The downplaying and scant reporting of a minor league signing in January is as common as a cold. Players pop into an organization and often leave it without a fuss. The same indifference coming and going.
César Valdez is a classic example, except for the part about him going.
He’s stayed on the 40-man roster since the Orioles selected his contract on Aug. 27, the latest move of significance in his rejuvenated career after the appearances in exhibition games as an extra from Twin Lakes Park and an invitation to summer training camp.
But where did it all begin?
At MASNsports.com, it was a two-paragraph note toward the end of a Jan. 20 article about the team’s pursuit of starting pitching and infielders.
“I’m hearing that the Orioles are discussing major league deals and minor league contracts that would include invitations to spring training,” I wrote. “They can go in either direction.”
I hadn’t heard of Valdez. Didn’t know him from Cesar Romero. Didn’t know that the Orioles signed him until stumbling upon it on a transactions page.
So I focused on pitching and the infield, passed along that the trade front was “quiet,” which led the Orioles back to the free agent market.
And then came the note that rocked ... nothing.
“The transactions this month include the signing of right-hander César Valdez, 34, to a minor league contract.
“Valdez hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2017 with the Blue Jays and Athletics. The Astros signed him as a free agent in January 2016 and he went 12-1 with a 3.12 ERA and 1.128 WHIP in 30 games with Triple-A Fresno.”
That’s it. I closed, as Valdez later did while recording three saves, with an update on executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias spending the weekend “hopping around the country” to meet with prospective draft selections.
Valdez deserved better, of course. But who knew?
The guy was approaching his 35th birthday and had been pitching in Mexico. A major league debut in 2010 and disappearance until 2017 made him a curiosity, an oddity. It didn’t make him a legitimate candidate for the team.
Valdez almost made the opening day roster. Former pitching coach Doug Brocail really liked him, from what I’ve heard. But he had to wait, which apparently is one of his finer qualities.
Finally able to pitch again in a major league game, on Aug. 29 against the Blue Jays in Buffalo, Valdez tossed three scoreless innings with one hit, one walk and five strikeouts. He relied on a “dead fish” changeup to bring his career back to life.
I was told later that Valdez “cried tears of joy” after the game.
Teammates kept smiling as Valdez allowed only two earned runs in 14 1/3 innings while earning the nickname “El Jefe.”
“What made him successful?” manager Brandon Hyde asked, repeating a question during last week’s Zoom conference call. “Just an incredible ability to change speeds, locate all pitches to the bottom and below the strike zone. Only had one hiccup on the entire last few weeks that he was with us. It was fun to watch a pitcher pitch and a guy be able to locate any pitch that he wants, and if he does that he’s going to have success.
“He’s a great story.”
Certainly worthy of more than a two-paragraph introduction to the organization.
“He’s dealt with a lot, been everywhere in this game, and for him to come out and really be appreciative of a major league opportunity ... he came in wanting to get outs, and the next thing you know he’s throwing the ninth inning for us and getting outs,” Hyde said.
“I’m assuming that César is going to come in exactly like he left us in Buffalo in September. I think he’s just got a unique ability to keep the baseball off the barrel and be able to change speeds.”
I’ll try to change the way that I view these January minor league transactions, including the ones that aren’t trumpeted by the team. The ones that are found 10 days after the actual signing. But for every Valdez, there’s a Gregory Infante, Bo Schultz, Cael Brockmeyer. Jack Reinheimer, Edinson Lopez and D’Arby Myers.
A Jesús Montero, Zach Stewart, Cody Satterwhite, Trey Haley and Mario Alcantara.
All of them acquired in January 2017, 2018 and 2019.
None of them making it to Baltimore or remaining in the organization.