SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- You probably haven't heard Eugenio Velez's name mentioned much, but get used to it. This slim, strong hitter has emerged from the hinterlands of Toronto into a surprising prospect for the Giants. And that's a bit perplexing. Velez, 24, played only sparingly in the Blue Jays organization for four seasons and hit a solid .285 for Class A Lansing, but Toronto bid him goodbye in the Rule 5 Draft in December 2005. That proved great news for the Giants, for in a career-high 126 games at Class A Augusta last season, the Dominican Republic native hit .315 with 14 homers, 90 RBIs, 49 extra-base hits and a phenomenal 64 stolen bases. Velez was named the South Atlantic League's Most Valuable Player, and vice president of player development Dick Tidrow and his crew were shocked at the Minor Leaguer's stats and promise. "He's got juice, got power and he can really run," said Tidrow. "This guy is a raw talent and needs to be developed more, so it's why we put him on the 40-man roster." Bench coach Ron Wotus capsulized Velez's offensive skills this way: "He's got thunder in his hands." For Velez, coming to the Giants seemed almost like destiny, the scrawny kid from San Pedro de Macoris long dreaming he could be a ballplayer like his hometown idol, San Francisco hurler Armando Benitez, and hoping he could follow countrymen Tony Fernandez, Sammy Sosa and Pedro Martinez to the Majors. "I told my friends I wanted to be like Armando," recalled Velez. "To be playing with him now is fun. We've talked a lot. It's good for me that I'm here now. "I worked hard last year, trying to give [the Giants] the best of me, and now I feel more comfortable," said Velez, eyed as a second baseman and possibly an outfielder this season. "I need more experience and at-bats to get better." Tidrow explained Velez was inconsistent at shortstop but appears to be smoother at second, where he played in an intrasquad game Tuesday at Scottsdale Stadium and in Saturday's Cactus League contest vs. Milwaukee. The Giants feel the youngster has the smarts and talent to fit the club's needs.
"He has a great arm, can really run, a great bat from both sides," crowed Tidrow. "It's a hard package to find in this day and age."Age is a minimal issue here, for Velez -- he turns 25 on May 16 -- was an older player in Class A last season, yet Tidrow is hardly worried, saying no matter how old Valez is, a year or two won't make a difference. If the infielder does prove to be a late bloomer, all the better for the Giants. "He's exciting, a great athlete," said manager Bruce Bochy. Nothing like discovering a gem in a draft where any team could have tabbed Velez. Maybe the Blue Jays were worried about his age, or that a shortstop-or-else attitude had them and other squads wary. Velez is determined to show the world he can be a Major Leaguer. "I want to play well here and have a good year," he said. "I don't know why Toronto never played me that much, then decided to trade me." Those 64 thefts and what Tidrow termed "natural center-field skills" give San Francisco lots of future options, but you can expected more lightning steals from this tall, lean kid, armed with patience and insight into that baseball art. Speed is vital, but a good jump is key. "I read everything -- like how the pitcher holds his hands," said Velez. "Sometimes you can tell what he'll do and you can read that. I just try to keep my eyes on the pitcher." Velez will likely start at Double-A Connecticut this season, but keep checking the box scores and transactions list and watch him quickly move up the ranks. "For whatever reason, he didn't get a lot of at-bats for Toronto," said Tidrow, "but happily he's on our side now."
Rich Draper is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.