There were times during Luis Valbuena's three-year tenure with the Cubs when I was critical of him. But today, I come not to bury him, instead, to praise his three-year tenure on the North Side.
At first, he seemed like an okay utility player, but was getting far too much playing time and not producing much (2012: 76 OPS+, 0.4 bWAR).
But then there was his 2014 season, a breakout offensive year when Valbuena hit .249/.341/.435 with 33 doubles and 16 home runs. With his four triples added, that made 53 extra-base hits. Here are all the other second and third basemen (Val-B played mostly third, but some second in 2014) who had at least 53 XBH last year:
Anthony Rendon, Josh Donaldson, Ian Kinsler, Josh Harrison, Jose Altuve, Brian Dozier, Trevor Plouffe, Kyle Seager, Nolan Arenado, Robinson Cano, Adrian Beltre, Chase Utley
That's pretty good company, wouldn't you say? Valbuena made himself into this player. How? A combination of talent, hard work and coaching, I'd say, since he had played himself out of Cleveland after the Indians made him more-or-less their regular second baseman for much of 2009. He hit .250/.298/.416 (90 OPS+) at age 23 and appeared to be on his way to be at least a competent regular. You might remember the three games he played for the Tribe at Wrigley that year, during which he went 6-for-14 with three home runs.
But he hit poorly in 2010 and spent most of 2011 in Triple-A, where he hit .302/.372/.476 with 17 home runs. All that got him was sold to the Blue Jays in November of that year. He didn't hit for Toronto in spring training 2012, either: .163/.196/.349 (7-for-43, two home runs), but whoever scouted him for the Cubs must have seen something he liked, because they recommended him to Theo & Co. for a waiver claim, which was literally made the day before Opening Day that year (April 4). It must have been very odd for Val-B, who was likely on his way to his old stomping ground in Cleveland to start the year with the Jays, to instead hop a flight to Chicago to be with the Cubs on Opening Day at Wrigley Field April 5, 2012.
I remember him being introduced that day and hearing, "Who's that?" from some of the assembled around me, as Valbuena lined up on the third-base line wearing uniform No. 21 (Marlon Byrd had No. 24 on Opening Day). He didn't play and two days later was outrighted off the 40-man roster to Triple-A Iowa, I thought at the time never to be seen again.
He reappeared June 14, replacing Ian Stewart on the 25-man roster as Stewart disappeared from major-league Cubness forever with a wrist injury. He played third base for much of the rest of 2012 and much of 2013, not hitting much and seemingly cementing his place as "useful utility guy who shouldn't be starting."
Then came 2014, and suddenly, Val-B was drawing walks and hitting for power that he hadn't shown since his Triple-A stint in 2011. 14 of his 16 home runs were hit as a third baseman. Just 14 other third basemen hit as many or more, putting Luis in the middle of the pack power-wise. His on-base skills helped him score 68 runs, second on the team to Anthony Rizzo.
Now he heads to Houston, traded likely at the top of his game. He turned 29 in November and helped bring a player to the Cubs (Dexter Fowler) who fills a need that Valbuena no longer does. Soon, Kris Bryant will be playing third base full-time for the Cubs (for now, anyway; I'm one of those who believes Bryant will eventually move to the outfield) and the utility role that Val-B could have filled now probably falls to Arismendy Alcantara, who could become a Ben Zobrist-type of player, playing all around the field. That appears to be something Joe Maddon likes to have on his roster -- maximum positional flexibility.
So credit to Valbuena for making himself into a good player who will likely wind up in that supersub role in Houston -- I don't see him displacing either Matt Dominguez or Altuve as a starter. And credit to Theo & Co. for rescuing a guy from the scrap heap, getting maximum value from him on the field and trading him for a real need.
I'll miss Val-B's infectious smile and the bat flip, which, oddly enough, I can't seem to find any video or GIFs of, so if you can, feel free to post them in the comments. He's been a valuable member of the Chicago Cubs for three years and brought value in return. I wish him well in Houston -- their fans will love him.