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Originally published Monday, April 4, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Mariners

Valdez surprise starter at short

Wilson Valdez made today's lineup, hitting ninth, because Pokey Reese is out with a strained right shoulder. But how he got there is a saga.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Listing the Mariners' all-time improbable opening-day starters would produce the likes of Bud Bulling (catcher in 1981 and 1983), Brian Giles (shortstop in 1990), Ben Davis (catcher in 2003) and Willie Bloomquist (third base in 2004).

But none compares to the unlikely presence of Wilson Valdez, the stranger at shortstop today.

Valdez seemingly came from nowhere.

He made today's lineup, hitting ninth, because Pokey Reese is out with a strained right shoulder. But how he got there is a saga. In a span of three days, Valdez, 26, criss-crossed the country for the travel equivalent of a three-bagger to get to Las Vegas 20 minutes before his Mariners debut Saturday.

"I was really tired. I flew in and got to the park and got dressed," he said, smiling, shaking his head at the amazing twists that brought him to Safeco Field.

So he went out quickly, and got involved in four of the first five plays of the game against the Chicago Cubs.

"He did well," Mariners general manager Bill Bavasi said. "He'd be the shortstop for us, even if he had a bad game. We told him that."

"They talked to me, told me not worry," said Valdez, who wears No. 12. "But it felt like a tryout, one game to make the team. I was lucky to have all this happen.

"I had to get out there, I had to play, they wanted me to play and I wanted to do the best I can for the team."

His new teammates had to ask, "Is that the guy who's our shortstop?"

Valdez had to keep reminding himself which team he was playing for.

"I was in shock, but it's better," Valdez said. "For a time, I was thinking, 'I don't know where I am.' "

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No wonder.

On Wednesday, he was in Tucson, Ariz., at the spring-training camp of the Chicago White Sox, where he had been traded from Florida last season — until Chicago told him he had been waived.

On Thursday, he was in Port St. Lucie, Fla., with the New York Mets, who claimed him although they had added Benji Gil from Seattle days earlier to further jam up an infield that also had backups Miguel Cairo and Chris Woodward.

On Friday, having played three innings of a Grapefruit League game with New York the day before, he was eating lunch when his wife called.

"She told me I was not a Met no more," he said. "I was a Mariner.

"Some Seattle guy had called and told her," he said, "so here I am."

That guy was Bavasi, who had found out for sure that Reese's shoulder injury would put him on the disabled list, not on the infield. The GM acted quickly, claiming Valdez when the Mets tried to get him past the waiver wire.

"We decided this is the way we wanted to go," Bavasi said. "We were looking to shore up the position, create some depth and not have to bring up a prospect to play."

That prospect would not be Jose Lopez. Not only is Seattle's top infield prospect out for 3 to 4 weeks with a jammed left wrist, but Bavasi said he would keep him in the minors to develop even if he was healthy and available.

Bavasi said he received good reports on Valdez from scout Dan Evans and bench coach Ron Hassey, who was with Florida last year and saw Valdez in the Marlins' camp.

Bavasi said those reports compared Valdez to Reese and Ramon Santiago.

"A good defensive guy, a good glove," Bavasi said.

That was bad news for Santiago.

Mike Hargrove told Santiago he had not made it.

"It was tough," the manager said of his meeting with the infielder, who was making the opposite journey of Valdez, from opening day to oblivion. "Giving bad news is probably the most unfavorite part of the job.

"The kid (Santiago) had come to camp and done everything we had asked of him, as much or as little, and did it with a smile. He showed a lot of people he can play, certainly play defense at the big-league level."

Despite the defensive similarities, the decision probably was based somewhat on Valdez's offensive potential.

In the Marlins' system in 2003, he hit .313 at Class AA Carolina and .287 after a promotion to AAA Albuquerque. Last year, he hit .319 in 66 games in the Pacific Coast League again, then .302 at AAA Charlotte after being traded to the White Sox.

Considered a good bunter, the 5-foot-11, 170-pounder also showed speed at all levels, totaling 81 steals over his last two minor-league seasons.

How long Valdez stays at shortstop depends on how quickly Reese heals.

"He's going to be there for 15 days at least," Bavasi said.

By then the Mariners will have learned his range and tools, after they get his name down.

His one link is Mariners pitcher Julio Mateo, who also comes from the town of Bani in the Dominican Republic.

"But I never knew him there, or played with him," Mateo said. "I met him on the beach at Menizao Planque."

Still, Valdez feels comfortable already.

"I'd like to do well and maybe get to stay here," he said.

Bob Finnigan: 206-464-8276 or bfinnigan@seattletimes.com

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