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Brewers Free Agent Targets: 3B Luis Valbuena

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The Brewers have a hole at the hot corner and there’s a former Astro who could fill it.

MLB: Houston Astros at Oakland Athletics Lance Iversen-USA TODAY Sports

Luis Valbuena signed his first professional contract as an amateur free agent back in 2002 with the Seattle Mariners, and fourteen years later has become a free agent for the first time in his career. In between he’s been traded in a three team deal from Seattle to Cleveland, had his contract purchased by the Blue Jays but never played a regular season game for them, was claimed off waivers by the Cubs, and then finally traded to the Astros. The 30 year old native of Venezuela will get to pick his next employer for the first time and will likely be suiting up for his sixth different MLB franchise next spring.

Despite his status as a journeyman, Valbuena has been a rather productive player in the big leagues. He debuted in 2008 with the Mariners for a cup of coffee and was a semi-regular player in Cleveland from 2009-10, though he managed only a 50 wRC+ in 310 PA in 2010 for the Indians and spent most of 2011 in the minor leagues. Valbuena got another chance with the rebuilding Cubs in 2012, and from 2013-2016 he’s been a solid regular contributor at the hot corner. Over the past four seasons, Luis has hit a combined .237/.333/.428 with 66 home runs in 1773 plate appearances, which works out to a 112 wRC+.

Valbuena is coming off an injury-shortened 2016, although if he had been healthy all year he was on pace for a career-best campaign. Through 90 games and 342 plate appearances, the left-handed hitter had posted a .260/.357/.459 slash with 13 home runs (123 wRC+) before hitting the disabled list in late July with a strained right hamstring. He would unfortunately miss the rest of the regular season.

At the plate, Valbuena’s had some issues with low batting averages during his career. That can’t really be attributed to high strikeout rates, as his career mark of 20.2% is certainly manageable in today’s game, but Valbuena has had some odd BABIP fluctuations. In 2013 he hit .218 with a .233 BABIP, in 2014 it was .249 with a .294 BABIP, .224 with a .235 BABIP in 2015, and .260 with a .315 BABIP in 2016. Valbuena has been a fly-ball hitter throughout his career and generally won’t post high batting averages on balls in play because of it, but the fluctuations appear to be tied into his hard hit percentage. In 2013 and 2015 he made hard contact around 32% of the time (which is still above average), while in 2014 and 2016 it was closer to 36%.

Even when his batting average is down, Valbuena has been able to get on base due to his excellent eye at the plate. He’s walked in 10.7% of his career plate appearances and 12% dating back to 2013. His on-base ability combined with above-average pop (.191 ISO since 2013) should help Valbuena remain useful on offense even if he’s only hitting .220. Valbuena has typically needed a platoon partner throughout his career (86 wRC+ against same handed pitching) but showed an improved ability to handle southpaws in 2016, posting a 104 wRC+ in a small 88 PA sample size.

On the other side of the ball, Valbuena began his career as primarily a second baseman but in recent years has spent the bulk of his time at the hot corner. He has graded out about average at third base with -3 DRS and +9.5 UZR in 3956.2 career innings, though he’s been a shade below average by both metrics in each of the last two campaigns. He also played a bit of first base in 2015 and 2016, giving him a little defensive versatility.

This winter’s free agent class is considered by some to be historically weak, and third base isn’t really an exception to that. Former Dodger Justin Turner is the only alternative that would be a clear upgrade over Valbuena, and signing him would require a team to give up a draft pick. Signing Valbuena, who was not issued a Qualifying Offer by the Astros, does not. The Cardinals, Angels, Red Sox, and Mets have been listed as potential suitors for Valbuena’s services, though MLB Trade Rumors predicts that he will indeed sign with our Milwaukee Brewers for a term of two years and $14 mil. I would be comfortable going even beyond that, upping the AAV a bit or adding a third year if that’s what it takes to get over the top. Beyond Ryan Braun’s contract, the Brewers have nothing in the way of payroll commitments after 2017 and can certainly afford to add a shorter term contract that would be less than $10 mil annually.

Slingin’ David Stearns has already shown an affinity for bringing in former Astros and Luis would be a terrific fit to the current Brewers’ roster, which is lacking both a true third baseman as well as a left-handed bat in a righty-heavy lineup. A potential Valbuena addition would allow Jonathan Villar to move to his more natural defensive position at second base and give the club motivation to deal Scooter Gennett. If Luis needs a break against tough lefties, Hernan Perez could easily platoon with him at the hot corner.

The production has been solid, the price won’t be prohibitive, the current fit is there, and there’s not anyone in the upper minors that is ready to audition for the third base job long-term. Luis Valbuena to the Brewers just makes sense.

Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs