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luis valbuena cubsIt might be time to start talking about Luis Valbuena as the Chicago Cubs’ third baseman for 2014.

Sure, if you look at the upper levels of the minors, it was always a strong possibility that Valbuena would fall backwards into repeating at the Cubs’ primary third baseman in 2014. But what I’m talking about is Valbuena, like, affirmatively earning the job. And us being excited about it.

While his history before coming to the Cubs off of the scrap heap was relatively nondescript, there was a time when he was a top 20 prospect in the Mariners’ system, and then a modestly well-regarded young player with the Indians. He never quite emerged as a regular with the Indians, and the Cubs claimed him at the start of the 2012 season. He filled in reasonably well in the second half last year, but was still expected to play behind Ian Stewart this year. When Stewart was hurt and ineffective to begin the year, Valbuena grabbed the reins – in a platoon – and he hasn’t let go.

While his OPS – .766 – has slipped in the last month, it remains above average (109 OPS+). Better, his .355 OBP would be tied for 24th in the NL if he had enough plate appearances to qualify. His 4.28 pitches per plate appearance would be tied for second in the NL. He doesn’t strike out, and he takes walks. He has emerged as a fantastic leadoff option for the Cubs in the absence of David DeJesus. Moreover, he’s playing such good defense at third base that FanGraphs has him well above average there both this and last year.

Valbuena has already accumulated 1.7 WAR, which puts him on pace to be a 3.7 WAR player by the end of the year. That kind of calculation is necessarily imperfect, but the result is striking. Know how many third basemen in baseball had a WAR better than 3.7 last year? A whopping seven (Wright, Headley, Cabrera, Beltre, Ramirez, Zimmerman, Freese). That’s it.

Valbuena makes $930,000 this year, his first in arbitration. As a Super Two, he’s got three arbitration years left, and the Cubs have him under control through 2016. At just 27, it’s not unreasonable to think that Valbuena could actually be the Cubs’ starting third baseman for a healthy portion of those three years, depending on how various prospects shake out.

Sure, some of this might be a small-sample mirage. But the defense strikes me as legit. The plate approach is legit. The contract value is legit. All of the indicators look good, too: his walk rate is up, his K rate is down, his ISO is up, his BABIP isn’t even close to unsustainably high (in fact, it will probably regress in the positive direction).

The simple fact is, no matter how much our gut tells us to rebel, dreaming on Valbuena as a quality third base option for 2014, albeit probably in a platoon, is no longer crazy. It’s … legit.

Most importantly, Valbuena as the Cubs’ regular third baseman for the foreseeable future guarantees that we’ll get much more of the most gloriously superfluous bat flip in baseball history:

Gif via FanGraphs.

  • Gcheezpuff

    Wow… well that just is not the sexy name for the Cubs 3rd base gig I was hoping for at all.

    • DarthHater

      Ok, then: “Kris Bryant.” Feel better? ;-)

  • Timothy Scarbrough

    If that is his bat flip on a single, he must be chucking the bat over the wall on a homerun.

  • cubchymyst

    Still not sure about the bat flip for a single. Yeah he scored runs, but I think the bat flip needs to be reserved for those special occasions or it just losses some of its glory.

  • Chad

    I like Valbuena a lot. I like him at 3B until a prospect comes along that can replace him. At that point he could be a pretty good utility guy in the least.

  • Cerambam

    This is one of those things that I felt might happen and am internally okay with, but for some reason I just didn’t want to hear it out loud.

  • BluBlud

    As a former Valbuena Hater, I will say we could do a whole lot worse then that guy at 3rd base. I look at it like this, Valbeuna might be the worse we could hope for, which is a pretty good thing. If someone takes his job, that means they aere better. I would rather be in that situation, then having to look for someone to replcae him.

  • cjdubbya

    I’m guessing that Valbuena is Venezuelan for superfluous bat flips? Either way, I’m on board with this. Dude’s a legit MLB-caliber 3B at this point, and he’s inexpensive. A lot to like here.

    MOAR BAT FLIPZ!

    • Timothy Scarbrough

      If I had to guess Valbuena isn’t Venezuelan for anything. Mostly because they speak Spanish in Venezuela.

      • cjdubbya

        I’m well aware of this fact. Sorry that the “MOAR BAT FLIPZ” didn’t give away that I was saying that purely in jest.

