Danny Valencia makes his case for starting

Injuries helped create an opening for Danny Valencia in the Twins' everyday starting lineup. The rookie's performance has kept him there.

Valencia started his 23rd consecutive game at third base Wednesday, though Manager Ron Gardenhire wasn't ready to call it Valencia's job for life.

"He's playing tonight, and we'll see where we go from there," Gardenhire said.

Still, the Twins have played very well since Valencia's starting streak began, and maybe it's no coincidence.

On July 23, their record fell to 51-46 with a loss at Baltimore. The next day, Gardenhire started Valencia for the first time in five days, and the righthanded hitter went 3-for-5.

Valencia, 25, has started every game since, batting .348 (32-for-92) over the 23 games, as the Twins have 19-4

Of course, there are numerous reasons for the team's recent success. Joe Mauer has recaptured his 2009 MVP form, the starting pitching has stabilized -- the past two games notwithstanding -- Jesse Crain has given the bullpen a huge boost, and several others have picked up the slack with Justin Morneau recovering from a concussion.

Valencia had a 14-for-19 stretch at the plate before cooling for a while in early August, yet Gardenhire kept sending him back to third base.
Some of that was circumstance. Michael Cuddyer saw time at third base before entrenching himself at first when Morneau went down on July 7. Three weeks later, Nick Punto, who has 38 starts at third base this year, went on the disabled list because of a strained hamstring.
Punto returned from the DL on Tuesday, but Gardenhire has stuck with Valencia at third against the White Sox.

"I definitely feel relaxed, but at the same time I feel like [Gardenhire's] got a lot of confidence in me," Valencia said. "It's nice to be playing for a team that's in a pennant race."

The Twins have seen this happen before. Punto took over third base for the Twins during their 2006 division title run. Last year, Matt Tolbert, who entered September batting .178, started 18 of the team's final 20 games at third base as they reeled off a 16-4 run to catch the Tigers.

"I think Valencia's settled in real nice over there, and he's worked real hard," Gardenhire said. "There were a lot of questions about his defense, even in spring training, but he's caught the ball over there for us."

Valencia has made just one error in 386 innings at third base with the Twins. He's shown a strong arm, soft hands, and he's scored very well with defensive metrics. According to FanGraphs.com, Valencia's UZR 150 (ultimate zone rating per 150 games) entering Wednesday was 24.7, meaning if he played 150 games at third, he would save the Twins 24.7 runs on defense.

That put Valencia atop the list of all major leaguers with at least 300 innings at third base. Ryan Zimmerman was second on that UZR 150 list at 23.3, and Punto was fourth at 20.1.

Third base is supposed to be an offensive position, and while Valencia has yet to show the power the Twins hope to see eventually, he is batting .331 (54-for-163) with one homer, 13 doubles, 18 RBI and a .375 on-base percentage.

No doubt, Valencia's first 48 games in the big leagues are a small sample size, but he's making a good case that he is indeed this team's third baseman of the future.

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