Does Luis Valbuena Make Sense for the Blue Jays?


Luis Valbuena could be just what the Toronto Blue Jays need, as they continue looking for ways to strengthen the roster for the 2017 season.

In a free and trade market that is short on impact talent, the Blue Jays‘ front office have their work cut out in trying to find the missing pieces for the 2017 roster.

Based on what is available in free agency, a short-term deal for Jose Bautista seems like the most desirable course of action for the Blue Jays to take, assuming both sides could agree to a deal, and it still might happen eventually.

However, in the event that the Jays and Bautista cannot find common ground, what else is out there?

Team president Mark Shapiro was on the Jeff Blair Show on Friday and mentioned trying to find the most WAR per dollar, as opposed to necessarily filling areas of need. After all, a win is a win regardless of where it comes from, and that’s the type of ideology this front office used last season when filling out the rotation and other areas of need.

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They did not target one player specifically, but rather spread the available resources among many players (Marco Estrada, J.A. Happ, Jesse Chavez, Gavin Floyd) to get as many wins as possible. The end result was a 6.2 WAR for a combined $21.5 million out of Estrada and Happ, as opposed to the 4.5 WAR David Price put up in Boston for $30 million.

Using the same type of strategy in 2017 appears to be in the works as the Bautista situation is still an uncertainty.

Can history repeat itself? The Blue Jays are now looking to fill at least one, possibly two, outfield spots. However, who provides the most value per dollar of the players available regardless of position?

The name that jumps out is Luis Valbuena.

Why does he make sense for the Blue Jays?

Much like recent Blue Jays’ signing Steve Pearce, Valbuena has accumulated a good amount of value in limited playing time. He has been worth a 8.3 WAR over the past four seasons, most recently a 2.0 WAR in 342 plate appearances in 2016 with the Houston Astros, and nearly a three-win player in his only season with over 500 plate appearances over that span (with the Cubs in 2014).

2013: 2.1 WAR,  98 wRC+ (100 vs. RHP), 13.6% BB%, .160 ISO (.167 vs. RHP), 391 PA

2014: 2.9 WAR, 119 wRC+ (127 vs. RHP), 11.9% BB%, .186 ISO (.208 vs. RHP), 547 PA

2015: 1.3 WAR, 107 wRC+ (123 vs. RHP), 10.1% BB%, .214 ISO (.234 vs. RHP), 493 PA

2016: 2.0 WAR, 123 wRC+ (129 vs. RHP), 12.9% BB%, .199 ISO (.221 vs. RHP), 342 PA

While the 31-year old has been a solid hitter overall, his real value comes from his ability to hit right-handed pitching extremely well. He brings a very desirable offensive skill set of power and walks.

To put this power in perspective, from 2014-16, he ranks 29th in all of baseball (min. 1000 plate appearances) in isolated power (ISO) against right-handed pitching, ahead of the likes of Joey Votto and Miguel Cabrera over that same time frame.

Another incredibly valuable skill that Valbuena possesses is the ability to play multiple positions. One aspect of the team Shapiro and general manager Ross Atkins frequently bring up, is the lack of depth in the upper minors.

If injuries hit, the choices for filling holes via the minor league system are limited. Acquiring players who can cover multiple positions in order to compensate for the lack of depth, is one way to possibly avoid situations where sub-replacement level players are getting a lot of at bats throughout the course of a season.

Defensively, most of Valbuena’s innings over the past three seasons have come at third base, where he grades out as below average (-1 DRS and -3.6 UZR in 2016). However, he also spent some time at first base in 2015-16, where he has graded out positively (4 DRS and 1.3 UZR in 277 careers innings).

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Jun 19, 2016; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Astros third baseman Luis Valbuena (18) sits in the dugout during the fifth inning against the Cincinnati Reds at Minute Maid Park. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports /

A first baseman who can field his position, but also switch over to third base in case of need is a commodity the Jays could use right now, since they do not have anyone who can fill in for Josh Donaldson if he has to miss time. Valbuena is not the defender that Donaldson is at third, but he’s certainly solid enough to cover there if necessary. He came up as a middle infielder, but chances are those days are long gone.

Prior to the off-season, MLBTradeRumors projected Valbuena to sign for two years, $14 million. With the way the free agent market has shaken out, most recently with a similar player in Trevor Plouffe signing a one-year deal worth around $5 million with the Oakland Athletics, that MLBTR projection is likely too high.

Valbuena could be signed for one year, maybe two years, with an average annual value equivalent to that of a sub-1 WAR player (and he is clearly better than that). That goes back to Shapiro’s quote; finding the most wins per dollar value.

According to Steamer projections, Valbuena is projected to have a 1.2 WAR in 2017. That projection is lower than the one for Bautista, but higher than the projections for Mark Trumbo, Michael Saunders, Brandon Moss, Angel Pagan, and so on.

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Steamer is not perfect, and many of the projections might be on the low side (including Valbuena’s), but over the last four seasons he has a consistent pattern of being a 2-WAR caliber talent, and with a permanent move to first base where his defense should grade out average or better, the value could go a lot higher.

Fitting Valbuena into the lineup might be the tricky part, with Kendrys Morales at DH, and both Justin Smoak and Pearce slated to get reps at first. One scenario would be to start him at first base against RHP, with Pearce starting in left field. Then when facing a LHP, shift Pearce to 1B and put Melvin Upton Jr. in left.

Valbuena is not going to be much value against LHP, so sitting him against them is imperative to getting the most value out of him. Manager John Gibbons would have to be creative with the way he would use such diverse lineup if Valbuena were signed, but there are options that could make it work.

The reality is a team in Toronto’s position may have to get creative in their roster construction to make up for lost production. The front office seems reluctant to trade prospects, and the only big name free agent available is someone the team may be ready to part ways with, so utilizing platoons and defensive versatility is one way to compensate for that.

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While he would not be the big named signing that will make fans forget about Edwin Encarnacion’s heroic tenure with the Jays, Valbuena brings the type of versatility and skill set that would be a huge asset to the team. Given the weak free agent environment, the value per dollar is extremely high in his case, possibly higher than anyone else left on the market.