In our first look at the post-Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel summer trade season for the Cubs, we examined the possibility that newly-acquired Addison Russell might free the club to deal incumbent shortstop Starlin Castro. While a Castro deal is not terribly likely, another member of the regular lineup may have seen his ticket out of town punched with the trade completed: utility infielder Luis Valbuena.
The Cubs acquired Valbuena on April 4, 2012 by waiver claim from the Toronto Blue Jays. At the time, Valbuena's major-league track record was... dubious, to say the least. In his 806 plate appearances, Valbuena had posted a meager .226/.286/.344 batting line while posting very poor fielding ratings, primarily at shortstop and second base. In 2012, Valbuena's glove made the trip to Chicago, although his bat stayed in Iowa. In 2013, the bat came along for the ride in limited action in April and May where he posted a superb combined .264/.372/.464 line with excellent third base defense that had him looking like a late-blooming regular. The calendar flipped to June, the wheels came off, and Valbuena scuffled to a .189/.306/.325 line the rest of the way, including missing almost all of August. He rebounded with a solid September to make those numbers look as "good" as they did, but the damage to his perception was done.
Thus far in 2014, Valbuena has done nice work to exorcise his second half demons, playing to a .252/.334/.413 line while playing roughly average defense split between third base and the more challenging second base. Valbuena posted a monster May sandwiched around solid showings in April and June. July has been awful, albeit very limited as well.
Valbuena's .161 Isolated Power is akin to last year's .160 mark and his walk rate has dipped from a superb 13.6% to a merely great 11.1%. His offensive improvement has come from a BABIP jump from .233 to .309. Valbuena's career mark is just .267. Much of his batting average improvement can be attributed to a career-best line drive rate of nearly 23%, well above last year's 15.6%. Although he is better against righties than lefties, his on-base skills against southpaws are plenty playable, even though his power disappears.
Valbuena is just 28, earning $1.7 million in his second year of arbitration. Projecting similar production, he figures to earn roughly $3 million in 2015 and $4 million in 2016 over his final two years of team control. He seems to personify the concept of the "second-division starter," a player with an average glove at second and third as well as the ability to hit enough to play but with an overall offensive game that leaves a manger confused as to where exactly he fits. He's not bringing a big return.
With that very long introduction to our bat-flipping waiver find, who might be interested in Valbuena this July and what might they offer?
Truth be told, it's a bit confounding that the A's didn't seek to include Valbuena in the Samardzija/Hammel deal. Oakland second basemen have posted a .203/.289/.252 line on the season, good for -0.4 WAR. That was not a misprint. Obviously Cubs draftee Josh Donaldson has third base locked down.
(I wrote the above paragraph about three hours before Ken Rosenthal reported that the A's did in fact attempt to get Valbuena included in the earlier deal. Sometimes my brain makes me happy -- not always though.)
Most of us are quite familiar with the Oakland farm system now, so we know that it is largely barren. As with every farm system, however, there are Major League players in there.
Chicago Cubs trade infielder Luis Valbuena to Oakland A's for outfielder Billy Burns and starting pitcher Dylan Covey
Burns is struggling in Double-A even though he turns 25 next month. Still, he has 80-grade speed, walks quite well for a guy with one career home run, and limits strikeouts reasonably well too. He's never going to start unless his posts high-.300 BABIPs, but the 5-9, 180-pound righty runs well enough to stick as a cheap reserve outfielder. Covey turns 23 in August, yet the 2013 fourth-round-pick is still in the Midwest League with middling results. There's enough stuff to make it, but Kris Bryant's college teammate needs rapid improvement.
We addressed the possibility of the Orioles making a splash by trading for Starlin Castro already. Should the O's seek a less costly upgrade, they could acquire Valbuena to man second base this year before sliding to third base next year if J.J. Hardy walks and Manny Machado takes his rightful place at shortstop.
Chicago Cubs trade infielder Luis Valbuena to Baltimore Orioles for starting pitcher Zach Davies and starting pitcher Branden Kline
We covered Davies in the Castro piece: he's a 21-year-old beanpole pitching reasonably well at Double-A. Kline, a 6-3, 210-pound second-round pick from 2012, lacks a strikeout-inducing repertoire, but he still offers some upside, possibly with a shift to the bullpen.
