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.

  • another JP

    The concern over Valbuena is understandable but I’d have to say he’ll be alright for another year or until the farm system produces a replacement. The Cubs 3B are currently ranked 8th, which is pretty good. Our main priority should be to clean up the mess at SS, where we are ranked 28th, and the RP- compliments of Marmol, Camp, and Rondon they are ranked 25th.

  • mudge

    Camp was effective last year. This year he was pitching with a bad toe and got knocked around. People never seem to factor in injuries when evaluating players. You could do worse than Camp right now.

  • JJ

    Valbuena should not be the starting 3B if the Cubs want to pretend to be contending. In 1100 PA before this season, his slash line was .224/.292/.343 with an OPS+ of 73. His early season success is a likely outlier, and his June crash — .189/.317/.283 — actually is not that far off his career numbers. Expect him to regress to his level for the rest of 2013 and post only slightly better than normal numbers for the year. The only reason to bring Valbuena back as the starting 3B is if the Cubs envision Bryant or Baez taking over 3B by midseason and don’t want to waste the cash on a veteran stand-in.

    • Drew7

      The skepticism is understandable, but this year’s numbers happened too.

      On the surface, it seems inevitable that his performance is unsustainable, but where do you see the regression coming from? His BABIP is normal, and BB and K-rates tend to stabilize fairly quickly. Fangraphs has him projected to finish the year at ~2.2 WAR, but the regression comes mostly from defense (both systems project him as a .720-ish OPS’er the rest of the way).

      He obviously isn’t in the top-tier at 3B, but I’d say he’s a good bet to be more than serviceable next year.

    • Jay

      Thank you JJ!

  • Kygavin

    I….I just…. ughhhhhh I dont want to admit this. Yes he has played good D at 3B but a little look into his stats:

    April- 243/338/500 (hit 5 of his 6 HR)
    May- 291/412/418
    June- 189/317/283

    Question #1: Which one of these months looks like the outlier (hint: not April or June)
    Question #2: Which month looks like the outlier in power? (hint: April)

    He has had one good month very he hit for power which skewed his slugging numbers and he has had one good ba/obp month which has skewed his total line

    • Brett

      For whatever it’s worth, very few players have consistent lines from month to month. They fluctuate.

      To me, the only data point I see in those numbers is that he must be one hell of a patient hitter.

      • Kygavin

        Well ya, i mean no hitter is going to have the same line every month just due to luck, but I see a guy whose slugging has dropped every month and really has one month that stands out as an outlier. Again small sample concerns are obviously a factor since we are breaking down about a 200 AB sample into 3 smaller pieces but those numbers worry me.

        PS I do love the bat flip….

  • Matt

    What about Valbuena as an option at 2b, should there be a contender who needs a strong defensive 2b like Barney? Barney’s defense can’t be that much better than Valbuena’s. This, of course, is contingent on identifying an actual MLB 3b.

  • Bob Johnson

    Valbuena has been a pleasant surprise! I see him being a starter with the Cubs for the rest of this year & in 2014.

  • Tommy

    Great article, Brett. You’ve been talking about Valbuena since the offseason and I think you were the first person I saw that really thought he had some real talent. Good call, bro.

  • jt

    June 1-8 inclusive Valbuena was 0-12 with 3 BB and a HBP
    June 9-today he has had a 0.706 OPS with power numbers down but an OBP of 0.340
    Without looking so this is only a guess but perhaps Lois was trying swinging for the fences early in the month and discovered that he still has only warning track power.
    I’d guess that Fangraphs sees him to be the hitter he has been the past two weeks.
    It would be my hope that he could shoot the gaps a little more often and increase his doubles total thus allowing a “normal” OPS in the 0.730 to 0.740.
    If so…
    I like the thought of him leading off with DD batting second.

    • jt

      btw, I’m with Tommy…good article.

  • http://It'searly Mike F

    I respectfully don’t buy into Valbuena as anything more than a utility and very short term stop gap. First, clearly the Cubs bought high on Bryant making him the second but quite likely highest paid draft pick. I continue to believe and have a long time, the less time any player spends in the minors the better. There’s not enough teaching in almost any system, for great especially college players to spend years there. When they do, most have issues. AA is where the talent is and AAA is usually a junk heap.

    So if Valbuena is the 3rd baseman for the cubs in 2016, it will mean Bryant isn’t what he was advertised to be. More importantly, how low can we go. Seems to me settling for a sub 250 hitter is not the place to start. He is a good glove, can play a bunch of infield spots, but just not what anyone would want a corner infield spot where you look for more consistently average wise and certainly more power.

  • Voice of Reason

    I can see valbuena playing third next year, but not because he is any good!!

    He will be at third cause the cubs will still be bad and they still wont have a third baseman ready to take over full time.

    You cannot rationalize that valbuena is a third baseman with any sort of solid future. He sucks, but for a team like the cubs that will lose 95+ games he is a cheap stop gap until they develop a third baseman

  • Voice of Reason

    I think Brett is the same person who wrote an article on here that Edwin Jackson has been pitching OK this year!!

    So, valbuena is absokid option at third for the future cubs and Edwin Jackson is pitching well this year. HOLY SMOKES!!!!!!

    • David

      Was nobody paying any attention to what Brett actually said? Brett said Valbuena could be the starting third basemen for 2014. Why? Because that makes sense. Who else is going to do it? Bryant and Baez will still be in the minors and who on the MLB roster has enough experience there. Oh I guess we should just resign Ian Stewart to do it right? Nobody is talking about past 2014. Nobody is saying Valbuena is having or will have an MVP type season. All Brett said was we need a third basemen next year and Valbuena is as good as any on our team to do it. This was not a comment on the long term chill out people.

  • Mike Taylor (no relation)

    Luis Valbuena
    59 G, 212 PA, 6 HR, 20 R, 22 RBI, 1 SB, 14.2BB%, 17.9K%, .169 ISO, .274 BABIP
    .242/.355/.410/.765, .335 wOBA, 110 RC+, 6.4 Fld, 0.0 BsR, 1.7 WAR

    Chase Headley
    62 G, 269 PA, 6 HR, 24 R, 25 RBI, 4 SB, 10.8BB%, 23.0K%, .129 ISO, .279 BABIP
    .224/.327/.353/.680, .304 wOBA, 99 RC+, 9.3 Fld, -0.7 BsR, 1.9 WAR

  • mudge

    A good team needs an experienced utility infielder. When the Cubs are good, Valbuena can be that guy. Playing him a lot now is a win-win.