Sometimes, when I’m driving to work in the morning, I wonder what and how Kris Bryant is doing. Is he sitting in traffic on the way to work, too? Is it hard to drive a car when your arms are sore from crushing baseballs for hours every day? How are the big guy’s knees holding up during off-season fielding drills? And it always comes around to the one question hovering over every Cubs fan this winter: “When will Kris Bryant get the call-up?” I find it a little unfortunate that so many Cubs fans and prospect hounds are salivating to see if Bryant can play third base at the MLB level, however, since the Cubs have a perfectly average player entrenched at the hot corner in Luis Valbuena. Before history pushes Valbuena’s name into the Wally Pipp pile, it seems like a good time to reflect on one of the most valuable members of the Cubs over the last 3 seasons.

Valbuena signed with the Mariners in 2002, out of Venezuela, three days before Seattle also signed Asdrubal Cabrera. The Mariners chose to groom Cabrera at shortstop while slotting Valbuena in at second base. Valbuena first came Stateside in 2005, to play second base with the Mariners’ short-season Class A team, the Everett AquaSox. Cabrera stayed ahead of Valbuena, rocketing to Triple-A by 2006, but his struggles there led the Mariners to trade Cabrera to the Indians for Eduardo Perez. Valbuena, on the other hand, steadily climbed through the Mariners’ minor-league system. While he didn’t set the world on fire, he posted a .371 OBP in the Midwest league in 2006, and ascended to High-A Inland Empire by the end of that season.

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Valbuena in his early days with the AquaSox. Credit: photo.net

Like many young prospects, Valbuena didn’t take well to Double-A at age 21 (in 2007), batting .239/.311/.378. Only 10 batters appeared in the Southern League that season who were 21 or younger, though, including Justin Upton, Evan Longoria and future teammate Michael Brantley, so it’s easy to forgive his rough adjustment period. Following the season, Baseball America would drop Valbuena from the Mariners’ top 20 prospects. It’s easy to understand the lack of enthusiasm for a light-hitting 5-foot-10 second baseman who didn’t flash tremendous tools or a sparkling stat line. Repeating Double-A in 2008, however, Valbuena increased his walks, reduced his strikeouts and started to gain a reputation among prospect hounds as a player to watch. After a mid-season promotion to the Pacific Coast League, Valbuena got his first taste of the majors in September, eking out a .662 OPS in 18 games. Several forces beyond Valbuena’s control would steer his career in a new direction following the 2008 season.

Mark Shapiro set the stage to acquire Valbuena when the Indians punted early in the 2008 season.

On July 6th, 2008, while the Indians were busy losing to the Twins, their general manager, Mark Shapiro, was busy hammering out the details to trade 27-year-old star pitcher (and pending free agent) CC Sabathia. The Indians entered the season with great expectations, following a 90-win 2007 season, but injuries and poor performances torpedoed their season. By the time the Sabathia trade to the Brewers became official on July 7th, the Tribe were 37-51 and in the cellar in the AL Central. The Indians received a small haul initially, including slugging top-30 prospect Matt LaPorta, and the deal was considered acceptable by writers like Keith Law. The addition of Michael Brantley to complete the deal after the season proved to be the primary value the Indians received, though, as Brantley has recently blossomed into an All-Star while the other players never met expectations. The trade proved to be poorly timed: if Shapiro hadn’t given up far too early on his team, they may have been a contender. Cleveland went 44-30 the rest of the season, finished at .500 and completed a five-year stretch in which they finished with 80 or more wins in four seasons. The Indians weren’t finished with their youth movement, however, and an opportunity would arise for them to acquire more prospects late in 2008.

