With Phillies, catching prospect Valle finds opportunity and a mentor in Ruiz

Catcher Sebastian Valle, 20, is hitting .337 for the Clearwater Threshers.
Catcher Sebastian Valle, 20, is hitting .337 for the Clearwater Threshers. (JOE WOMBAUGH / For the Daily News)
Posted: May 16, 2011

CLEARWATER, Fla. - Serendipity can play a bigger role than we'd like to admit. Seemingly minor decisions subtly alter our course, piling up one on top of the other for days and weeks and months and years until it's hard to figure out whether we got where we are through free will or if it's all just random chance.

Sebastian Valle is the starting catcher for the Clearwater Threshers, the Phillies' top Class A affiliate. He is the consensus pick as the No. 1 catching prospect in the organization.

But where would the 20-year-old native of Los Mochis, Mexico, be now if he hadn't been invited to the Latin American games in Venezuela when he was still just 15?

Or what if he had been asked but for some reason couldn't participate?

And what if the starting catcher hadn't gotten hurt or the coaches had asked somebody else to go behind the plate when he did?

And what if he hadn't stepped up and hit a pair of home runs with a wooden bat, so impressing Phillies scouts Jesus Mendez and Oliero Anziani that they immediately called international supervisor Sal Agostinelli and told him he should get down to take a look at this kid?

"It was good luck for me," Valle, with Lakewood trainer Mickey Kozack acting as his translator, said last week at Bright House Field.

Buena suerte, because even though there are more Latin players than ever throughout baseball, Mexico is underrepresented. There were 86 players from the Dominican Republic on major league Opening Day rosters this year and 62 Venezuelans. There were eight players from Mexico.

"I think it's a little harder, because it's not quite as organized as the Dominican and Venezuela and some of the other countries. It's a little harder to get noticed and recognized," added Valle, who was placed on the 7-day disabled list Saturday. "It definitely would have been a lot harder if I didn't go to the tournament."

Lucky for the Phillies, too. It was just a few years ago that the organization had collected some impressive catching depth. But Lou Marson was traded to the Indians in the Cliff Lee trade and Travis D'Arnaud went to the Blue Jays for Roy Halladay and Jason Jaramillo was sent to the Pirates for catcher Ronny Paulino, who was in turn flipped to the Giants for lefthanded reliever Jack Taschner. Now they're actively trying to rebuild their inventory.

Other things had to go right, too. The better players can sign with Mexican League teams when they're 14 and most do. For some reason, Valle didn't. That meant that the Phillies were able to sign him without having to pay a premium to the club.

And that became a factor as well. Because when Agostinelli flew from New York to work out Valle along with then-Mexico area scout Tomas Herrera, he wasn't initially overwhelmed.

"He's not a workout guy," Agostinelli explained. "With a catcher, the first thing you look for is the big arm. There are guys with better defensive skills. And even in batting practice, you're not going to say, 'Holy criminey.' You had to see him in a game and that's where I had to trust my scouts. If it wasn't for those guys, I don't know if we would have signed him."

Trust is nice. But it didn't hurt that the Phillies were able to sign him for a reported $30,000, either.

Valle was hitting .337 with three homers and 15 RBI through Friday. He has worked hard on improving his defense, too. One of his mentors: Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz, who he met while Chooch was on a rehab assignment at Class A Lakewood last year.

"I was able to spend some time with him and talk to him," Valle said. "He's a good friend. He gave me some tips on receiving the balls, tips on blocking balls in the dirt. And the biggest thing is how to call and manage a game. That's the big thing."

They talked against last week when Ruiz was rehabbing in Clearwater.

"He's a nice guy. I like the way he plays behind the plate," the big-leaguer said of Valle. "He's always asking me about giving him some tips on catching. He's fun to talk to. I try to help him. We sat down here and he told me he had some problems with balls to his right side. And I said, 'Hey, you can work on this and that.' He said thank you. A lot of times he asked me questions about the game and that's good for him. He's a smart guy and he has the talent to be in the big leagues."

It remains to be seen, of course, if it will be with the Phillies. Ruiz is only 32 and has earned a reputation for being one of the best receivers around. Valle is unfazed.

"I definitely see an opportunity with this organization," he said. "And possibly, if it doesn't work out with the Phillies, maybe with another organization. I feel very proud to be known as the top catching prospect. It gives me a lot of motivation and makes me feel good that they think that highly of me."

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