Cleveland Indians Should Sign Free Agent Infielder Luis Valbuena

The Cleveland Indians should add free agent infielder Luis Valbuena to add some left-handed power and versatility to the lineup.

The Cleveland Indians have already landed one of the biggest catches of the offseason, landing top slugger Edwin Encarnacion to a three-year deal last week. The addition of the big right-handed power hitter has led many to put the Indians in discussions with the Boston Red Sox as preseason favorites in the American League. However, the Indians could still use some help at a couple of positions, namely on the bench and in the power department, specifically from the left side.

One possible acquisition that could help fill this role is former Cleveland Indian Luis Valbuena, who is a free agent. While his name isn’t one many Tribe fans remember fondly, he’s developed into a very useful role player since leaving the organization and a return to the shores of Lake Erie is something the club should consider.

Valbuena would add some needed pop from the left-side of the plate

With the addition of Encarnacion, the Indians’ lineup looks to be both strong and deep, potentially running out the following lineup against right-handed pitching:

That lineup is not without holes (Yan Gomes anyone?), but it’s a very solid lineup that looks even better than the 2016 Tribe lineup that scored the second-most runs in the American League. Five of the top six in the lineup posted on-base percentages of .343 or higher in 2016.  Only the injured Brantley posted a lower on-base though even he has a career .348 OBP and posted a .379 clip in 2015 before injuring his shoulder. What the Indians do lack though in this lineup is power.

Of all the players the Indians have on their projected roster, only four posted isolated powers over .160 last year:  Edwin Encarnacion (.275), Carlos Santana (.239), Tyler Naquin (.218) and Jason Kipnis (.193). Of the four, only Encarnacion and Santana are true power hitters. Kipnis has a career isolated power of only .150 while Naquin slumped in the second half of the season, posting a mere .097 ISO after the trade deadline.

Meanwhile, Luis Valbuena, despite having the reputation of a light hitting middle infielder during his previous time with the Cleveland Indians, has posted some surprisingly solid power numbers the last few years. Over the last three years, Valbuena has posted a .199 ISO and hit 54 home runs. For comparison, in that same time period, Mike Napoli has a .198 ISO and Jason Kipnis has hit just 38 home runs (in 500 more plate appearances mind you).

Not only does Valbuena provide power, he’s a solid overall hitter as well, posting a 115 wRC+ over the past three seasons. That bests Napoli (113 wRC+), Kipnis (109), Lonnie Chisenhall (102), and Jose Ramirez (99) in that same timeframe.

Where would Valbuena fit with the Indians?

Originally a second baseman when he came up, Valbuena has shown the ability to play all over the infield. In his nine big-league seasons, he’s played 490 games at third base, 209 at second base, 39 at first base, 35 at shortstop, and four in left field. Defensively he’s proven to be a solid defender at all but shortstop and the outfield (as Tribe fans are well aware). He’s posted a +4 DRS (defensive runs saved) in his short time at first base, a +1 DRS at second base, and a +9.5 UZR (ultimate zone rating) at third base.

Valbuena could slide in at third base with Cleveland and take the role that Juan Uribe had at the beginning of the year, splitting time at third base with Jose Ramirez. It may sound odd suggesting that someone split time with Ramirez after he put up All-Star numbers last year and settled in as the Tribe’s everyday third baseman and has posted a +4 DRS and +7.3 UZR at third base the last couple years. However, Jose Ramirez also proved to be very adequate in left field this past season and could slide back out to the outfield on days when Valbuena would start at third base. This could prove to be even more valuable if Michael Brantley proves to be an issue health-wise yet again as hinted by Jonah Keri recently.

At worst, Valbuena would provide the Indians with a massive upgrade at the utility infield position. Prior to 2016, the Tribe had Mike Aviles in the role and while he was a nice veteran he struggled to provide much value other than flexibility. In his three seasons with the Indians, Aviles posted a -1.3 fWAR, struggling both offensively and defensively.

In 2016, the Indians moved on from Aviles, using a combination of Uribe and Ramirez at first to cover the utility infield role but eventually moving on to Michael Martinez. Like Aviles, Martinez proved capable of playing any position asked of him, even center field, he was a complete black hole at the plate and will likely forever be remembered as making the final out in Game 7 of the World Series.

Valbuena, meanwhile, has averaged a 2.1 fWAR over the past four years and while he likely wouldn’t quite reach that in a strictly utility role he’d surely best the -1.0 fWAR of Aviles in 2015 and -0.2 fWAR of Martinez in 2016.

Valbuena should fit the budget and provide flexibility moving forward, but is he feasible?

Another reason for the Indians to look to bring back Valbuena is financial. Despite proving to be a solid 2-win player, he’s not a player that is likely to command top dollar even in today’s free agent market. January is upon us and he remains unsigned, despite being a year removed from hitting 25 home runs in Houston. He’s a very useful player but not one many teams have a glaring need for. The Los Angeles Angels filled their second base need with Danny Espinosa, the Dodgers re-signed third baseman Justin Turner, and the New York Yankees may only be interested if they could move Chase Headley.

Valbuena is said to be looking for an everyday role so perhaps he’ll hold out as long as possible waiting for that job to present itself. Maybe a team like the Milwaukee Brewers or Chicago White Sox will give him a shot while they rebuild. But to date that opportunity seems to elude Valbuena. He even has reportedly agreed to play for the Cardinals of Lara in the Venezuelan Winter League. He had been holding out until he signed a big league deal but that has yet to happen for the 31-year-old free agent.

While no dollar figures or years have been thrown out in connection with Valbuena, he is said to be looking for a multi-year deal and perhaps a deal similar to the one Steve Pearce signed with the Toronto Blue Jays would get it done with Valbuena. Pearce recently signed a two-year, $12.5 million deal with the Jays after earning $4.75 in 2016. Valbuena, meanwhile, earned $6.125 million in his final year of arbitration in 2016. He could stand to earn a small increase but a deal in the two-year, $12-14 million range seems reasonable for the veteran. After the $20 million a year the Indians have given Encarnacion, the Tribe probably doesn’t have a lot left to spend this winter.

Whether they even have $6-7 million to spend is anyone’s guess, but if they do have it, they’d be hard-pressed to find many players more worthy of spending it on than Luis Valbuena. He effectively kills two birds with one stone, both providing added power and upgrading the utility position. He’d provide the club with possibly their lone power hitting left-handed bat, or at least one to pair with Jason Kipnis (who may or may not have found his power stroke in 2016).

So what do you think, should the Indians sign Luis Valbuena to add another power bat to the roster and lengthen what is already a deep lineup? Or should they turn to Erik Gonzalez or Michael Martinez again for their utility role and find another bat to help in the outfield?

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