Yet again, we have a repeat purchaser. The Marlins have received 0.1 WAR from the second basemen in 2014, and Valbuena's cost control would be very attractive to the team in need of infield talent.
Of course, in package from Miami has to start with Giancarlo Stanton...just kidding.
Chicago Cubs trade infielder Luis Valbuena to Miami Marlins for starting pitcher Anthony DeSclafani
DeSclafani may seem to be too rich for Valbuena; I appreciate that this may be ambitious. But given the presence of Jose Fernandez, Andrew Heaney, Henderson Alvarez, and Nathan Eovaldi, DeSclafani figures to be in a constant dogfight for starts, possibly sliding into a long-man role. While that has value, Valbuena would be an everyday player for the Marlins at a very reasonable price.
Chicago Cubs trade infielder Luis Valbuena to New York Yankees for catcher Luis Torrens and third baseman Miguel Andujar
Torrens and Andujar are both teenagers, but Torrens signed for $1.2 million while Andujar signed for $700,000 as members of the 2012 and 2011 international free agent classes, respectively. Torrens has played quite well while Andujar has shown some on-base ability and power. These are straight lottery tickets, but the ceilings -- particularly Torrens' -- make it worth it. The Yankees may be willing to move this pair given their recent influx of premier Latino amateur talent.
Top Tigers prospect third baseman Nick Castellanos has struggled mightily in his debut season. Most of his damage has come against left-handed pitchers as he has a .258/.288/.371 line against right-handers. Castellanos posted a very strong June but has been icy cold to start July. His .263/.308/.399 season line is underwhelming, and his glove has graded poorly across the board thus far. With Torii Hunter breaking down in the outfield, perhaps Castellanos should be shifted to a corner with Valbuena gathering third base. Further, the Tigers are heading for the end of the Verlander-Cabrera-Scherzer core era, so a defensive improvement who adds another playable bat could appeal to them as they go for it all.
Chicago Cubs trade infielder Luis Valbuena to Detroit Tigers for catcher James McCann and relief pitcher Joe Jimenez
McCann is the closest thing to a backup catching prospect that I've ever seen. He looks like he'll have the glove for a long career. Jimenez has big stuff in a big body, but the Tigers aren't even bothering to start him in short-season ball, so he's a reliever all the way. This isn't a sexy return, but McCann could crack the Cubs roster the moment the trade is completed and the club has shown a clear need for a backup catcher.
Although they recently (and foolishly) extended Chris Johnson, the Braves have gotten nothing from him at third base, and only the emergence of rookie Tommy La Stella has saved them at the keystone. Johnson's walk rate is below 3% and his sub-.100 ISO means he has the emptiest .277 batting average you'll ever see.
Chicago Cubs trade infielder Luis Valbuena to Atlanta Braves for catcher Victor Caratini and starting pitcher Aaron Northcraft
Northcraft has a back-end ceiling, but he's also almost there. He generated consistent groundball contact from a big body until this year when the grounders dried up, but his results remained solid at Double-A. His audition in Triple-A has been quite poor however. Caratini is the real get, a 2013 second-rounder who is a switch-hitting catcher in A-ball. He's got a long developmental path, but there's plenty to dream on here.
Caratini would also fill the ever-important bat flip void left by Valbuena's departure (warning: this is among the most impressive you'll ever see -- you might want to be sitting down when you watch it).
Luis Valbuena has some real value. Unlike many marquee commodities who are relatively easy to value (for example, trading for Adrian Beltre would cost a top prospect, another very good prospect, and a few filler pieces), valuing a guy like Valbuena is trickier. He's unexciting as an every-day player, yet his glove and contract make him a viable starter for the next few seasons. He certainly has some value to the Cubs, but being far removed from the playoff race and staring at Arismendy Alcantara, Starlin Castro, Javier Baez, Addison Russell, and Kris Bryant for three infield spots in the next year or so, he's about to be forced out of a job. In my view, the Cubs should strike while the iron is hot, flipping Valbuena to a contender and throwing Mike Olt out there every day to confirm, once and for all, that he'll never make contact in the Majors.
What do you think? Feel free to go off in the comments.