  • http://thenewenthusiast.com dw8

    If the Cubs move forward with Valbuena, it must be considered who will be completing the right side of the third base platoon, and what the Cubs plan on paying that player.

    I heart Valbuena, but he’s a platoon player. He’s on the strong side of the platoon, but is a platoon player nonetheless.

    • BluBlud

      If i’m not mistaken, didn’t Valbuena used to hit Lefties better then Righties at some point. Maybe I’m in my Roger Clemons mode and I’m just Mis-remembering, but i always thought that was so.

      • Timothy Scarbrough

        Although it is kind of a small sample, yes, Valbuena has a reverse split.

        • http://thenewenthusiast.com dw8

          Yeah, the error bars on 200 PA’s is large. 46 K’s and 23 BB’s in those PA’s, FWIW. That’s about all I’d tend to rely on in those PA’s against lefties.

  • Whiteflag

    Brett,
    Your blog has always been high quality, but I have to say the pieces lately have taken things up a notch. Excellent work. I love the original pieces.

    • http://www.bleachernation.com Brett

      Well thanks, WF. I try.

    • DarthHater

      Good thing you started with “Brett,” or I’d have mistaken that for one of those blog spam posts. ;-)

      • Whiteflag

        Hey now, my grammar isn’t that bad. lol

  • http://lakehumalog.wordpress.com Eric Decker

    I think we should shop Barney and make Valbuena the starting second baseman. Interested to see what Valbuena’s splits are at the plate though …

  • 5412

    Hi Brett,

    I have a question. If Valbuena played 2B and led off, would we even be having this discussion?

    Thanks,
    5412

    • http://www.bleachernation.com Brett

      Nope. I think folks would say that guy is a keeper, no doubt.

      • Die hard

        See my earlier post with him at 2B short term and Barney at SS

      • JayPaul

        I presume many would be just as ecstatic, if Watkins could turn into Valbuena, with an added speed component, at the MLB level keeping Valbuena at 3rd. I don’t think this is that big of a reach for Watkins within the next couple seasons. Looks like an in house upgrade over Barney eventually.

    • Pat

      That’s an interesting question, as their career OPS numbers are almost identical (.656 to .653 slight edge to Valbuena)

  • Pat

    I think it’s a little to soon to start the conversation. His first two months were great, but June has been pretty bad. He’s certainly been better than expected so far, but I’d like to see him keep it up over the course of a full season before thinking about giving him the job next year as well.

  • Spriggs

    I like Valbuena a lot as a bench guy. I just can’t bring myself to say I want him as the everyday third baseman on the Cubs. But I guess I’m OK with him there for another year. It just blows that Vitters or Lake have been unable to step into that role.

  • Barry

    I think Valbuena should be considered for 2nd base which would make Barney expendable. I know Barney has hit well of late but he generally lacks the offensive skills of a ML player. I say trade Barney to Detroit or some other team that can afford to have his weak stick in the lineup.

    • RoughRiider

      Barney & Valbuena are almost the exact age. Their batting statistics are pretty close in all areas except that Barney has a career batting average 30 points higher than Valbuena. Valbuena is no where near the defensive player that Barney is. I’d stick with Barney and use Valbuena as a sub until there is someone on the team that can hit better and play an adequate 2nd. I hope that the Cubs can do better than a career .227 batter at third in 2014. I know that it rarely works the way we hope but I’d like to see an infield of Rizzo, Baez, Bryant and Castro in April of 2013.

      • RoughRiider

        I’d like to see an infield of Rizzo, Baez, Bryant and Castro in April of 2013. Meant to write 2015.

  • another JP

    Yes, LV is definitely a keeper for all the reasons you mention Brett. All he needed was an extended period of time to show what he could do and now he leads the team in WAR… not bad for a guy that was picked up as insurance for Stewie. With Barney & Rizzo beginning to get hot, the infield looks pretty stable with the exception of one guy- and I wouldn’t be opposed to plugging Cody Ransom in @ SS for a while to stabilize things a bit.

  • Kyle

    I just assumed this was already a done-ish deal?

    Valbuena is better than Castillo and probably Barney, not to mention whatever OFers we have left after the trade deadline. And there’s never any 3b available. Third base under Valbuena is about fifth in line for an upgrade right now.

    • BD

      Just out of pure curiosity, what are the first four?