In addition to the youth movement in Cleveland, the Mets’ perceived need for a lock-down setup man to complement Francisco Rodriguez at the end of games played a role in Valbuena’s eventual journey east. Entering the 2008-09 off-season, Mets’ general manager Omar Minaya set out to overhaul a bullpen that posted a 4.27 ERA in 2008. In the process, he acquired the Mariners’ closer, JJ Putz, as well as reliever Sean Green and backup outfielder Jeremy Reed. The deal was significantly larger than just the three players heading to the Mets, however, as Cleveland agreed to send slick-fielding Franklin Gutiérrez to the Mariners in return for Valbuena. The Indians also received promising 25-year-old reliever Joe Smith from the Mets. In return for two relievers, a backup outfielder and Valbuena, the Mariners received seven players in total: Gutiérrez from the Indians and Mike Carp, Ezequiel Carrera, Endy Chavez, Maikel Cleto, Aaron Heilman and Jason Vargas from the Mets.

Franklin Gutiérrez with the Indians. Credit: zimbio.com

The trade appeared to pay immediate dividends for the Mariners, as Gutiérrez became the team’s most valuable player in 2009, thanks to an above-average year at the plate that complemented a tremendous year in the field. The Mariners finished the season 85-77, but significantly out-performed their Pythagorean expected win-loss record (75-87) and would not make it above .500 again until 2014. Gutiérrez was never able to duplicate his first season with the Mariners, and injuries and poor performance saw him eventually slip out of starting duty in center field. Jason Vargas’s career with Seattle saw him post two years with roughly average ERAs before they traded him to the Angels prior to 2013. The Mets, meanwhile, rode their revamped bullpen to a 70-92 season, finishing fourth in the NL East. The Indians’ revamped farm system would turn some heads, as Kevin Goldstein, writing for Baseball Prospectus, promoted it from 20th in baseball prior to 2008 to 12th in baseball prior to 2009, and Baseball America promoted it from 19th before 2008 to the seventh overall system prior to 2009.

Luis Valbuena’s fortunes looked bright entering the 2009 season. While Goldstein didn’t include Valbuena in Cleveland’s top 11 prospects, he was named a “just missed” candidate. Covering Valbuena for BaseballAmerica.com, Ben Badler noted his above-average defense and included glowing reports from the Indians about his approach at the plate. Playing in the Venzuelan Winter League, he continued to work pitchers and show a little pop, finishing the season with a .291/.358/.504 batting line. Valbuena would be joining the Indians at a very interesting time, however, and his future with the team was not guaranteed.

A window for Valbuena to become a fixture on the Indians appeared to open. During the 2008 mid-season sell-off, the Indians traded third baseman Casey Blake to the Dodgers. The Indians were in the process of moving shortstop Jhonny Peralta to third base and shifting second baseman Asdrubal Cabrera to shortstop, which created an opportunity at second base. Unfortunately, the Indians decided not to rely exclusively on youth in the infield. Just weeks after acquiring Valbuena in the three-team deal, Cleveland sent three prospects to the Cubs for super-utility veteran Mark DeRosa. Appearing at six different positions for the Cubs in 2008, DeRosa punished pitchers to the tune of an .857 OPS with 21 homers, well above-average for a second baseman. While hindsight makes fans wonder what the Indians were doing trading prospects for a veteran at a time when it looked like they were rebuilding, the context of the trade makes sense.

The 2008 Indians’ late-season surge was built around many young players returning for 2009. Not everyone disappointed fans and teammates in 2008, either, as Grady Sizemore continued to star in center field and Cabrera rebounded from a .529 OPS in the first half by posting an .862 OPS in the second half, including a 1.026 OPS in the final month of the season. Ace Cliff Lee would return to head the rotation in 2009, and the Indians signed Kerry Wood to anchor the bullpen. While Peralta and Victor Martinez were part of the reason Cleveland got off to a disappointing start in 2008, a return to form would bolster the team’s offense. They were also replacing Franklin Gutiérrez with Shin-Soo Choo, who broke out with a .946 OPS in 2008. Thus, 2009 looked promising for the Indians as even PECOTA (the projection engine that correctly projected the young Rays team to win the AL East in 2008) projected the Indians would win the AL Central (albeit with an 83-79 record). Trading for DeRosa gave the Indians a veteran infielder with experience in many pennant chases and six postseasons.

