Cleveland had one of the most unproductive outfields in all of baseball during the 2010s, ranking 25th in fWAR, 26th in wRC+, 27th in OPS, 28th in runs scored, and 29th in home runs in comparison to collective outfields fielded by the other 29 teams during the 2010s. 

The centerpiece of Cleveland’s lauded 2017 international free agent class, George Valera’s presence at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario has been seen as one of the potential answers for the three black holes that have been Cleveland’s outfield spots. The 20-year-old outfielder is in line for an extremely unique opportunity by potentially being one of the first prospects in Cleveland’s farm system to debut as a Guardian based on the current trajectory of his ascent through the minors. 

Where it began

It all started in Bronx, New York, where Valera grew up with his father Jorge, mother Delubina, along with an older brother and sister for the first 13 years of his life. The tight-knit household nurtured his love and advanced feel for the game. His entire family supported his dream to be a professional baseball player from an early age, taking him to tournaments where he was already being identified as one of the best in his age group. 

At the age of seven, he signed a contract with his father that he would not quit on his dream to reach the big leagues and that he would put all his effort towards doing so. His mother is an encouraging woman who kept him focused on his education, and it shows that he is a very well-read and intelligent individual.

“My mom has always been extremely involved in my education. She pushed me to study hard and do my best no matter what. For example, during my first year of pro ball, Cleveland let me know of their plans to let me play in the Arizona Rookie League (AZL) instead of starting in the Dominican Summer League (DSL) while I was in Extended Spring Training. When I told my mom, she immediately brought up the idea of me playing in the DSL instead so I could finish my finals and receive my high school diploma. ” 

A bilingual Afro-Dominican that speaks English and Spanish, Valera consistently volunteered to translate for his teammates that only speak Spanish during my time covering the Cleveland Guardians High-A affiliate Lake County Captains during the 2021 season, in addition to providing insightful and worthwhile observations about himself and others. The outfielder led by example by being one of the best whenever he was on the field, and he stands out as one of the most joyous and expressive players in Minor League Baseball when he sends a baseball into the stands. 

Baseball almost missed out on George Valera

If not for someone’s generosity, baseball may have missed out on a premier talent in George Valera because the industry is fixated on squeezing as many dollars it can get out of the game of baseball at every level and age group. This situation is a microcosm of how the always rising participation costs for young people in the United States to play organized baseball are bad for the sport. Cost is not the only issue, but location and travel as well. Many baseball teams in major metropolitan areas for individuals to sign up for are located in more affluent and/or suburban areas, which limits access for working-class individuals in cities.

“I had a teacher in elementary school who used to be a writer for a baseball magazine, her name is Jennifer Jaeger, ” Valera said. ” She’s a great lady. God bless her. I still talk to her to this day. One day we were just talking, and she asked me if I played baseball and I told her ‘Yeah’. She never saw me play but believed that I was good and took me to a tryout for a travel ball team.” 

It turned out that this wasn’t just some run-of-the-mill travel ball team Valera was trying out for –  it was Hank’s Yanks, which is owned by the Steinbrenner family, the family that owns the New York Yankees.

Because Valera’s family are all huge New York Yankees fans, this opportunity arising was a dream come true that only comes to fruition in Hollywood screenplays. After taking swings at tryouts in front of Hank’s Yanks manager Sandy Kryskostas alongside co-founder/New York Yankees ambassador and bestselling author Ray Negron, Valera made the team. 

He played four seasons for Hank’s Yanks, standing out as one of the best players in his class from an early age. The travel ball club covered all the costs for Valera’s equipment, travel, lodging, etc. since his family could not afford to do so. He also got rides to & from practice since Hank’s Yanks facilities were located a bit away from The Bronx.

“They’re amazing people. I appreciate them because my family wasn’t financially stable at that moment and they helped me get exposure. I got to travel and play baseball all over the United States, see things I never saw, and experience things I never had experienced before.” – George Valera

Move to the Dominican Republic

As he was headed towards high school with his stock rising, Valera’s life changed at the age of 13 when his family relocated to the Dominican Republic, the country where his family is originally from. The youngest member of the Valera quintet did not understand at the time, but the metal rods inserted in his father’s limbs from an accident necessitated a permanent move to a climate that is a lot warmer throughout the year than New York City.

