After several frustrating seasons in the Minors, speedy shortstop Eugenio Velez finally found his stroke with the Augusta GreenJackets in 2006, earning MiLB.com's Class A Offensive Player of the Year award.
Velez put together a dominant campaign with the South Atlantic League finalists, batting .315 with 14 homers, 29 doubles, a Minor League-leading 20 triples, 90 RBIs and 64 stolen bases.
The 24-year-old hit .285 with four homers and 34 RBIs for Class A Lansing in 2005 before being left unprotected by the Toronto Blue Jays in the Minor League phase of the Rule 5 Draft. The San Francisco Giants snapped him up, and the native of the Dominican Republic paid immediate dividends under manager Roberto Kelly, a former big leaguer who flashed similar skills during his playing days.
Velez always knew he had the potential to steal bases, having swiped 28 in 2002 in the Dominican Summer League. But it wasn't a skill the Blue Jays were focused on developing.
"The Blue Jays gave me a chance to play baseball, I grew up with them. But when I came to the Giants, a lot of things were different," Velez said. "They recognized I had some speed and helped me with that part of the game. Roberto Kelly helped with that."
For Velez, base stealing was symbolic of the new freedom he felt in the Giants organization.
"It's hard to explain," he said. "I had a little more confidence and I was looser and happier. In past seasons, I was sometimes bored and uncomfortable."
He also took advantage of the "green light" to stretch doubles into triples.
"They told me that if I hit the ball into the gap or down the line, I've got to go for third because I've got good speed," Velez said. "Roberto Kelly put that in my mind and, thank God, I put it in practice."
Kelly, who took over the GreenJackets after managing Panama's entry in the World Baseball Classic, was thrilled to help mold such a well-rounded offensive player.
"He's a very exciting type of player," Kelly said from his home in Texas. "He can beat you with his power and his speed, he can beat you in so many ways. He can get on base with a walk and steal second and third. It puts pressure on the pitcher and gives the other batters better pitches."
Giants farm director Bobby Evans said the organization was not deterred by Velez's less-than-stellar statistics. He hit .274 with nine triples and 11 stolen bases in 638 at-bats in the Toronto system.
"Our report showed us that this guy had tools," Evans said. "You want to look for athletes, and he's a guy who can play in the middle of the diamond. Scouts don't spend a whole lot of time on the stats."
Kelly revealed the reason for Velez's newfound success.
"He realized the potential he had and how far he could go, and that he was taking it for granted and getting older," Kelly said. "It was time to prove to people that he could make a big jump. And that's exactly what he did."
Kelly also demanded batting cage discipline from his entire team.
"You should use batting practice to work on things and not use it as a driving range," Kelly said. "In the past, he may have tried to hit everything out of the park."
While Augusta hitters were instructed to stay off the range, hitting coach Andy Skeels used a golf analogy to describe the way the ball comes off Velez's bat.
"If he's swinging the bat well, he's flat through the zone, and it looks like a Tiger Woods 2-iron," he said. "To hit a lot of triples, you have to hit the ball against the wall, and that's what he does."
The comparisons to star athletes doesn't end there.
Asked how Velez's combination of speed and power measured up against players from his era, Kelly quickly offered the name of future Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson.
"He may even have more home run power than Rickey did," said Kelly, who roamed the same outfield with Henderson as a member of the New York Yankees.
At 6-foot-1 and 163 pounds, Velez isn't intimidating at the plate. But he certainly got the attention of SAL pitchers.
"He always swung hard, and when he made contact the ball would go," said West Virginia Power left-hander Steve Garrison. "He had a good eye, and if he saw something to hit, he would hit it. He didn't miss many mistakes."
Velez said he worked on pitch recognition with Skeels during early batting practice for most of the season. He also enjoyed playing for a Spanish-speaking manager.
"I could understand everything (Kelly) was telling me," Velez said. "If he wanted to teach me something in the cage, I could understand what I was doing well and what I was doing badly."
The wisdom Kelly gained from 14 seasons in the Majors wasn't lost on Velez or the other GreenJackets, who went 92-47, including a 53-16 mark in the second half.
"I've been thinking about playing in the Major Leagues for a long time," Velez said. "And he was able to tell me how to get there, but not just me alone, the whole team."
While the Giants aren't sure where Velez will start 2007 or what position he will play, they have recognized the enormous potential he began to tap last year.