Sep 21, 2013; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Cubs third baseman Luis Valbuena (24) steps on third base for a force out and throws to first base to complete a double play in the eighth inning against the Atlanta Braves at Wrigley Field. Mandatory Credit: Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

Has the Cubs' Luis Valbuena earned his salary increase for 2014?

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When the Cubs made Luis Valbuena part of the team in 2012, I never thought I’d be compelled to write a piece about his successes in Chicago. “He’s filler”, I had initially thought – nothing more than a career second baseman who could conveniently slot in on the left infield side for an otherwise lackluster team. He’d show his true colors in lack of defensive ability and would be nothing more than an afterthought by 2014.

How wrong I was. Valbuena has begun to show his defensive prowess and overall utility in Chicago and is getting very little recognition for it.

All things considered, Valbuena has produced well for the Cubs and his 2013 showed a ton of promise in the batter’s box as well as on the hot corner.  His skill set will never make him a hall of fame-er, but he quietly goes about his business, playing a well oriented team game.This means not striking out too much (16K%), posting good defensive metrics (.976 FLD% with only 7 errors in 760.2 innings of work) and drawing walks where he can. He also hit 12 knocks in 2013 – which really, is better than a kick in the ass. Toss a .708 OPS in the mix and you’re getting great value for the $930,000 you’ve spent on your third baseman.

The Cubs seem to agree with this, as they’ve brought Valbuena on board for the 2014 season with a significant pay increase – to the tune of 1-year/$1,710,000. Will Valbuena’s production increase along with his salary?

While predicting baseball is tougher than entertaining your snobby in-laws, Valbuena’s projected numbers in 2014 seem to indicate that he is money well spent: a decent looking triple slash at .233/.315/.382 with 8 homers, 33 RBI, 19 K% and 10.4 BB%.

Hold up… that’s not really a great improvement statistically. Granted some categories have improved, but there are also signs of regression. How can Valbuena merit such a significant pay increase?

At face value, these stats are deceiving. Allow me to elaborate:

The obvious reason for this apparent regression is the competition at third base that the Cubs now face. Donnie Murphy will likely be platooning the position with Valbuena, which means fewer plate appearances for Valbuena. We now have a smaller sample size which can inherently skew numbers downwards. This goes without even considering Mike Olt, who has had a fantastic spring training, for a platoon candidate at third base.

The smoking gun for Valbuena’s pay raise is the consistent projected results with roughly 90 fewer plate appearances. This is indicative of Valbuena’s improvement in the batters box and would likely project much better figures if he was playing third for 150+ games instead of 90-110 games a season in 2014. It’s a subtle assumption, but statistically speaking, Valbuena is a better hitter now than in 2013 by a significant margin, even if his baseline results will mirror those in 2013.

It will be interesting to see how the third base position shakes out for the Cubs as the season progresses, but my money is on Valbuena as the Cubs’ Opening Day third baseman.

 

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