Velez attacks flaws in hopes of sticking
Giants utility man focusing on outfield defense, bunting
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Work is the recurring theme in any discussion with or regarding Eugenio Velez.Velez is working on refining his hitting skills. He's working on improving his bunting. He's working on becoming smoother as an outfielder. Such diligence is expected of each player at every Spring Training camp. But the extent of Velez's toil reflects his desire to establish himself as a legitimate big leaguer after splitting the previous two seasons between the Majors and Triple-A Fresno. Having found the path to consistency, he's trying to accelerate rather than cruise to its finish. Velez is competing with John Bowker, Fred Lewis and Andres Torres for one of the two anticipated reserve outfield vacancies on San Francisco's Opening Day roster. For now, the Giants aren't considering him as a backup at second base, where he started 71 games in the previous two seasons. Though versatility is the rule rather than the exception on this Giants club, halving his defensive responsibilities eliminates a potential distraction for Velez. He still has plenty to master before he can realize his goal of remaining with the Giants for an entire season. "That's why I'm working right now," Velez said during one of his rare breaks in activity before the Giants' 7-4 Cactus League victory Friday over a Colorado Rockies split squad. "I don't want to come back to Triple-A again." That remains a possibility, since San Francisco has a crowded outfield and Velez has a Minor League option remaining. He made the Opening Day roster for the second year in a row in 2009 but was demoted to Triple-A twice before the season ended. "Maybe they see something that I can't see," Velez said, acknowledging that the Giants' braintrust knows best. "I have to learn something that I don't know. I never get mad when they send me down. I just have to work hard down there and come back and show them that I've learned." Velez appeared to be on the verge of a breakthrough during his final stint with the Giants last year. He hit safely in his first 14 games after being recalled July 27, batting .417 (25-for-60) while asserting himself as the primary left fielder. Combined with Velez's final two games in the Majors before his May demotion, that surge lengthened his hitting streak to 16 games, exceeded only by Aaron Rowand's 17-game streak among Giants batters in 2009. The switch-hitting Velez credited Triple-A batting coach Hensley Meulens with helping him establish a routine, which featured swinging off a tee daily from both sides of the plate.
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"He just needed some confidence," said Meulens, now San Francisco's hitting coach. "He's a guy who needs a pat on the back once in a while. We also have to get on him when he's not doing things right. There's a happy medium there. He was confident when he left us and he rode it when he got here. He stayed in his routine. It's a credit to him, not to me. He's done all the hard work."Once Velez's streak ended, however, so did the magic. He hit .233 for the rest of the season to finish at .267, and his on-base percentage, which crested at .365 on Aug. 9, dipped to .308 by the end of the year. Instead of giving Velez a chance to claim the left-field job, the Giants signed free agent Mark DeRosa to fill that spot. "Sometimes I try to do too much and that's when I get in trouble," said Velez, 27. Velez still did all he could possibly do during the offseason, playing 40 games for Estrellas de Oriente in the Dominican Winter League. Though he hit only .261, he spent many mornings driving 20 to 30 miles to the Giants' baseball academy in Boca Chica to work on his bunting, a project suggested by manager Bruce Bochy. Third-base coach Tim Flannery, the Giants' bunting guru, estimated that the fleet Velez could boost his batting average by 15 to 20 points if he became proficient at tapping the ball up the third- or first-base line or dragging it by the pitcher. "Once you do that, [opposing infielders] would move in to take the bunt away and then the ground balls would get through," said Flannery. That's partly why Velez joined Matt Downs, Darren Ford and Torres for extra bunting practice with Flannery on Friday morning. Velez has displayed similar diligence on defense. Having played mostly left field for the Giants, he gained familiarity with center field by occupying that spot in each of his appearances for Estrellas. Now Velez is striving to acclimate himself to right field, which he has played twice so far. "That's important for me, to be able to play three positions," Velez said, aware that one of his outfield rivals, Torres, already is comfortable at each spot. "Last year I made a couple of mistakes because I was flat-footed." Velez has tried to kick that habit by racing for any ball he can reach while shagging flies in batting practice. On Friday, Velez ranged far into right-center field and dove on the warning track to catch Robby Hammock's eighth-inning drive. But he also played Eric Young's ninth-inning line drive tentatively, resulting in a double. On Thursday, Velez made a strong sixth-inning throw to second baseman Nick Noonan, who cut down a Milwaukee runner at home plate. "Be quick to the infield," Velez said, reciting the advice on relays that he received from first-base coach Roberto Kelly. "He told me that if you're quick to the infield, something good's going to happen." Kelly, who tutors San Francisco's outfielders, said that Velez has become a more efficient outfielder, though he still has room for improvement in right field -- which poses unique challenges at AT&T Park due to the high wall, the archways and the wind. "But," Kelly said, "he's working at it."
Chris Haft is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.