 They moved to San Pedro de Macoris, a city of almost two hundred thousand residents that has a rich history of producing professional baseball players. Valera had a tough time learning the rules of formal Spanish as he only spoke informal Spanish with his family. That problem solved itself with time and effort interacting with others. 

When he moved to the Dominican Republic Valera was no longer eligible to be selected in the MLB Draft as he would be considered an international amateur free agent when eligible to sign with an MLB organization. Under the soon to be expired CBA that was in place when he signed with Cleveland during the 2017 J2 Signing Period, international amateurs are defined as follows:

  • Player resides outside of the United States, Canada, or Puerto Rico and has not been enrolled in high school in any of those locations within the past calendar year.
  • Player is at least 16 years of age or will turn 16 years of age before Sept. 1 of the current signing period.

Trying to get noticed

The next issue Valera had involved trying to find a reputable trainer that could get him a spot in the Dominican Prospect League and other venues where he could showcase his skills against other advanced teenagers in front of MLB scouts. 

“In the Dominican Republic, it is different,” Valera said. “You must play baseball in the mornings and go to school in the afternoon if you want to make it. Not to mention every teenage boy in the Dominican Republic wants to play baseball for a living. I went to a couple of programs. They refused to pick me up. They didn’t even watch me hit or throw. They just saw me stand there and assumed I was too little and not good enough to compete. They said when I was older that I could try and come back again. I wanted to go back home to The Bronx because I had never felt that way before in my life. Everywhere back home people would want me to play for them because I was considered pretty good. I was starting to get depressed because my dad kept taking me to different programs to see if they would take me.”

“One time, my father got me from school earlier than usual, and we wound up going to the program that I wound up signing with Cleveland from – Arias & Goodman. We went in the afternoon, and the guy who was there training the kids told my father the usual ‘We only train with guys we’re confident are going to get signed and I am sorry, but we cannot train your son.’ 

I was standing there in my school polo shirt, cargo pants, and sneakers getting upset and my father gave him fifty pesos for 10 batting practice throws.

I had no gloves, and they gave me an old DeMarini. I just started yanking and pulling balls because I was so upset, and after hitting a couple of bombs the trainer told my father

‘Get him in some different clothes and he can get started today.’

If he never saw me swing, he never would have given me that chance. A few days later, the owner of the program, Alfredo Arias, saw me take batting practice and then told me ‘What do I have to do to get you in my program?’ They even let me go to school in the morning and gave me a trainer to work within the afternoon.” 

Getting signed

After finding a trainer who saw his potential and took him in, he spent his time grinding in between the lines and hitting the books off the field. The Dominican Republic is one of professional baseball’s talent hubs, with San Pedro De Macoris being one of its focal points. He thrived in the baseball-centric culture of his ancestral home as his swing once again began turning heads of people who would help him advance on his journey. As he was putting in work and beginning to interact with scouts representing MLB organizations, he noticed that one team’s scouts had more enthusiasm and were personable in their interactions with Valera, who was 16 at the time. Jhonathan Leyba and Domingo Toribio were the scouts that were credited with signing Valera, the top target of the Guardians front office eligible to be signed as an amateur free agent during the 2017 J2 Signing Period. The personal relationship he built with the two scouts made it that much easier for him to sign with Cleveland

“I did five or six tryouts with Cleveland”, he said. “I stayed true to myself, worked hard, and just did my thing. They’d always come and see me and were always really enthusiastic when talking to me. They were good at communicating with me and treated me like I was at home. I still talk to Leyba and Toribio now and then to this day.” 

“My dream has always been to make it to the big leagues, stay there, and become a Hall of Famer. I know as a kid, we think a lot but that has always been on my mind. When I first got signed, it was surreal because it was still a dream come true. There’s a lot of things I still got to accomplish. I remember getting invited to Progressive Field, it was my first time in Cleveland. They gave me a nice tour of the ballpark and the jersey. The most important thing for me was there and that was my family. They were so excited for me, and I was really happy because they were excited.”

