Luis Valbuena Should be a Starter in 2015
Look, I was the hardest sell on 3B Luis Valbuena since day one. When the Cubs got him in 2012, they said they liked his defense, but all the data we had at the time -- which was just 806 PA -- said he was bad in both offense and defense:
But now, with Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro out of the lineup, Valbuena is hitting cleanup. And he's not just hitting cleanup because the lineup is broken (see: Javier Baez and Jorge Soler); he's hitting cleanup because he's hitting well. And he could very well continue to do as much.
Take a gander at his Oliver projections:
As far as starting third baseman go, this is not the sort you find on the waiver wire, as Valbuena was. And so far this year, he's sporting a .248/.328/.448 with a career-high 16 home runs. That's good enough for a 115 wRC+ and a starting job on most teams.
But the question about third base is not so much about Valbuena as it is 3B Kris Bryant. I think we can be optimistic on Valbuena and still think he's going to be a 105 wRC+ hitter -- i.e. just above average -- over the next 5 years. Bryant, however, looks every bit the All-Star slugger. He has hit 43 homers across Double-A and Triple-A this year and has a 192 wRC+ across both leagues.
Even if we give his PCL league numbers a generous 30-point downgrade, Bryant could still be a 130 wRC+ hitter. That's far above Valbuena.
But Bryant has some outfield experience, and with all deference to OF Chris Coghlan and the good season he's having right now, I don't think the Cubs have a long-term left fielder on their roster right now. Maybe Valbuena, who is flexible defensively, might be a better fit for a bench role, but I think Bryant in left and Valbuena at third puts this team in the best situation. And if Coghlan is still around and still cracking doubles, then he could be possibly one of the best fourth outfielders in NL.
What this really comes down to, though, is a celebration of the maturation of Valbuena's talent. Luis has an .800 OPS across 10 minor league seasons, and that includes a .304/.385/.476 slash across six different Triple-A seasons. It was never insane to think he could hit well and show a little power, but the Cubs brought him in for his fielding. Now that both are in sync and firing smoothly, there's a lot to be excited about.