hitter favors the pull side, and so does Valdez – but the rate of batted balls up the middle has risen almost every year. That shows a willingness to take what a pitcher gives him – and in a game full of shifts, it lessens a defense’s ability to shade him a certain. In turn that gives him the ability and space to turn on the ball and display the newfound power stroke in full.

Projection

Valdez primarily plays second base and third base, but has also made starts in left field and right field this season, which is no surprise given how the Astros value versatility. But alas, Valdez finds himself in a similar predicament as many Astro infield prospects in recent seasons.

His primary positions are manned by franchise cornerstones Alex Bregman and Jose Altuve, neither of whom is a free agent until at least the 2025 season. So where do they go? Frankly, I can’t see the Astros moving on from a franchise icon in Altuve unless he personally steps away. Bregman will be almost 31 years old when his contract is up, and the Astros don’t tend to extend long-term deals to those on the other side of 30. But he’s also a cornerstone of this current core, so another extension would not be out of the question.

The Astros have shown an extreme willingness to sell high on prospects in recent seasons in pursuit of a title. Just look at the trade of Bryan De La Cruz last season, and even utility infielder Josh Rojas when he was dealt to the Diamondbacks in 2019 as part of the Zack Greinke trade if you want a similar situation as Valdez finds himself in. As much as I hate to say it, I wouldn’t be one bit surprised if they do the same with him either this season or next unless the situation drastically changes.

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