      • Cubbie Blues

        1. Wrigley
        2. Outfield
        2. Infield
        4. Bull Pen

        • hansman1982

          Ehh,

          1. Quad…er, Sveum
          2. Theo’s Ego
          3. All the players
          4. All the coaches
          5. Valbuena
          6. Hiring Dick Tidrow as GM/Pres/Owner/SP/SS/Scoreboard Operator

      • Kyle

        In no particular order: LF, CF, 2b and C. And oh man, maybe even SS :(

        • hansman1982

          Eh, I doubt SS will be an issue, if we can get major upgrades at LF and CF (comeon, Shin Soo Choo) Barney is livable at 2B, Castillo (if the advanced C defensive metrics are to be believed) is ok at C.

          I really don’t think this team is as far from contention as it seems.

        • Andrew

          all of those are behind bullpen imo. Rizzo and Castro just have to play better, which I believe they can. id rather have Choo in LF and someone else in CF (maybe ellsbury?). I don’t see the issue with Castillo. He is a slighltly above average catcher (according to fangraphs) with slightly below average defense. I’ll take that from a guy making minimum wage

      • Andrew

        1 Bullpen
        2 Bullpen
        3 LF
        4. 2B
        5. Right handed bats
        6. Bullpen
        7. Rizzo and Castro to play the way they should
        8. 3B (but maybe not even then)

    • ssckelley

      Why the knock on Castillo? Between he and Navarro the Cubs have to be in the top 10 for the catcher position.

  • Dynastyin2017

    It would NOT be a good thing if LV is our starting 3rd baseman in 2015. That means another top 5 draft pick in 2016.

    • Timothy Scarbrough

      Luis Valbuena is not what is keeping us from being a competitive team.

      • Dynastyin2017

        Most teams that feel it’s okay to start an utility infielder at 3rd base are not competitive teams. He’s not the problem, but he sure the heck isn’t the solution.

        • Serious Cubs Fan

          Exactly. Why do people think a .242 avg is considered great? Yes the OBP is there but is by no means great. He’s an decent third baseman at best. He should only be our utility player on a good team

          • Featherstone

            I think you overestimate what a league average third baseman is. Valbuena is easily in the top half half of 3rd baseman league wide and if he continues his current pace he’s a top 10 3rd baseman. Avg is a very poor way to describe a player’s overall value.

        • BT

          If he ends up anywhere near a 3.7 WAR, he’s not a utility infielder, which is the entire premise of the post.

          • Serious Cubs Fan

            BT: Simple question, do you think Valbuena is in the class of Wright, Headley, Cabrera, Beltre, Ramirez, Zimmerman? Good year for him but there is still another half a season to be played so we will see if his 3.7 pace is for real. He’s 27 years old and he is in his peak age making only $930k which gives him great value, but he will continue to make more money through arbitration and the more money he make with this pace of production makes him even less valuable. I don’t deny that I think he is solid ball player but what I’m saying is that let’s not try and spin the argument to make him sound like he’s an elite third baseman. He flat out is not elite and never will be (as much as i wish was). He would fit better at 2nd with his bat or would be a pretty good utility infielder. On a world series contending team which is where we are hoping to be in the next 5 years, he would be the weak spot in our lineup if he was our starting third baseman. Solid ball player but I don’t him to be my starting 3rd baseman when were competing

  • Mick

    I think I’d prefer moving Valbuena to 2B if by chance Barney gets dealt at the deadline. Depending on what return the Cubs get (Olt) during the trade deadline, there could even be a better option at 3B come 2014.

    • Crockett

      I don’t think the Cubs will be acquiring a guy like Olt having Lake/Baez/Candelario already in the system and Bryant a week or two from signing. You need to prioritize pitching and catcher in returns in deals this summer.

  • Rebuilding

    Ideally, Valbuena would be a nice lefty off the bench. As it stands now yes, with a platoon partner ala Ransom (irregardless of SSS reverse split). I like Valbuena and his patience

  • http://www.gravatar.com/avatar/653cc0c5f0eded621ab13b4f631de7da.png Cizzle

    He’s not there yet (and there are obvious differences), but Valbuena kind of reminds me of my favorite ex-Cub, Bill Mueller. Solid D, great batting eye & undervalued.

