While some of you were eating leftover turducken or going all Mortal Kombat on someone for a waffle iron this past weekend, the Blue Jays slipped some cash Cleveland’s way and picked up a potential starting second baseman in Luis Valbuena. Valbuena, 26 this week, had no shot at meaningful playing time while stuck behind Asdrubal Cabrera and Jason Kipnis, and he has done his best Juan Castro impression at the plate in the majors. But in Toronto, he might get the chance to make good on his big Triple-A numbers if free agent Kelly Johnson cashes in with a multi-year deal elsewhere.
From 2008 to 2011, Valbuena batted .304 with a .387 OBP and a .468 slugging percentage in 937 plate appearances for Seattle and Cleveland’s Triple-A affiliates (the Tribe acquired him from the M’s as part of a three team, 12-player deal in December of ’08). Valbuena takes his walks in the high minors (11.7% of his PA), and he has posted a batting average on balls in play in the .340-.350 range in each stint at Triple-A. Overall, the lefty hitter’s bat has been 35 percent better than the league average.
According to The Hardball Times’ Oliver projection system, Valbuena’s offensive performance at Columbus this past season (.302/.372/.476, 17 home runs) translated to a .260/.322/.403 major league line. Not great, but also better than the cumulative .260/.319/.388 slash for MLB second basemen in 2011 and useful in deeper leagues.
Yet, Valbuena’s bat has been putrid in the majors: a .226/.286/.344 line in 806 plate appearances spread across the ’08 to ’11 seasons. The two main reasons for that lousy performance are so-so plate discipline and a very low BABIP. Valbuena’s 7.3% walk rate is comfortably below the 8-9% MLB average in recent seasons, and his BABIP is just .272. That’s 25-30 points below the big league average. While Valbuena doesn’t necessarily fit the profile of a high-BABIP hitter, hitting more pop ups than most (12.4% of his batted balls) and lacking speed with his bulky 5-foot-10, 195 pound frame, he did get lots of hits on balls in play in the minors and should be able to improve that BABIP more toward the .300 range.
In an ideal world, he could be a Maicer Izturis-type hitter with a little more pop and perhaps multi-position eligibility (Valbuena has seen time at second base, shortstop, third base and the outfield). Again, not sexy, but you could do worse. Valbuena doesn’t have a lot of internal competition at the moment, either — Mike McCoy and Adeiny Hechavarria, a 22-year-old defensive whiz with serious questions about his bat (he’s a .255/.291/.362 minor league hitter).
The Jays did offer Johnson arbitration, and they’d love to have the more patient, powerful and proven player back. Johnson could accept the offer, getting a raise from his $5.85 million salary last season and looking to land a lucrative long-term deal with a better offensive season than his .222/.304/.413 showing in 2011. However, Johnson’s free agent stock increased with the announcement of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, as teams can now sign the Type A free agent without giving up a draft pick of their own. Short of bringing Johnson back, Toronto could look to fellow free agent Rafael Furcal or try to work a trade for someone like Atlanta’s Martin Prado.
Valbuena looks like a fallback option at second base for the Blue Jays and a likely reserve infielder. He could be a decent hitter who can play several positions, but he also lacks upside and is more of a utility player in the Ty Wigginton mold, hurting his pitchers wherever he lines up (-16.5 UZR in the majors). Valbuena is worth monitoring in deep mixed leagues. But, as with the Jays, he should be your plan B.