The Cleveland Indians continued their already-busy offseason this weekend by dealing infielder Luis Valbuena to the Blue Jays for “cash considerations.” Seeing Valbuena moved wasn’t a surprise: his tenure with the Tribe effectively ended when he was designated for assignment last week to make room on the 40-man roster for prospects the team wanted to protect from the upcoming Rule 5 Draft.
On the surface, Valbuena’s departure doesn’t appear to be much of a loss. In his 229-game MLB career (all but 18 games of which have come in Cleveland) he has an atrocious .226/.286/.344 triple-slash (66 wRC+) and -1.7 fWAR; over the last two years he’s been even worse, hitting just .195/.267/.261 and on a pace to be nearly three full wins below replacement level over a full season. And if the Indians had had any faith in his ability to grow as a player, they wouldn’t have booted him from the roster to make room for a player who almost certainly won’t be taken in the Rule 5 Draft.
But losing Valbuena could very well end up looking like a big mistake.
It’s no secret that Valbuena, who turns 26 this week, has raked in the minors, but I’m not sure many fans appreciate just how good he’s been. Over the last three seasons, he’s played a total of 160 games (i.e., roughly a full MLB season) with Triple-A Columbus and done this: .306/.392/.505 with 26 homers, 108 RBI, and 102 runs scored. He notched a 12.4 percent walk rate and got 63 extra-base hits. He even swiped 11 bases for good measure.
How would that translate to the majors? To illustrate how good that production would be, let’s do a blind comparison between his translated MiLB numbers (as determined via Jeff Sackmann’s Minor Leauge Equivalency Calculator) and those of a vaunted MLB hitter:
Player A: .273/.344/.436, 21 homers, 88 RBI, 83 R, .780 OPS
Player B: .273/.332/.460, 25 homers, 92 RBI, 87 R, .792 OPS
Player A is Valbuena—or at least, Sackmann’s projection of him based on his Triple-A production. Player B? That’s what reigning Indians Player of the Year and Silver Slugger awardee Asdrubal Cabrera did this year. Cabrera’s numbers might be a little better (but if so, it’s not by much) and he plays shortstop, but the fact remains: their statlines are virtually identical.
Doing some quick number crunching and assuming he’d play bad but not terrible defense at second or third base, Valbuena’s projected numbers put him at a little over three wins above replacement over a full season—on par with Paul Konerko and Jay Bruce, but unlike them Valbuena will make the league minimum next year. It’s admittedly unfairly simplistic, but could you imagine if Konerko or Bruce were owed less than $500,000 for 2012 and the White Sox or Reds traded him for “cash considerations”?
Of course, we can’t discount his struggles in the big leagues. For four years he’s been a significantly below-average MLB player, and for the last two he’s been absolutely miserable. He hasn’t shown any of the plate discipline he displayed in the minors (he walked only once in 44 plate appearances this year) and he hasn’t been able to touch off-speed pitches. And none of the major defensive metrics like his glove.
But part of the problem could be bad luck—he might be a true-talent low-BABIP guy, but his .238 and 242 hit rates in 2010 and 2011, respectively, suggest at least a little bit of poor fortune—and while he’ll never win a Gold Glove I suspect he’d be able to become at least an adequate fielder given the chance to find his groove. Hid poor pitch recognition and plate discipline are worrisome, but given his demonstrated success in the minors I’d say he looks like a project for a hitting coach, but not a lost cause.
I’m not saying Valbuena is going to be a viable MLB starter. He might never see significant time in The Show ever again. But it seems to me that projecting him to at least be a solid utility man as he enters his age-26 season isn’t too farfetched.
Valbuena was as good as gone after last week—the Indians’ hands were tied when they designated him for assignment. But while that explains the trade itself, it serves only to highlight why DFAing him was a big mistake. This was yet another very shrewd pickup by Alex Anthopoulos and the Blue Jays and a head-scratcher for the Tribe.