With Edwin Encarnacion headed to Cleveland, the top player remaining on MLB.com's list of this offseason's best free agents might be someone you wouldn't expect.While bigger names such as Jose Bautista, Mark Trumbo, Matt Wieters and Mike Napoli also are available in the early days of 2017, it's actually corner
With Edwin Encarnacion headed to Cleveland, the top player remaining on MLB.com's list of this offseason's best free agents might be someone you wouldn't expect.
While bigger names such as Jose Bautista, Mark Trumbo, Matt Wieters and Mike Napoli also are available in the early days of 2017, it's actually corner infielder Luis Valbuena who rates as the best, based on a projection system devised by MLB.com's analytics guru Tom Tango.
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Valbuena has kept a low profile over nine seasons in the big leagues, including recent stints with the Cubs (2012-14) and Astros ('15-'16). He has never made an All-Star team or led the league in a notable statistical category, and in fact has logged 500 or more plate appearances in a season only once ('14). On the other hand, Tango's WAR-based system sees a player who has averaged 2.1 WAR over the past three seasons, including 2.6 last year*.
However, a couple of factors could be working against Valbuena, whose name hasn't come up in many substantive rumors this offseason. For one, few teams seem to be in need of a regular at third base (Valbuena's primary position), especially after the Dodgers re-signed Justin Turner. Second, Valbuena last played on July 26, when he hurt his right hamstring running to first base, an injury that required season-ending surgery to repair a tendon.
The good news for Valbuena is that he has been healthy enough to play for Lara in the Venezuelan Winter League, appearing at first, second and third base and going 12-for-35 (.343) in 10 games through Tuesday, including playoffs. He also offers some defensive versatility and is accustomed to a part-time role, setting him up as an ideal platoon player who can step in at multiple positions and come off the bench.
Here is a closer look at what Valbuena has to offer:
A solid bat
Valbuena doesn't hit for high averages or run particularly well, and he will pile up some strikeouts. On the other hand, he has pop, averaging a .442 slugging percentage and 18 homers in 461 plate appearances over the past three seasons, including a career-high 25 long balls in 2015.
Valbuena also has a long track record of patience at the plate. He has posted a walk rate of better than 10 percent for five seasons in a row, and his total of 11.9 percent over that span ranks 17th in the Majors (minimum 2,000 plate appearances). That puts him just behind Giancarlo Stanton and Matt Carpenter.
That all adds up to a hitter who is productive, if unspectacular. After generating a line of .260/.357/.459 over 90 games in 2016, here is how Valbuena's three-year weighted runs created-plus (wRC+) compares with some other notable third basemen.
120 -- Nolan Arenado
116 -- Anthony Rendon
115 -- Valbuena
113 -- Todd Frazier
112 -- Evan Longoria
Valbuena did put up a .741 OPS against left-handed pitchers in 2016, but in a tiny sample of 88 plate appearances. His larger body of work (.666 career OPS) suggests that he isn't an ideal lineup piece when a southpaw is on the mound.
The flip side is that Valbuena is highly dangerous against right-handers, meaning he can capably man the strong side of a platoon. Since 2014, he has hit .253/.344/.473 with 46 homers off righties, his .817 OPS good for 23rd out of 87 left-handed batters with at least 800 plate appearances in those matchups.
Valbuena did begin his professional career at second base and has started 189 big league games there, but he has logged only three innings at the position in the past two seasons. Meanwhile, he last played shortstop in 2011, when he also made his only start in the outfield. In other words, it's probably best not to count on the 31-year-old to spend any significant time away from third and first base.
That still leaves Valbuena with a bit of versatility, especially considering his respectable defensive numbers. With Houston the past two seasons, Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) pegged him as just below average (-2) in 180 games at the hot corner and a bit above average (+4) in a 39-game taste across the diamond.
Looking ahead to the 2017 season, a team could plan to have Valbuena bounce between third and first -- plus designated hitter in the American League -- starting mostly against right-handed pitchers and providing a dangerous bat off the bench otherwise. While there aren't many obvious fits for the veteran free agent, he still presents an opportunity for some team to upgrade its lineup before Spring Training begins.
*The Baseball Reference version of WAR was used.
Andrew Simon is a research analyst for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB.