Prospect Retrospective: Bobby Valentine
Boston Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine is in the news right now for all the wrong reasons. Most baseball fans are aware of Valentine's long career in the dugout: he became a major league manager for the first time in 1985 at the age of 35, and has been a manager in parts of 16 different major league seasons for the Texas Rangers, New York Mets, and Boston Red Sox, plus parts of seven seasons with the Chiba Lotte Marines in Japan.
Younger fans may not be aware of what Valentine was like as a player: at one point, he was one of the best prospects in baseball.
Valentine was drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the first round of the 1968 draft, fifth overall, from high school in Stamford, Connecticut. His tools were outstanding: he had excellent speed, a strong throwing arm, good strength, and premium overall athleticism. A terrific football player, he was offered scholarships to over 200 colleges, including Notre Dame and Southern Cal. He chose baseball, and was considered the centerpiece of a Dodgers draft class that included future major leaguers Steve Garvey, Ron Cey, Bill Buckner, Davey Lopes, Joe Ferguson, Doyle Alexander, Geoff Zahn, and Tom Paciorek. How's that for a draft class?
The Dodgers sent Valentine to Ogden in the Pioneer League after the draft and he played well, hitting .281 with a .460 SLG and winning the league MVP award. The following spring, he was so impressive in camp that they jumped him all the way to Triple-A, at age 19.
Not surprisingly, he was overmatched and hit just .259/.318/.353 with three homers in the Pacific Coast League. However, he stole 34 bases, drew 32 walks, and struck out just 57 times in 402 at-bats. He was also making a difficult transition on defense, moving from the outfield to shortstop. He made 38 errors, but had the tools for the position. He got into three games as a pinch-runner with the Dodgers that fall.
Returned to Spokane for 1970, he exploded with a .340/.389/.522 season, hitting 39 doubles, 16 triples, 14 homers, with 29 steals, posting a 47/51 BB/K ratio in 621 at-bats and winning the Pacific Coast League MVP award. He also made 54 errors, but given the offensive output and his youth, nobody was really complaining and his future looked assured. He was certainly one of the top prospects in the game.
He didn't play in the majors in 1970, but in 1971 he made the major league team out of spring training, hitting .249/.287./.310 for the Dodgers, with 15 walks and 20 strikeouts in 281 at-bats over 101 games, used as a utility player, seeing action at shortstop, third base, second base, and the outfield. While he had some work to do with the bat, he was just 21 years old and his future looked very bright indeed.
Valentine improved in 1972, hitting .274/.319/.335 in 391 at-bats, again used at multiple positions. However, his outspoken nature was already apparent and the Dodgers committed to other players, trading Valentine to the California Angels that November. He got off to a good start in the American League in 1973, hitting .302/.323/.397 (OPS+111) for the Angels, but on May 17th he suffered a horrific injury while attempting a leaping catch, breaking his right leg just above the ankle.
He missed the rest of 1973 and was never the same player after that. The injury didn't heal properly: his ankle was permanently bent in the wrong direction, costing him his speed and athleticism. He spent the rest of his career as a marginal utility player for the Angels, Padres, Mets, and Mariners, hitting .260/.315/.326 in 1698 at-bats, OPS+85, WAR 3.8.
Valentine wasn't a great player before the injury, but he was very young, he'd been rushed, he was playing well with his new team, and the tools were clearly there before he got hurt. Without the injury, he would most likely have developed into a fine player, if not a star. He has to be considered one of the great "what ifs" of the 1970s.