The Yankees have made a handful of high-profile moves this offseason, but the winter is far from over. It would be surprising if New York jeopardized the magnitude of Hal Steinbrenner’s checking account by making another pricey free agent signing, but there are still trade rumors swirling. Those rumors will likely swirl either until the winter ends, or until the Yankees pull the trigger on another deal.
Brian McCann was an obvious target on the trading block, and there have been constant whispers regarding the status of other veterans like Chase Headley and Brett Gardner. If any players are moved, the Yankees would have to replace their production internally, or look for an external option, most likely a cost-effective one. Of the remaining free agents, Luis Valbuena could slot in nicely in such a situation.
2016 Statistics: 90 G, 342 PA, .260/.357/.459, 13 HR, 40 RBI, 123 wRC+
Age on Opening Day 2017: 31
The free agent market was barren this year, and it was further weakened as a number of top players signed. At this point, Valbuena profiles as one of the better players out there. Per FanGraphs’ projections, Valbuena is the fourth best hitter on the market at the moment, behind just Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Bautista, and Matt Wieters.
Valbuena projects fairly well simply because he has built a strong track record. Over the past four years, Valbuena has very quietly been a solid performer, recording 8.3 fWAR and 8.0 rWAR from 2013 to 2016. He split those seasons with the Cubs and Astros, and managed to put together good value totals despite never quite being a full-time starter, averaging 120 games played across those four seasons.
In recent years, Valbuena has developed into a very balanced hitter. Since 2013, Valbuena has logged a .237/.333/.428 slash line, good for a 112 wRC+. He has maintained a strong 12.0% walk rate over that span, to go along with a fine 20.5% strikeout rate. He has some pop, with 66 homers and a .191 isolated slugging since 2013, while keeping an about average 78.9% contact rate. Essentially every aspect of Valbuena’s approach at the plate checks out as average or better.
He doesn’t have a reputation as a sterling defensive player, but he can handle himself in the field and does bring some versatility. Both UZR and DRS rated Valbuena close to average in recent years at his primary positions of third and first base. He has also played nearly 2000 innings in his career at middle infield positions, meaning he can play across the diamond if needed.
The player described so far sounds like a pretty attractive target, so why hasn’t there been much buzz around Valbuena this winter? To some extent, age and injury are to blame. Valbuena suffered an ill-timed hamstring injury last season that forced him to undergo surgery. He’s not particularly old, but at age 31, he isn’t exactly a spring chicken either. Plus, Valbuena has some platoon issues, as the lefty-swinger has a poor career wRC+ of 86 against southpaws.
Still, none of those caveats mean that Valbuena isn’t a valuable player. Even with his problems versus lefties, Valbuena can fill the long end of a platoon due to his ability to hit right-handers (he posted a 129 wRC+ against righties in 2016). If the Yankees traded Headley, Valbuena would be a serviceable starter, and even without a trade, Valbuena would fit fairly well as a lefty-DH option and backup infielder.
The Yankees reportedly have been in contact with Valbuena, but it isn’t clear if he would be amenable to a non-starting role. Even so, it seems likely Valbuena can be had at a palatable cost. MLB Trade Rumors estimated Valbuena would earn a two-year, $14 million guarantee, which would be a bargain price for the level of production Valbuena has sustained the past few years.
The Yankees probably would like to posit that they are tapped out of financial resources after signing Aroldis Chapman, but a small outlay for a player like Valbuena should obviously be well within their means. A chain of events involving a trade of one of the Yankees’ veterans would likely be required for the Yankees to sign Valbuena, so it’s not a highly probable match. Regardless, he looks like a possible bargain, and one the Yankees should surely be considering.