Cabrera and Valbuena: VSL teammates reunited

May 2nd, 2009 marked the start of Valbuena’s major-league career with the Indians, as he was promoted after hitting .321/.436/.538 to start the season in Triple-A. Ben Badler remarked of Valbuena’s call-up that he was “capable of filling in at shortstop or sliding across the diamond to third base if necessary.” Another disappointing start for the Indians opened the door for Valbuena to land a starting role. After opening the season 31-45, Mark DeRosa was shipped to the Cardinals for Chris Perez and a player to be named later. While Valbuena would see enough playing time in 2009 to qualify for fantasy teams at shortstop, he settled into his role at second base, starting 75 games over the course of the season. By season’s end, he’d hit 10 home runs in 103 games, clubbing his way to a .714 OPS. While the Indians finished the season in last place, Valbuena appeared to have the inside track on the second-base job for 2010 since, after trading Cliff Lee and Victor Martinez, the Indians appeared to be ready to let their young players develop the core of the team.

The path to earning the right to stare over his shoulder at Kris Bryant was far from straight, however. The Indians signed 40-year-old infielder Mark Grudzielanek the following January. The right-handed hitting Grudzielanek would form a platoon with Valbuena, but the tandem performed terribly to start the season. Grudzielanek was released in mid-June, after posting a .600 OPS, which made room for Jason Donald, an infielder acquired the previous year in the Cliff Lee trade, to pick up the small half of the platoon. Valbuena didn’t fare much better. Two weeks after Grudzielanek’s release, Valbuena was optioned to Triple-A in favor of Jayson Nix. Back in Columbus, Valbuena torched International League pitchers and found himself back on the 25-man roster by early August. Not much improved for Valbuena, as he finished the season with a .531 OPS. The following year was more of the same, as Valbuena struggled to stick with the big-league team. Appearing in 17 games, Valbuena posted only a .506 OPS. For the moment, he appeared to be a Quadruple-A hitter: too good for the minors, but not nearly good enough for the Majors. In November, the Indians sold Valbuena to the Blue Jays. He didn’t stick there either, though, and the Cubs claimed him off waivers when he failed to make the Jays’ Opening Day roster. The new front office for the Cubs, led by president Theo Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer, had a long track record of valuing the kind of patience Valbuena had shown throughout his minor-league career.

Now with his third organization in less than a year, the 26-year-old Valbuena found himself back in Triple-A. The Opening Day roster for the Cubs featured a platoon comprised of recently acquired left-handed hitting Ian Stewart, who had struggled with the Rockies ever since a wrist injury sidetracked his career, and Joe Mather, already a journeyman at 28. Stewart’s wrist would continue to plague him, though, and another surgery meant another opportunity for Valbuena in the big leagues. In hindsight, 2012 was an experimental season for the Cubs. They hired first-time manager Dale Sveum before the season. A good part of the roster was comprised of players who had shown flashes of brilliance in the minors, like Bryan LaHair (who posted a 1.070 OPS the previous season in Iowa), or who did one thing extremely well, like Darwin Barney’s smothering defense at second base or Tony Campana’s blazing speed. Valbuena and his career .387 OBP in Triple-A were a good fit. Valbuena became the Cubs everyday starter against right-handed pitchers, and took a step forward as a hitter, finishing the season with a .650 OPS. Baseball-Reference’s WAR valued his season at just above replacement level, but at least he was capable of sticking with the Cubs, for now.

