Jorge Velandia, a member of the Lehigh Valley IronPigs, is 34 years old. He has played for eight organizations since 2003 and hit just .190 over the meager 21 at-bats he's received this season. Currently, he's on the disabled list due to shin contusions.
Yet 2009 has been an unqualified success for the veteran Venezuelan shortstop, who signed with the Phillies organization this past January. He comes to the ballpark each day bubbling over with optimism and enthusiasm, and his employers see him as someone who has the potential to achieve long-term success.
Velandia's playing days are coming to an end, but his baseball career is far from over.
Velandia, who is in many ways the prototypical "good field, no hit" middle infielder, has appeared in parts of eight big league campaigns. He made his Major League debut as a member of the Padres in 1997, and he appeared briefly with both Toronto and Cleveland last season. But despite such constant proximity to "The Show," he has known for quite some time that his playing days were coming to an end.
"I got called up to Tampa Bay in 2007, during the last three weeks of the season," he recalled. "It was great, I was finally an everyday player. But they took me off the roster at the end of the season, and I've been with four teams since then. The same thing kept happening -- I would get called up for a little while and then sit on the bench and then go back down.
"So I started thinking to myself 'This is it. I'm never going to get to play every day at the Major League level. Do I want to keep doing this up-and-down thing or start the next episode?'"
As one door closes, another opens
2009 has served as the perfect bridge to this "next episode." It may not say so on the Lehigh Valley roster, but Velandia is, in essence, a player-coach.
"There are so many things that go on that players don't get to know," said Velandia. "I've been learning to manage the game in my own way, while still asking a bunch of questions. I coach first base every day, and I make my own [pitching and hitting] charts and send in scouting reports. But I still take batting practice, field ground balls and hang out with the guys, so instead of calling it quits right off the bat, it's been like quitting in slow motion."
Essentially, Velandia is learning to view the game from a broader, more nuanced perspective.
"I've always seen the game from my angle at shortstop, so I know what that's like," he said. "But now I have to change my angle to the manager's side of things. It allows you to see the game in a different way, and that's the beauty of baseball. There are no breaks; you always have to be thinking."
Perhaps the greatest benefit of Velandia's current situation is that it allows him to dabble in a wide variety of roles -- from coach to scout to front office liaison.
But whatever the job may be, Velandia hopes it can be within the Phillies organization.
"I've played for a lot of teams in my career, so I know a lot of people," he said. "But if I can I want to stay with the Phillies, because they are the ones who are giving me this opportunity."
Velandia's advanced scouting report
Indeed, one of the reasons the Phillies signed Velandia as a free agent this past offseason was because they saw his potential as a future coach or scout. According to Phillies director of scouting Chuck LaMar, this is a common practice in the world of baseball.
"I think every organization does it," he said. "We really scrutinize our system for potential candidates, that's our best resource and a great way to fill all sorts of different job descriptions."
And LaMar's take on Velandia is an exceedingly positive one.
"[Velandia] has all the ingredients and characteristics of someone who could have a long future on the administrative side of baseball," he said. "He's the type of player who worked his way up through the Minors, made it to the Majors and experienced all the ups and downs. He's intelligent, bilingual, comes from a good family and really knows the game. These are the things we look for."
LaMar also feels that Velandia's self-described "slow-motion" exit as a player will be to his advantage.
"He's had all year to come to grips with the fact that this is the end of his playing career, so he's making a confident transition. Whereas some players might spend the year aspiring to be called up, and then have to deal with the harsh reality that it's over," said LaMar. "We have not yet sat down and mapped out a firm plan for his development, but we know he wants that opportunity and think something good can happen."
Phillies assistant general manager Benny Looper echoed many of Lamar's sentiments regarding the importance of scouring the farm system for potential coaching and scouting candidates, and he offered a similar take on Velandia as well.
"Jorge has got knowledge, desire and the character to go along with it," said Looper.
But on a day-to-day basis, Velandia is most reliant on the IronPigs coaching staff, which is comprised of manager Dave Huppert, pitching coach Rod Nichols and hitting coach Greg Gross. Huppert offered the following assessment of Velandia.
"He knows how to communicate and loves the game, so I'd say he's got a chance -- a real good chance."
Huppert's current squad includes several players with credentials similar to Velandia's. The club's veteran-heavy roster also includes David Newhan and Andy Tracy, both of whom are 35 and well-respected within the game.
"When his playing days come to an end, Tracy will make an outstanding staff member," said LaMar. "And we have Newhan on the roster as a player-coach. He has a great desire to stay in the game, and we're confident something can be worked out. To have three [coaching] candidates on one club is remarkable, and I think they can catch on either with the Phillies or somewhere else in baseball."
But as beneficial as it may be to continue one's baseball career in another capacity, it can nonetheless be a difficult subject to broach. Just ask LaMar, who relayed an anecdote dating back to his days in the Pirates organization.
"Steve Henderson was an outstanding Major League player, but I'll never forget talking to him after a [Winter League] game in Caracas [Venezuela] as his career was winding down. I told him that he would make a good coach, and I thought he was going to strangle me right there in the dugout. He didn't want to hear that from me or anybody else. At that point, he was still a player.
Developing into a baseball 'lifer'
As for Velandia, his playing days are not quite over yet. After the conclusion of the IronPigs' season, he will head to the instructional leagues for two weeks in order to spend time tutoring young players. From there, he will head to his native Venezuela in order to compete in his 17th and final season as a member of the Tiburones de La Guaira.
It will certainly be a bittersweet experience when Velandia hangs up his spikes for good, but he'll do so with no regrets.
"A lot of people play professionally for a long time and end up hating the game," he said. "That's not me at all. I feel lucky to have played all this time, because the competition is so hard. Now I'm excited for the next step."
And if all goes well, that "next step" will last for a long, long while.
"When I first got signed, I said I was going to commit to five years as a player. That turned into 18," he said. "If now I say I'm going to dedicate five to coaching, that could turn into another 18. If so, that would be 36 years in baseball and I'd be very happy with that."
Here Velandia paused.
"All I've got is time, really, because I can't think of anything I'd rather do than be around the game. This is exactly where I want to be."