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03/01/10 7:43 PM ET

Valencia jumping into mix at third base

Prospect's winter ball experience paying dividends in camp

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Prior to this winter, Danny Valencia's greatest career experience had been playing in the College World Series when he was a junior at the University of Miami.

But the Twins' third base prospect said that even that elite event had no comparison to the crowds and enthusiasm that he experienced while playing for the Puerto Rican Mayaguez team in the Caribbean World Series in Venezuela last month.

"It was unbelievable," Valencia said of the atmosphere during those games. "I had a great time there and it was a great experience for me."

More experience is something that Valencia has been said to need before he's ready to make it to the Major Leagues. His hope is that what he learned while playing winter ball will help him to make a strong impression on the Twins' coaches and front office this spring.

There are very few position battles expected to take place during Spring Training, but one of those is at third base. Nick Punto and Brendan Harris are expected to be the favorites for the role with the possibility that they could split time at the position.

Valencia, 25, is also in the mix for that spot, although the overall assumption is that he'll start the season at Triple-A Rochester. Still, there is a strong possibility he could make his Major League debut at some point this year, and his decision to head to Puerto Rico can only help to increase those chances.

Initially Valencia was not planning to go to winter ball. But sitting at home in November, the third baseman said he changed his mind. He decided to head to Puerto Rico at the start of December to play for Mayaguez, and the Twins were enthused by his decision.

"He's a guy that's elevated himself to being on the cusp of the big leagues," said Mike Radcliff, Twins vice president of player personnel. "You've got to put yourself in those different kinds of environments so you can handle them. With his skills and tools and ability to play, he's right on track. But there is more to it to be successful in the big leagues, and he's got to experience some of that stuff. Winter League can do that for you."

The numbers didn't exactly indicate a successful stint for Valencia in winter ball. He batted .224 with two home runs and 10 RBIs in 18 regular season contests, and he hit .217 with a homer and four RBIs in six playoff games.

But Valencia delivered some key hits that led to wins during that Caribbean World Series for Puerto Rico, and he was able to face a number of pitchers with Major League experience during the time he spent playing with Mayaguez.

"All around I felt like my whole game has improved," Valencia said. "I was able to work on things during games that you wouldn't probably get to work on in the season here, because you want to go out there and perform. The coaching staff there was really flexible with me. They let me work on things certain days. I felt that defensively they hit me tons of ground balls, just like they would here. My numbers might not show it, but I feel like my whole game has improved by going there."

Valencia has been considered by many within the organization to be their third baseman of the future. So when Valencia didn't earn a callup last September, it came as somewhat of a surprise considering that the Twins' third base situation was expected to be unsettled once again heading into 2010. But at the time, the organization didn't feel that Valencia was quite ready.

There has been a lot of talk about the third baseman needing a bit more "seasoning" at Rochester this season after he batted a combined .285 with 14 homers and 70 RBIs last year with Rochester and Double-A New Britain in 2009.

"I know it's not just going to be given to me. You have to earn it so I'm looking forward to that."
-- Danny Valencia

For Valencia to have a chance to be the club's third baseman, there are a few things that he needs to work on and that includes shoring up his defense at the position.

"He's got a really good arm," Radcliff said. "It's a matter of moving his feet and making the plays to his left and right and in front of him. That's the part he's improved the most on in the last year. He's comfortable there now. He's going to be a good third baseman."

Winter ball provided Valencia with an opportunity to get more on-the-field training. He also sent a positive message to the Twins, thanks to his initiative to try and improve his game.

But whether or not that will equate to Valencia getting the opportunity to earn the third-base spot this spring or shortly thereafter remains unknown.

"If he comes out and proves he can handle this thing, then we make more adjustments," manager Ron Gardenhire said. "As I said last year, he didn't get called up because they said he wasn't ready for this. Going to winter ball is a step in the right direction. He did something about it. Now we see during Spring Training where he's at."

Valencia understands that he'll have to work hard this spring to prove that he's ready for the big leagues, and he's just happy to get the opportunity.

"I know it's not just going to be given to me," Valencia said. "You have to earn it so I'm looking forward to that."

Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.