Height 6-0, Weight 215, B/T: R/R, DOB: 8/14/1985
2008 Redlegs Baseball Prospect Ranking: #10
Chris Valaika was a steal for the Reds, as they drafted him in the third round of the 2006 draft. If it wasn't for injury, he likely would have gone higher. Valaika is part of the Reds renewed emphasis on the premier defensive positions and on players with strong work ethics and good baseball instincts.
Valaika is an early count hitter who doesn't wait long to offer at a pitch. Obviously, that's an approach that will reduce his walk rate. Unfortunately, he doesn't provide overwhelming power or speed, so his value is going to be driven by a high contact rate and the resulting high batting average. In 2008, he put his offensive skills to good use.
Valaika opened up the 2008 season back at high-A Sarasota. In 2007, Valaika struggled at Sarasota, which knocked some of the luster off his rising star in the eyes of some. However, Valaika certainly got it right in his second go-around, when he bounced back with a vengeance. In 2007, Valaika scuffled to a slash line of .253/.310/.332/.642 in 217 ABs with Sarasota. In his 2008 return engagement, Valaika posted a .363/.393/.585/.978 with 7 homeruns in 135 ABs. He ripped line drives all over the yard at a stellar 26% clip. His BABIP was an astronomical .420, but when you hit line drives at that clip, it's hardly unexpected. He continued his trend of early-count hitting, as evidenced by his 29/7 K/BB ratio, but he certainly made it work for him.
You can't post a slash line like that without opening a few eyes and in Valaika's case, it earned him a promotion to double-A Chattanooga. At double-A, Valaika posted a line of .301/.352/.443/.795 with 11 homeruns in 379 ABs. Again, he evidenced an aggressive, early-count approach which resulted in a 74/28 K/BB ratio. He also continued to center the ball on the barrel and drive the ball with authority, including line drives 22% of the time. As to be expected, his BABIP fell along with his line-drive rate, landing at .350 on the season.
As if that wasn't enough, Valaika finished out the 2008 season in the Arizona Fall League. His production continued to be as steady as a metronome. He posted a familiar slash line of .311/.346/.437/.783. Valaika's calling card is likely to be a high batting average, poor on base skills, and solid pop.
SWING AND APPROACH AT THE PLATE
Here's a video compilation of Valaika in action at the plate.
As you can see, Valaika is yet another hitter who opts for the widespread stance and minimal forward stride. He has actually made some significant changes to his swing mechanics. In college and early in his professional career, Valaika utilized a higher leg kick. Clearly, that's not the case now. He has abandoned the high leg kick in favor of the wider stance, which seems to be the emerging trend in professional baseball. More and more hitters seem to be utilizing the wider stance and fewer seem to be using the narrow stance, big leg kick, and long stride. Valaika's swing changes were likely made to shorten up his swing, make him quicker to the ball, and make him less susceptible to being out on the front foot on good offspeed pitches.
Valaika uses a high back elbow and a compact swing. He swings hard and often. His swing is just as aggressive as his hitting approach. His aggressive swing sometimes causes him to spin out or roll over on his front foot. He uses a slight uppercut in his swing, which enables him to get good loft on the ball. However, at times his back leg will breakdown and his back shoulder will drop, causing him to get under the ball too much.
Valaika makes his "grip it and rip it" approach work with his ability to make hard contact. He has good hand eye coordination and excels at putting the barrel of the bat on the ball, which allows him to drive the ball with authority to all parts of the field. His swing isn't complicated, but rather compact and easily repeatable, which should help him avoid prolonged slumps.
The chart to the right is the distribution of Valaika's balls in play for Chattanooga in 2008. Clearly, he is comfortable using the whole field. The red dots are outs, the blue dots are homeruns, and the green dots are hits.
In the video clip, you can also see that Valaika has a thick, muscular build and clearly isn't fleet of foot. He doesn't get out of the box or down the firstbase line very quickly. His agility and lack of quickness don't impact solely his offensive game, but they also impact the defensive side.
DEFENSE AND POSITIONAL VALUE
Plain and simple, the biggest question on Valaika is whether he can handle shortstop.
Defensive statistics are still in the infancy stage at the minor league level. Even so, they are beginning to emerge. Minorleaguesplits.com has started listing a defensive metric for prospects. One prospect for whom they have defensive statistics is Chris Valaika.
For Chattanooga in 2008, Valaika had 310 chances at shortstop. Of those 310 chances, he converted 205 of them into outs. All of which was good for -3 Runs and -5 Runs/150. "Runs" is relative to league average, so +15 is outstanding and + 10 is a very good fielder, while -10 is rather poor. Runs/150 estimates runs saved per 150 games.
I can't vouch for the accuracy of the metric, but it does dovetail with both his reputation and the opinion of scouts. At this point, Valaika at short seems like a stretch. Scouting reports on his defense have actually been better as of late, but it's difficult to get behind the idea of a "fringe" defensive player at shortstop.
On the plus side, Valaika has a strong, accurate arm, but he lacks quickness and his range is barely adequate. He profiles well at secondbase, but the Reds already have Brandon Phillips at the position and have shown little inclination to shift him across the bag to shortstop. So, for now, Valaika's best chance at a starting job with the Reds is at shortstop.
Last offseason, it seemed that I was higher on Valaika than most, but after his bounce back performance in 2008, it seems that the hype has really caught up to Valaika. In fact, the hype may now be outpacing his actual level performance. Valaika is an intriguing prospect, but I do have my concerns. He certainly has his strengths, including the ability to make hard, consistent contact, a strong arm, and solid power. But, he also has some weaknesses, which include an inability to control the strikezone, below average speed, and questionable range in the field.
Valaika is a solid prospect, but I'm beginning to think people are ramping the expectations up too high. At this point, the ultimate offensive ceiling on Valaika in Great American Ballpark would seem to be 18-20 homeruns with a .300 batting average. If he can reach his ceiling, then he would have a great deal of value as a middle infielder. But, his lack of speed, on-base skills, and limited range at shortstop will likely drag down his overall value. While it's rather questionable whether he will reach his ultimate offensive ceiling, it's fairly certain that his drawbacks will always be there. If he continues on his current track, then Valaika projects to be a solid MLB middle infielder. There is certainly a good deal of value in a solid, homegrown, cost-controlled middle infielder, so for now Chris Valaika checks in at #5 on the list.