Luis Valbuena is playing well this Spring, making for an interesting infield discussion now that Mike Olt has emerged as a legitimate option at third base. Valbuena could be relegated to a utility role, where he would split time between third and second base (the latter of which is where he played this Winter and where he tells Cubs.com he’s more comfortable), or the Cubs could try to figure out a way to carve out a starting or platoon spot for him.
Defensively, the numbers say he’s fantastic at third and not-quite-average at second, but there’s not a ton of data. To my eye, Valbuena looked pretty good at third the last two years, and, as the left-handed side of a platoon, there’s little reason to believe he couldn’t be great at third again this year.
That said, because Mike Olt has quite a bit more upside, and because Olt has the potential to be just as good defensively, better offensively, and an every-day player, you have to give the edge to him, all other things equal. And, really, all other things aren’t equal: Valbuena has the versatility to move to other prominent defensive positions, and Olt does not. Valbuena is also in his second year of arbitration, whereas Olt still has a few years before his pay scale starts climbing.
At second base, Valbuena’s bat would be an upgrade over Darwin Barney’s, but the gloves aren’t in the same ballpark. And, with Barney, there are reasons to believe he’ll see some positive regression at the plate this year. If he gets his offensive numbers up just a little bit this year, Barney’s a guy who could have quite a bit of trade value midseason, particularly if there are teams out there in need of a shortstop. Valbuena, unless he his extremely well, probably doesn’t have quite the same trade value upside.
If the Cubs wind up in a situation where Mike Olt is the “starter” at third base, and Darwin Barney is the “starter” at second, Rick Renteria is going to have a hell of a time rotating Valbuena into the mix regularly. Why? Because he’s already got to do that with Emilio Bonifacio.
Either someone’s going to wind up sitting a lot more this year than they did last year if Olt makes the team, or there’s going to be a trade. And we haven’t even addressed what will happen with Donnie Murphy, who could suddenly be without a roster spot altogether.
The good news, if the Cubs opt not to go the trade route, having a couple bench pieces like Valbuena and Bonifacio is outstanding.