Luis Valbuena never got any love from prospect analysts. There were a lot of seasons of middling productions followed by "breakout seasons" that were never quite flashy enough to gain the eye of the prospecting community. This year, Valbuena received a promotion to the majors to become the Indians' (virtually) everyday 2B at the age of 23. On the game's biggest stage, he scuffled, performing at a level right around replacement level over slightly more than half a season.
Right on target.
Looking at his track record, Valbuena's minor league pattern, 2009 fits in perfectly with his development. Let's take a look.
In 2006, Valbuena began the year at low-A Wisconsin in the Midwest league. True to form, his numbers were solid but in no way flashy. Valbuena hit.286/.371/.400, walking exactly as many times as he struck out (44 BB, 44K in 325 ABs, excellent component stats). Those numbers don't look great, but consider that the average OPS of the Midwest Leavue that year was .690 (and the average .ISO was .112), and Valbuena's .771 number with great patience and slightly above average pop looks pretty good. Promoted to the California League towards the end of the season, Valbuena's production tailed off, and he hit just .252/.315/.362.
In 2007, Valbuena was aggressively pushed to a Double-A assignment at the age of 21. Things didn't go well. He hit just .239/.311/.378. He still knew how to take a walk and could punish a bad pitch, but his strikeouts rose a bit and had trouble making hard contact.
2008 was a different story. Repeating double-A, Valbuena hit .304/.381/.483, and the fact that nobody took note and started talking about him as a quality prospect drove me absolutely crazy. Regardless, he continued to put up good numbers and fly under the radar due to lack of huge HR power or game-changing speed. Scouts also rated Valbuena the best defensive 2B in the Southern League. Promoted to Triple-A, Valbuena's production once again fell. He wasn't bad, but his power evaporated, and he hit just .302/.383/.373, feeding fears that he didn't have enough power to make it in the majors. In the offseason, the Cleveland Indians took notice of Valbuena's season and acquired him as part of the 3-way JJ Putz/Franklin Gutierrez trade.
This year, Valbuena absolutely destroyed Triple-A for all of a month before getting the call to the show. He was one of the International League's best hitters over the season's first 22 games, hitting .321/.436/.538 with 16 walks against only 13 strikeouts in 95 at-bats. Then, he was called up to the majors, where he's hit .241/.293/.402.
Anyone else see a pattern here? Valbuena has scuffled at each new level only to return the next year as one of the circuit's better players. Not many organizations would have promoted him as quickly as the Mariners did (big surprise), and I think if he had stayed in the low-mid minors longer he would be on a lot more peoples' radar, but I would not be surprised at all if he comes out and puts up a line similar to what Denard Span has done this year, only with a bit more power. UZR hates his defense (which is weird, because he looks very solid from a scouting perspective) so far in his career, which hurts his overall value, but I really, really love this kid's bat and think he's been underrated for years.