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SPORTS EDITORIAL : Lopez, Valdez competing for 'Mexican Idol' status

 

Last updated 5/29/2008 at Noon



The San Diego Padres have sought to complement their proximity to the Mexican border with a star Mexican player who will attract Baja California residents and Mexican-Americans to the team’s stadium.

To some extent Adrian Gonzalez has done that job, although Gonzalez isn’t a true Mexican as he was born in San Diego and returned to San Diego as a teenager after spending most of his childhood living in Tijuana.

Fernando Valenzuela was past his prime when he played for the Padres, former Lake Elsinore Storm pitcher Oliver Perez was erratic enough to be considered expendable and became trade bait for Brian Giles, and other Mexican players either never reached early expectations or came to San Diego as journeymen.

There’s no guarantee that any Mexican player will produce the star the Padres desire. That doesn’t keep Lake Elsinore Storm infielder Jesus Lopez and pitcher Rolando Valdez from seeking future “Mexican Idol” status with the Padres.

Lopez and Valdez aren’t the only Mexican Idol candidates. “We’re probably the most active team as far as the amount of Mexican players that we have,” said Grady Fuson, the Padres’ vice-president for scouting and player development.

The Padres have no official agreement with any Mexican League ballclubs, although Padres scout Robert Rowley has close ties with many of the teams. “They do a lot of looking for us,” Fuson said.

Rowley is the Padres’ international scouting supervisor for Mexico, Central America, and South America and also handles the team’s scouting duties for Mexico. In addition to evaluating recommendations from the Mexican League, he also looks for amateur Mexican talent.

The 20-year-old Lopez was 16 when he was signed by Rowley in July 2004. “Jesus Lopez is a tremendous defensive player. We’ve noticed that from the first day he played,” Fuson said.

Lopez spent 2005 in the Dominican Summer League, split 2006 between Fort Wayne and Eugene, and was with Fort Wayne for all of 2007. “He’s learning to control the strike zone a little better,” Fuson said. “Hopefully he’ll keep his head above water with the bat.”

Although Lopez only hit .232 for Fort Wayne last year in 117 games, he also drew 43 walks for an on-base percentage of .309.

The 22-year-old Valdez was 18 when Rowley signed him in February 2005. Fuson sees an eventual trip to the majors for Valdez if a few refinements can be made. “He’s probably the next pitcher in our Latin American program that’s got a chance,” Fuson said.

Valdez is doing his part to work on that improvement. “He’s been really working on his changeup, his breaking ball,” Fuson said.

Valdez began his professional career with the Dominican Summer League in 2005. In 12 starts and one relief appearance the right-hander complied a 7-2 won-loss record and a 1.03 earned run average. He completed three of those starts, one for a shutout. In 87 innings he allowed 55 hits and 10 walks while striking out 104.

Valdez spent four games, all in relief, with Lake Elsinore in 2006. He had no wins or losses and an earned run average of 13.50 with the Storm. In four innings he allowed four hits and five walks and struck out two.

Most of Valdez’s 2006 season was spent with Eugene, where two starts and 25 relief appearances resulted in a 7-1 record, two saves, a 2.70 ERA, and 59 strikeouts in 43 1/3 innings pitched. He also had one start for Portland in 2006, throwing four innings and taking the loss.

Valdez was exclusively a reliever in 2007, leading the Midwest League with 58 appearances while going 2-7 with nine saves for Fort Wayne. In his 61 innings pitched he struck out 53 while allowing 28 hits and 17 walks.

“This is a kid I considered starting this year somewhere,” Fuson said.

The relief pitcher designation to begin 2008 reflects on Valdez’s Winter League work rather than a failure to produce quality starts. “He threw so many innings in winter ball,” Fuson said. “We’re going to go easy on him.”

That may change later in the season. “We may expose him to a starting role,” Fuson said.

If Lopez can improve his hitting skills and Valdez can master off-speed pitches, the two could soon find themselves in a stadium closer to the Mexican border and vying to be the Padres’ new Mexican Idol.

 

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