    • Serious Cubs Fan

      I don’t know about great bat. Valbuena is not a great hitter. He is a decent hitter with good OBP skills. An .242 avg is nothing be in aww about people. Yes we are getting great value from him now bc he’s only making $930k but when he starts make more through arbitration he will continue to look less and less impressive. And I don’t know how much better Valbuena is going to get he’s 27 and that is a players peak according to multiple studies.

      • DarthHater

        Here’s something to be in aww about:

        [img]http://cs307304.vk.me/v307304599/5d7b/IKHGvmFhKDg.jpg[/img]

        • Stinky Pete

          Awwwwwww……….

        • mudge

          I’ve never known you to panda, DH.

      • http://www.gravatar.com/avatar/653cc0c5f0eded621ab13b4f631de7da.png Cizzle

        “Serious”, Would you like me to explain the difference between a “great bat” and a “great batting eye”, or do you just want to re-read what I posted?

  • ssckelley

    I like Valbuena as a utility infielder, if he could play a decent second base his bat would be an upgrade over Barney. I am not sold on him at third.

  • BD

    Maybe they could keep Ransom to be his platoon? I would be good with that at 3B.

    If we had a bigger bat for 3rd and could move him to 2nd and Barney to backup middle infielder, I’d be happier with that.

  • AD

    How does Valbuena’s glove project at second base. I would love to see him over there, especially with that on base percentage.

    • another JP

      Not good if his past history is any indication. Valbuena has been a much better fielder @ 3B thus far in his career.

  • another JP

    Remember all the teeth-gnashing that occurred because we didn’t extend Aram last year? Well, the Cubs will have spent $7.5M total to achieve a total WAR value of $11.7M (2.5 WAR) over the past 1.5 years while the Brewers have spent $17.4M for a total WAR value of $18.6M (4.0 WAR) per Fangraphs.

    And when you consider that Aram signed an accelerated contract that will pay him $16M in 2014 for what is looking like diminished performance (LV @ 1.7 WAR this year & Aram @ 0.0), Valbuena is making the FO look pretty good right now- even with the Ian Stewart debacle.

    • Kyle

      If we had Ramirez, we could have put Valbuena at 2b, never traded for Ian Stewart, and traded Barney for pitching.

      • another JP

        Barney lead the team in WAR last season. Who would’ve taken his place under your scenario and what kind of pitcher would the Cubs potentially receive for DB? The inevitable loss of defensive ability between Barney & LV would have been quite large.

      • fromthemitten

        and if we only hadn’t traded Lou Brock to the Cardinals!

      • João Lucas

        And no Pierce Johson.

    • hansman1982

      I’d still rather have Ramirez.

  • EricR

    Valbuena reminds me of Terry Pendleton somewhat. I think the kid could hit for average if left alone.

  • Serious Cubs Fan

    I hope when the cubs are serious competitors in a couple yrs (cross your fingers) Valbuena is NOT our starting third baseman. Yes he is a solid player who takes pitches and place a good third base but his bat is not what you look for out of a starting 3rd baseman. I would love to have him as utility guy who could play all around the infield but he still average to slightly above average.

  • Fastball

    He is still a utility infielder. We arw used to bad we dont kniw what good is. He is all we fit fir the next 9 months. But I cant settle for Valbuena

  • cub4life

    I am not going to say that he isn’t a solid player but if we are talking about our starting 3B and lead of man….i mean come on. I will agree that we don’t have a real legit lead off man on the roster but I must not see what everyone else does. If he is our starting 3B next year it means that we couldn’t convince a good player to come over/couldn’t trade for one/our prospects aren’t ready yet. If he is our starter next year it means that we won’t be competing next year (no he isn’t the only reason we aren’t this year but he isn’t helping either). Yes Brett you said he was a top prospect but it he were that guy would he have been dumped by those other 2 teams (especially when Cleveland is starting to get good)? I just don’t see it fellas.

  • ssckelley

    The combination of Ransom and Valbuena has been pretty good offensively. But there is no way Ransom is going to continue his .988 OPS. I cannot believe some of you are settling for Valbuena as your starting 3rd baseman.

    • Drew7

      Ransom may not continue to OPS .988, but I think he’s posted an .870-ish OPS against LHP for his career. We may not be looking at as much regression as you think.

  • The Dude Abides

    Valbuena is a great utility player for a good team, for the Cubs best we have at 3rd or 2nd…

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