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DODGERS NOTEBOOK: VALDEZ NOT MAKING DECISION AN EASY ONE.

Byline: TONY JACKSON

Staff Writer

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- On an otherwise forgettable afternoon for the Dodgers, Wilson Valdez made sure people would remember him. Not just the people wearing baseball uniforms, but also the ones wearing khakis, golf shirts and Panama hats behind home plate.

For Valdez, who is a long shot to make the Dodgers' Opening Day roster but is out of minor-league options, spring training is as much about impressing scouts from other clubs as it is about impressing Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti and manager Grady Little. And if Valdez continues to perform the way he did in Thursday's Grapefruit League opener -- a 7-2 loss to the Atlanta Braves in front of 5,442 at the Ballpark -- the Dodgers' brass probably will face a clear choice: keep him or lose him.

After all, guys like this rarely make it through waivers.

"Hopefully, I can stay here," Valdez said. "That's what I'm trying to do."

Valdez replaced Rafael Furcal at shortstop in the third inning and went 1 for 2, doubling into the right-field corner off one-time Dodgers pitcher Buddy Carlyle in the fifth. Despite committing an error during his six innings in the field, he had five assists and two putouts, started one double play, and turned the pivot on another.

But his best moment came in the eighth inning, when he raced into shallow center field in pursuit of a high pop fly by Braves catcher Corky Miller. The ball landed just out of Valdez's reach and died on the grass. But without even looking to see if Yunel Escobar had held up at first, Valdez picked up the ball and fired it into second base, where Tony Abreu tagged Escobar sliding in. The play robbed Miller of what should have been a clean, bloop single.

"Wilson is probably one of the most heads-up shortstops I have ever seen play," said Ken Howell, the pitching coach for the Dodgers' Triple-A Las Vegas affiliate, where Valdez had the best season of his professional career last summer. "That play you saw with that fly ball, he just instinctively knew the guy had held up to see if the ball would be caught. That play didn't shock me at all, because I have seen him make it far too many times."

Valdez went to camp last spring with Kansas City, signing there as a minor-league free agent because, he says, Royals officials told him he would make the club.

"But they lied to me," he said. "So when I got traded to the Dodgers (on March 31), I was just excited for the opportunity to play every day, even if it was in the minor leagues."

Valdez was the 51s' primary shortstop, hitting .297 with 24 doubles and getting named to the Pacific Coast League All-Star team. He also posted a .366 on-base percentage, walked more times (56) than he struck out (52), and committed just 16 errors at the most error-prone position. For all that, the 51s'coaching staff voted him the team's MVP.

"He worked his tail off to become a key component to the organization," Howell said.

Still, he wasn't enough of a component to warrant a September callup -- or any other kind of callup -- at a time when the Dodgers had a glut of middle-infield types already in the majors. But the club already has taken one step to avoid losing Valdez to free agency, adding him to the 40-man roster last October. So it isn't inconceivable that the Dodgers would take another step by adding him to the 25-man roster when they break camp. But it's tough to imagine that happening, given the team is crowded with veteran position players.

Shaky pitching: The Braves roughed up Randy Wolf, Chad Billingsley, Travis Smith and Chin-Hui Tsao for 14 hits through the first seven innings.

"We obviously gave up more hits than you want to give up," pitching coach Rick Honeycutt said. "We struggled to put people away, and that will come when our guys have better command of their secondary pitches.

"Randy, when he would get ahead in the count, didn't have that little something. He had a tremendous season against left-handed hitters last year (.086 average), and three of the four hits off him (in two innings) were by lefties."

tony.jackson@dailynews.com

(818) 713-3607

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Dodgers shortstop Wilson Valdez, right, turns a double play Thursday. Valdez is considered a long shot to make the team.

Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Mar 2, 2007
Words:755
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