Starting 2013 as the large half of the third-base platoon, Valbuena entered June with a .264 batting average and .836 OPS. Everything looked to be coming together. Maybe he wasn’t a Quadruple-A hitter, after all. Unfortunately, balls off Valbuena’s bat couldn’t find a hole. His batting average on balls in play (any ball hit that isn’t a foul ball or home run) plummeted, reaching a miniscule .190 during the month of July. At the All-Star break, he was batting .236/.345/.394 with eight home runs. He was still walking almost as much as he struck out, but his failure to succeed on batted balls continued to haunt him. The second half wasn’t any kinder. An oblique strain in August sent Valbuena to the DL for a month. His overall batting line in the second half plummeted to .165/.290/.329. To give him the benefit of the doubt, obliques are critical to hitting the ball with the kind of hard contact it takes to hit for a solid average, so it’s possible the injury took too much off the swing of a player who wasn’t exactly known for hitting scorching line drives. Valbuena’s final batting line, .218/.331/.378 with 12 home runs, was slightly below-average for all MLB players, but strong defense at third, by advanced metrics, meant he was on track to being an average player overall. In 108 games, Baseball-Reference valued his 2013 season at 1.6 WAR (2 is roughly an average player) while Fangraphs’ UZR fielding metric liked him a little more, pushing his final value to 2.1 WAR.

Bryan LaHair pulled a reverse-Fukudome: made an All-Star team and then got shipped to Japan

Even though Cubs third basemen combined for 32 home runs in 2013, good for fifth among all MLB teams, the focus was certainly not on what the major-league third basemen were doing. With the second pick of the June draft, the Cubs selected power-hitting third baseman Kris Bryant out of the University of San Diego. Bryant led all college hitters with 31 home runs in 2013, the most anyone had hit in a season since the NCAA switched to the BBCOR composite bats, which limited the speed at which balls jump off of college metal bats. Draft rules instituted as a result of a new CBA allowed the Cubs to sign Bryant quickly, and he played 36 games in the minors before the season was over (in the past, top draft picks could hold out for months but the deadline to sign was moved up in the new CBA). He didn’t disappoint, hitting .336/.390/.688 across three levels, with nine home runs. Questions surrounded the 6’4” player about whether or not he would be able to play third in the Majors, but his light-tower power would certainly play. Bryant would almost certainly start 2014 in Double-A, a launching pad for many future star players who skip Triple-A and go straight to the big leagues.

I suspect Bryant was just happy to get away from these hideous uniforms. Credit: USABaseball.com

Bryant wasn’t the only talented player breathing down Valbuena’s neck, though. In mid-2013 the Cubs had traded pending free agent Matt Garza for a package of young players including Mike Olt. Like Valbuena, Olt had a reputation as a strong defensive player who could take a walk. Unlike Valbuena, Olt was expected to hit with the kind of power that could allow him to hit 25 or more home runs in a season. The infield was also becoming crowded for the Cubs. Including Valbuena and Olt, the team’s 2014 Opening Day 25-man roster included six infielders. Down in Iowa, the roster included hot shortstop prospect Javier Baez, who was learning to play second and third, and Christian Villanueva, another strong glove man at third who showed some home-run power in Double-A Tennessee.  If Valbuena was going to keep a starting job, he was going to have to show enough talent to make it worth stunting Olt’s growth as a hitter by keeping him out of the everyday lineup, or to keep the Cubs from promoting Villanueva or Baez to try their hand at the hot corner.

The Cubs decided to open the season with Valbuena and Olt forming the third-base platoon. In order to squeeze extra offense out of the infield, manager Rich Renteria would also occasionally play Valbuena at second base instead of light-hitting Darwin Barney. That strategy worked, in that Valbuena opened the season with a strong start, posting a .377 OBP in April and a .902 OPS in May. Something seemed to possess Valbuena in the mid-summer months, though. He was no longer walking almost as much as he struck out. His career struggles with balls in play seemed to be catching up to him, too. For the month of July, he posted a .640 OPS with just a 7.1-percent walk rate, way below his career average. Olt was struggling even worse, though, and would make his final start at third base for the season on July 22. Batting just .139, albeit with 12 home runs, Olt was striking out too often to stay productive at the plate. The team needed room on the roster to add another starting pitcher, and so opened the door for Valbuena to play everyday. The more aggressive approach Valbuena had shown during the summer started to pay some dividends, too. In August, he hit 7 home runs to raise his season total to 15.

