Valaika's silly injury a blessing in disguise
Reds prospect has improved since punching cooler last May
GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Frustrated in May by his lousy start to the 2009 season at Triple-A Louisville, infielder Chris Valaika went back to the dugout and punched a water cooler in passing.It proved to be one costly punch since Valaika wound up with a broken hand and missed six weeks on the disabled list. "It happened and didn't hurt for a couple of days afterwards," Valaika said. "I played and it was starting to get sore. It was obviously my fault." People have fits of anger that many would take back if they could. This pugilist exchange with the inanimate object, however, might have actually helped Valaika's career in the big picture. At the time of the injury, Valaika was batting only .161 in 23 games. He improved to .260 in the 72 games after his activation and batted .235 overall with six home runs and 36 RBIs, but only a .271 on-base percentage. "When you're so involved, you're almost too close to the problem," Valaika said. "It might have been a blessing to kind of back up, take some time off and actually observe and watch the game happen instead of scrambling. It gave me a month off and it helped me learn about myself and the game. Hopefully it will help make me a complete player." Until 2009, Valaika's trajectory was rapidly speeding upward. Drafted as a shortstop in the third round in 2006 out of the Univ. of California-Santa Barbara, he hit the ground running offensively. At rookie-level Billings, he set a Pioneer League record with a 32-game hitting streak and batted .324 in 70 games overall. By the end of 2007, he was already in high Class A. Although he struggled at first, he came back much better the following season and earned his promotion to Double-A. Overall in '08, he batted .317 with 18 homers, 81 RBIs and a .363 on-base percentage, earning the Chief Bender Award as the Reds' Minor League player of the year. Valaika entered '09 as the organization's fourth-best prospect by Baseball America. There was only one thing missing from that stellar resume -- a real down-in-the dump, miserable letdown season where he wasn't the can't-miss kid.
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"I think it was learning to fail," Valaika said of last season. "A lot of guys go through failure. It was good for me to do. I never did that in pro ball or college. To actually have it happen was very humbling. I think it helped me as a player. I learned from it, and I know if something like that were to happen again, I can ride it out and know how to make adjustments. Before, I was just going on talent alone."I learned not to take it too seriously. It's our job and our career, but it is also just a game. You have to respect it. You go through it without failing, everything seems easy. Then it will slap you in the face." It's a lesson that can't really be taught by any coach or manager but at some point, players need to learn how to cope with not performing well. "That's very important," Reds general manager Walt Jocketty said. "I think it's a big part of the development process and maturing. Homer [Bailey] did that. They have to feel some sort of adversity. It's best to do it in the Minor Leagues before they get to the Major Leagues and figure out how to deal with it." Valaika is on the 40-man roster this season and back for his second big league Spring Training. But there have been some alterations to his situation. For starters, he's been playing more second base than shortstop in camp drills. A shortstop his entire career in college and pro baseball, he played 18 games at second base last season for Louisville. The rise of shortstop prospect Zack Cozart, possibly to Triple-A, has prompted the shift of Valaika to the right side of the infield. "I know one thing. Cozart is a shortstop," Reds manager Dusty Baker said. "I like his actions at shortstop. If you're going to play both of them, you might have to play Valaika at second base, so they can both play. Everybody comes up mainly at shortstop, that's where they put the best athlete and best player." "As long as I can stay on the field and keep hitting, wherever they need me, I'm ready," Valaika said. "Nothing is set in stone. They said to be good at both and the more I can play, the better." Addendum -- the more Valaika can hit, the better. It will be critical that he rebounds from 2009 to show that he warrants a big league call-up sometime during the season. "I think I can go into it with a clear head," said Valaika, who was 2-for-2 with a run scored in Saturday's 4-2 loss to the Indians. "Last year, I was coming off of a big season before. I wanted to prove to myself I deserved this and I belonged here. This year, I think I can go back and understand the game and ride that wave. If I get off to a good start, great. If I get off to a bad start, just ride it out and learn how to play."
Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.