Getting started

His professional career started in 2018 in the Arizona Rookie League and since then he has done nothing but hit at every level while frequently dealing with injuries. He broke his hamate bone six games into his first professional season where he was one of the youngest players in the AZL. 

He was a member of the last Short Season High-A team affiliated with Cleveland during the 2019 MiLB season, impressing in his highly anticipated professional debut outside of a complex league. Playing in the New York-Penn League where the average player age was 21 years old, Valera was one of the 19 players in the three Short Season (A-) leagues under the age of 19 to accumulate at least 100 plate appearances. He finished the year with a .236/.356/.446 slash line, good for a 142 wRC+. 

He walked 15% of the time and struck out 27% of the time. He hit the sixth-most home runs in the league and was one of only four teenagers to rank in the top 50 for walk percentage, placing 21st amongst the rest of his peers in the NYPL to accumulate at least 100 plate appearances. He was the highest-ranked teenager in addition to being the youngest. The injury bug bit him again during his 2019 campaign but he still performed on a statistical level far above his peers, regardless of their age. Playing in 46 of the possible 70 games, Valera dealt with hamstring issues during the season. 

Valera would be the first one to tell you that he wants to be in between the lines as much as possible, as he is very open about addressing the injury issues he has had so far. 

“It’s been a tough minor league career. I haven’t had a healthy year yet. My biggest focus has been trying to stay healthy because I know when I am on the field my game is gonna play no matter what. There’s a lot of hard work I’ve been doing in the offseason to try and stay healthy. Just trying to stay true to me and believe in myself. I am trying to be controlled, and be as consistent as I can.” 

While he did not stay healthy for the entire 2021 MiLB season after missing a little over a month with an oblique injury, George Valera had a very successful season. He played in 86 of 120 games, his first 63 with the Guardians High-A affiliate in Lake County. The 16th youngest prospect on a High-A Opening Day roster went .256/.430/.548 with 16 home runs, walking almost 21% of the time while striking out around 22%. 

His eye at the plate is spectacular, consistently laying off close pitches to all quadrants of the zone and challenging opposing arms to throw riskier offerings. He has an innate understanding of how pitchers attempt to attack him, recognizes spin, and has a consistent approach at the plate. He had the third-highest walk percentage, sixth-highest walk to strikeout ratio, and the 12th highest wRC+ by a hitter with more than 100 plate appearances in all three High-A leagues. 

He finished the year with the Guardians Double-A affiliate to help them during their playoff run, assisting them in securing the Double-A Northeast League Championship. He was recently added to the Guardians 40-man roster to be protected from being eligible to be selected in the upcoming Rule 5 Draft. The recently turned 21-year-old has a lot of helium going into the 2022 MiLB season.  

Valera has one of the most unique stories in professional baseball and it may be one of the sport’s most important as it reflects the highs and lows of the industry. The frequently glossed-over issue of rising costs in amateur baseball participation disproportionately affects people of color in metropolitan areas, especially those that are Black and/or Latino. No one should have to even confront the possibility of not being able to afford to play baseball at any level. Young individuals across the country from similar backgrounds as Valera’s are leaving the game behind because they’re falling through the cracks created, designed, and maintained by the institution itself. 

For every George Valera that somehow finds a way to get new bats, cleats, and gloves every year, there are two that decide to put them down and fill the void with shoulder pads and/or a basketball. 

Photo credit: TCP Photography/Courtesy Lake County Captains

On the flip side, his story highlights the true beauty of the game as his swing allowed him .to put it on display. George Valera’s laid-back personality pairs well with his All-Star potential, and his bilingualism compliments his great leadership skills. He’s the latest Afro-Latino prospect with a history of above-average performance to come through Cleveland’s farm system, as the organization has an illustrious history of Afro-Latino players stretching back to Afro-Cuban legend Minnie Minoso, the first Afro-Latino to play in MLB. George Valera’s swing has taken him places he’s never been, and it’s incrementally moved him closer to his ultimate goal so far in his professional career: Cooperstown, New York.

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