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Valbuena, seen here pimping a single. Credit: Fangraphs.com

Suddenly, Valbuena was not just a secretly productive player noticed only by Cubs fans. Fantasy baseball gurus were noting he might be worth picking up in fantasy leagues. In Atlanta, sports-talk hosts were speculating on whether he would be a good target for a waiver-wire trade to platoon with Chris Johnson at third. The Oakland A’s had already targeted Valbuena while trading for Jeff Samardzija earlier in the season. They could have used his August power surge, as the team went into an offensive tailspin in the second half that saw them go from the best record in the league to slipping into a Wild Card game. While the home runs nearly disappeared, Valbuena went back to being the disciplined hitter he had been throughout his career, getting on base at a .412 clip while batting .269. At season’s end, he was batting .249/.341/.435 with 16 home runs in 149 games; his most complete and his most successful season as a hitter. Unfortunately, advanced defensive metrics weren’t kind to Valbuena last season. For the first time in his career as a third basemen, he scored below average on dWAR and UZR.

Just as they do at bat, players can have bad seasons with their glove. Due to the way these stats are collected, in which someone watches the game and marks the location of a batted ball and whether or not it was fielded, these stats are subject to human error, too. Some of them are also affected by the shift, meaning a routine ball that isn’t fielded because the third baseman positioned at shortstop or right field counts against them just like a ball fielded in the shift can skew numbers in their favor. Like all stats, it’s best to view advanced fielding stats in large samples and, especially with these stats, check numbers against expert opinions before passing judgement.

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If you look all the way to the right, that’s 3rd baseman Brett Lawrie in shallow right field. Some advanced metrics can’t tell the difference in positioning.

After three straight seasons of last-place finishes, the Cubs look like a winning team heading into 2015. Playing the waiver wire and committing to flipping short-term assets for potential long-term contributors seems to have paid off at both the major- and minor-league level. The Cubs’ farm system is considered the best in baseball by many. Bryant will be crowned the number-one prospect in baseball when the top-100 lists start to come out soon, and Addison Russell is a contender for the top five. Much speculation has been made about the Cubs infield. It could include Russell, Starlin Castro and Javier Baez, all players with experience at shortstop and all expected to be above-average to star players in the future. If all three players find their way into the infield, Bryant could be asked to move to the outfield. That doesn’t leave room for Valbuena in the starting lineup, though. The tough question for the Cubs, if they want to contend this season, is if one of these players could be more valuable than Valbuena.

This leads us to the important question: what kind of player is Valbuena at this point, and what kind of player will he be? In his three years with the Cubs, Valbuena carries a .232/.330/.394 slash line, with 32 home runs. His .321 weighed on base average ranks 21st among third basemen with 1,000 or more plate appearances over that span, according to Fangraphs. [If you don’t know what wOBA is, please go look it up right now. To be honest, it’s more important than finishing this article. It’s also worth pointing out that offensive leaderboards for 3rd basemen in that time span are all hampered by Miguel Cabrera’s two-season shift to the hot corner.] In the same sample, Valbuena ranks first in walk percentage (12.4%) and 16th in isolated power (ISO, which measures what percentage of hits go for extra bases), meaning he’s a patient hitter, but not someone who’s using that patience to hit for a ton of power. He ranks eighth in UZR, though,  beating out Evan Longoria and Hall of Fame defender Adrian Beltre. Valbuena’s low batting average combined with low BABIP indicates that he rates below average on the 20-80 hitting tool spectrum.

Hit Tool Projected Batting Average
80 .320
70 .300
60 .280
50 .260
40 .240
30 .220
20 <.220

 

Entering his 29 year-old season, it’s unlikely Valbuena will improve by a significant amount at the plate this point. If he can just maintain his hitting contributions from 2014 and play defense as he has throughout his career, he could inch toward a three-win track next season. That’s not a very easy player to find in free agency or to acquire through a trade, and it’s a lot to expect from a rookie. It’s certainly worth a lot more than the $3.1 million MLBTradeRumors.com estimates he’ll make next season. Add in his team control through 2017, and that’s one heck of a waiver claim for the Cubs.

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