Farmhand Enmanuel Valdez has been on prospect heads’ radars for awhile now, emerging as a talented hitter in his 2019 full season debut. Just 20 years old at the time, Valdez posted a 140 wRC+ with Quad Cities, earning a late season promotion to High-A where he was among the league’s youngest players. His pace slowed after the transition, and after the lost COVID season in 2020, he became a bit of a forgotten man despite his young age and intriguing resume. When he reemerged in 2021, however, his power exploded, and he quickly reestablished himself as a popular bat first sleeper.
In 98 games across High-A and Double-A that season, Valdez totaled a staggering 26 home runs, and did so without a significant tradeoff in contact rate. Perhaps most impressively, his overall production actually improved after the promotion to Double-A, where an improved walk rate fueled a .367 OBP, up from .313 in High-A. Even after the lost season, he was just 22 years old at this point, and thus age appropriate for the level. Scouts weren’t ready to completely rewrite the book on him yet, but the power surge added a very interesting dimension to an offensive profile that already had a lot of fans in his low minors days thanks to his simple, flexible operation at the plate.
Valdez’ power is especially covetable because of the package that it comes in- he’s listed at just 5’9”, and that’s probably just about accurate. Shorter-statured sluggers are generally a good demographic to chase, as the combination of threatening pop and such a small strike zone leaves pitchers little margin for error. While it may be a bit of a surprise to see a player with this kind of build hitting the ball so hard with this level of consistency, it becomes pretty easy to see how Valdez manages it when looking at his swing mechanics. Valdez is a very athletic swinger with a coordinated, full-body approach to hitting. He loads aggressively with the number on his back easily legible from the broadcast angle, and his hips absolutely explode through the zone. These characteristics have been present going back to his early stateside days, and the primary driver of the increased power appears to be more consistent loft rather than an increase in the raw pop itself.
While he’s made most of his waves with the homer binge, Valdez does offer some defensive value to help round out his profile. Primarily a third baseman, he has also logged significant time at second and projects as playable at either spot. This season, the Astros have also tasked him with a bit of left field duty, and while he’s not going to cover a ton of ground out there it looks to be another legitimate piece of the defensive repertoire. The versatility will be a big help as he seeks to crack the big leagues for the first time, as his initial role will likely be as a super-sub of sorts, albeit without the ability to cover shortstop.
There’s a lot of positivity surrounding Valdez in scouting circles right now, and not just among the Astros-focused, but he hasn’t won everybody over just yet. In a late May notes piece, FanGraphs lead prospect analyst Eric Longenhagen offered some updated thoughts. He was early on Valdez in his low minors days, but isn’t overly enthusiastic about the current profile, noting that “he struggles to cover the upper/outer quadrant of the plate, especially against fastballs, issues that big league pitching will likely be able to exploit.” There’s certainly some truth to this and it may just be a feature of the profile given his shorter stature and the tilt in his swing that has helped him generate the aforementioned loft. Adjusting to high quality elevated fastballs can be an especially tough aspect of the transition to the big leagues for young hitters, and its an obstacle that some are never able to overcome, but while I do share some of the concerns I’m not as sure that it dooms his offensive potential.
Valdez isn’t yet on the 40-man, but he’s Rule 5 eligible this winter and given his level of performance thus far in 2022, he’s looking like a priority add at some point this season. The Astros certainly have the ability to open a spot or two without it hurting much at all, so I think the pathway is there for Valdez to keep hitting his way to the bigs, though where his role might be in Houston is less clear barring an injury to Aledmys Diaz or a starting infielder. Like Corey Julks who I wrote up over the weekend, it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see him end up in a deadline deal for a player who fills a need on the big club more readily, but regardless of where he ends up debuting in the end, his improvements over the last season-plus are hugely positive development for the organization.