Not a Rookie: Luis Valbuena
Luis Valbuena was signed by the Mariners out of Venezuela in 2002. He made his North American debut with Everett in the Northwest League in '05, hitting .261/.333/.443 with 14 steals, and even got into three Triple-A games when Tacoma needed an emergency infielder. He showed good strike zone judgment and his 12 homers for Everett, and drew decent reviews for his glovework. I gave him a Grade C+ in the 2006 book, noting him as a sleeper to watch closely.
Valbuena moved up to Wisconsin in the Midwest League for 2006, hitting .286/.371/.400 in 89 games, then .252/.315/.362 in 43 games after being promoted to Inland Empire in the California League. His power dropped off, but he retained decent plate discipline. His defense was rated as average due to so-so range by most sources. I gave him a Grade C in my ratings but didn't include him in the '07 book due to space limits, which was probably a mistake given his youth and decent hitting performance. Baseball America ranked him 20th on their Mariners prospect list.
Seattle moved Valbuena up to Double-A West Tennesse for 2007. He hit .239/.311/.378, knocking 11 homers, drawing 48 walks with a 83 strikeouts in 444 at-bats. His numbers didn't really stand out, but he was young for the level. I still had him rated as a Grade C guy and once again cut him for space reasons. BA didn't have him on their Mariners prospect list, so I wasn't alone in downplaying him.
Valbuena returned to West Tennessee for 2008, hitting .304/.381/.483 in 70 games. Promoted to Triple-A Tacoma, he hit .302/.383/.373 in 58 games, then hit .245/.315/.347 in an 18-game trial with the Mariners. He hit 11 homers again, stole 18 bases, and drew 59 walks against 59 strikeouts on the season. Defensive reviews still pointed to an average glove due to range limits, but he was considered steady and reliable. I gave him a Grade C+ in the 2009 book, writing "I don't think Valbuena will be a star, but I can see him as a solid contributor, hitting .260-.275 with some secondary skills." He was traded to the Indians in the December '08 three-way between the Tribe, the Mariners, and the Mets.
Valbuena spent most of 2009 with the Indians, hitting .250/.298/.416 in 103 games, with 10 homers, 26 walks, and 83 strikeouts in 368 at-bats. His plate discipline was usually good in the minors: witness a 213/274 BB/K ratio in 1753 minor league at-bats. That didn't hold up in the majors, but I suspect he can get it back closer to previous levels if given more exposure. He has more power than most 5-10, 195 pound second basemen, and I think we could see that increase a bit more. He was platooned for the most part, getting just 40 plate appearances against lefties (resulting in a .205/.225/.436 mark) but 358 against right-handers (.255/.306/.413). His defense was exactly as expected: steady but not superb. He made just six errors in 75 games at second base, leading to a .985 fielding percentage, but his UZR ratings were below average, denoting limited range.
My expectations for Valbuena remain the same: I think he'll be a .260-.275 hitter going forward, with sparks of power and a gradually improving on-base percentage. His defense will be reliable in terms of avoiding errors and mistakes, but he won't show great range. If the hitting develops to the maximum possible extent, he could have an All-Star caliber offensive season around 2013 or so.