RIP to Luis Valbuena, an infielder who was one of two major-league ballplayers killed in a car accident in Venezuela on December 6. He had just celebrated his 33rd birthday on November 30. Valbuena played for the Seattle Mariners (2008), Cleveland Indians (2009-11), Chicago Cubs (2012-14), Houston Astros (2015-16) and Los Angeles Angels (2017-2018).
Valbuena was born in Caja Seca, Venezuela on November 30, 1985. He signed with the Mariners after attending La Cordillera High School. He made his stateside debut in 2009, spending most of his time with the A-ball Everett Aquasox. He did fairly well, batting .261 with 12 home runs and even played a couple games at the AAA level. He worked his way through the Mariners’ minor-league system, hitting decently well at every level. His age 22 2008 season was far and away his best in the minors. He batted over .300 for both the AA West Tenn Diamond Jaxx and AAA Tacoma Rainiers and was called to the majors when the rosters expanded in September.
Valbuena made his MLB debut on September 2, 2008 in a pinch-hitting role. His first major-league hit came off of the Angels’ Scot Shields on September 11. All in all, Valbuena hit .245 in 18 games. In the offseason, he was traded to Cleveland as part of a massive 3-team deal that included the New York Mets and involved 12 players total.
“He fills an extreme need for us,” said Indians GM Mark Shapiro. “Perhaps the biggest weakness in our system is the lack of middle-infield depth.”
Valbuena stayed with the Indians for three seasons, but he never stayed on the big-league roster for a full year. The most playing time he saw with the Tribe was in 2009, when he appeared in 103 games, hit 10 home runs and batted .250, playing mostly at second base and occasionally at shortstop. The average dropped to .193 in 91 games in 2010 and .209 in 17 games in 2011.
Valbuena was acquired by the Toronto Blue Jays in November 2011. He was with the franchise for about 4 months and was claimed off of waivers by the Cubs in April 2012. He worked his way into a full-time player during his tenure with the Cubs, becoming their starting third baseman in 2013 and 2014. His best year with the Cubs was his last one, when he hit .249 with 16 homers and 51 RBIs — career-high totals to that point.
In January 2015, Valbuena and pitcher Dan Straily were traded to Houston for outfielder Dexter Fowler. He hit a career-high 25 homers, though his batting average dropped to .224. He followed that up with the best season of his career, hitting .260 in 90 games. A hamstring injury ended his year at the end of July, but the 2.6 WAR was a career high (he had an offensive WAR of 3.0 in 2014, but his defensive WAR knocked the overall WAR number to 1.7).
Valbuena signed a 2-year, $15 million deal with the Angels in January 2017 with a mutual option for 2019. The power stayed up, with 22 home runs in 2017, but he couldn’t break the .200 mark in either season. After a second straight season of a .199 average, Valbuena was released by the Angels on August 7, 2018. He was playing winter baseball in Venezuela while looking for a deal with a major-league team.
In his 11-year career, Valbuena slashed .226/.310/.394, with 710 hits, 114 home runs and 367 RBIs. He had a career OPS of .703 and an OPS+ of 93. He played in the postseason with the Astros in 2015 and hit a combined .176. He did hit a home run in the ALDS against the Royals. Valbuena played a total of 606 games at third base, 210 games at second base and 126 at first base. along with a few at shortstop, designated hitter and left field.