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luis valbuena featureOne of my favorite snippets to drop into early-season articles this year was some crack about how Luis Valbuena was leading the Cubs in a number of offensive categories. It was a joke insofar as the sample size was routinely quite small, but it wasn’t entirely a joke insofar as I’ve always really liked Valbuena. Last year, I argued for the Cubs to let him be the starting third baseman until a long-term option came into the organization (this was pre-Kris-Bryant, pre-Garza-Trade). The guy plays above average defense at third, and combines it with average, or slightly better, offense. That’s a perfect fill-in, and a guy that you’d love to have on the roster for several years.

And then he turned into something more, and the cracks about his offensive numbers started to feel a whole lot less like small-sample-size jokes as legitimate comments on just how good he’s been.

Because here we are in mid-June, and Luis Valbuena has been among the best infielders in baseball.

After his 3-4 night against the Pirates yesterday, consider this:

  • Valbuena is hitting¬†.288/.394/.456 on the year. He’s got a .376 wOBA and a 136 wRC+. Sure, he’s got a .361 BABIP (some 90 points above his career mark), but he’s also got a crazy 14.9% walk rate and an even crazier 26.7% line drive rate. This is not all smoke and mirrors. The guy is having fantastic plate appearances, and when he hits the ball, he’s lasering it.
  • Valbuena’s 26.7% line drive rate is the 6th best in all of baseball.
  • Valbuena’s .376 wOBA is 23rd best in baseball, and 13th best in the NL. He would be the leader among NL third basemen OR NL second basemen.
  • Valbuena’s .394 OBP is tied for 10th best in baseball, and 7th in the NL. Among infielders in the NL, only Troy Tulowitzki’s is higher.
  • Valbuena’s 4.19 pitches per plate appearance (an underrated stat) is tied for 10th in baseball.
  • How about this one? Among the 25 players in baseball with a better wRC+ than Valbuena, only 6 (six!) also offer positive defensive value, as Valbuena does.
  • And the coup de grace: Valbuena has been worth 1.6 wins so far this year over 56 games. If you extrapolated that over, say, 150 games, you get 4.3(!!!) WAR. You know how many third baseman topped that figure last year? Five – Donaldson, Cabrera, Longoria, Machado, Beltre. All studs, and all in the American League. All studs, and all but one in the American League. You know how many second basemen topped it?¬†Five – Carpenter, Cano, Pedroia, Zobrist, Kipnis.
  • In other words, Luis Valbuena is currently on pace for an elite season. Not just “hey, that’s nice for a fill-in,” or “wow, that’s great production for his cheap salary.” For anyone.

Luis Valbuena almost certainly will not be an All-Star, because the All-Star selection process is stupidly flawed. But Luis Valbuena has quite clearly played like an All-Star (and then some) this year.

As for Valbuena’s future, it’s a little hard to say. He flashed a lesser version of this kind of success last year, so it’s fair to “trust” that he is a valuable piece, at least as a guy who can play both third and second, and put up decent numbers in either place. He’s under team control for two more years after this one, and he’ll get decent bumps therein from his current $1.71 million salary. At 28, he could be a piece for the Cubs for several more years, either as a starter or a utility man.

But there’s the question. With Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, and Arismendy Alcantara on the way (and I still don’t want to totally throw out Mike Olt or Christian Villanueva just yet (and don’t sleep on Stephen Bruno)), there will be only so many regular at bats in the coming years.

Does that mean the Cubs have to trade Valbuena now, while his value is so high? Not necessarily. I think it depends on whether another team is willing to properly value a guy who is this good, this cheap, and this versatile. Given the skill set, and the value he provides – at worst – as a top bench bat/utility player, I don’t see any reason to trade Valbuena short of a genuinely solid return. That means he either bumps up a Samardzija or Hammel package significantly, or he, himself, nets a back-end top 100 prospect. Call me crazy, but that’s the value of what he projects to generate the next 2.5 years. If the Cubs can still use him – and they can, one way or another – why give him up for less than that?

And if any of the prospects struggle, flame out, get injured, etc., then Valbuena looks like a pretty good starter at third or second – even with some regression – for the next two years.

Lastly, some fun:

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