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MLB trade rumors: Tigers should sign Luis Valbuena, but they can’t

The Tigers’ bloated payroll limits their ability to solve their depth problem.

Houston Astros v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

Third baseman Luis Valbuena is not a player on the Detroit Tigers’ radar. No one is clamoring for him either. He doesn’t fill a position of need on the current roster. You may not have even heard his name this offseason. And the Tigers are down to their last dime, limiting their ability to add free agents.

In short, this isn’t going to happen. Let’s just get that out of the way from the beginning.

Certainly, Valbuena, a 31-year-old third baseman who isn’t versatile defensively and has some platoon issues at the plate, seems like a gross luxury considering the team’s weakness in center field. He doesn’t exactly sit atop the Tigers’ hierarchy of needs. But he could also be both an inexpensive and useful player for the Tigers to add.

Who is he?

Valbuena came up in the Seattle Mariners organization. He bounced to the Cleveland Indians and then the Chicago Cubs, where he finally carved out a role at the major league level. Valbuena’s limited breakout year in 2014 wasn’t enough for the Cubs to include him as part of their future juggernaut. He has since proved himself a legitimate offensive force — at least, against right-handed pitching — over two seasons with the Houston Astros.

Season PA K% BB% Avg OBP Slg Iso wRC+
2014 547 20.7 11.9 .249 .341 .435 .186 118
2015 493 21.5 10.1 .224 .310 .438 .214 107
2016 342 23.7 12.9 .260 .357 .459 .199 123

Since finding his footing, Valbuena has been a consistently productive player, though never quite an everyday one. He has been worth 6.2 fWAR over the past three seasons, while typically sitting against left-handed pitching. He is a competent third baseman, with some experience at second and first. Overall, he is a solid player with clear strengths and weaknesses that add up to a league average player.

Why should we be interested?

The Tigers have one quality left-handed bat on their roster: Victor Martinez, perhaps the Tigers player most likely to be injured in 2017. Even if we assume Martinez has another productive year at the plate, he may negate a lot of that value with his baserunning. Valbuena would give the Tigers a level of insurance and offensive depth that is scarce within the organization. While he is typically much better against right-handed pitching, in recent years he has closed the gaps in his splits to reasonable levels as well.

That depth would extend beyond the designated hitter spot. The Tigers received negative production from both the third base and right field positions when Nick Castellanos and J.D. Martinez were injured in 2016. Presumably, Valbuena could handle either position with little-to-no drop off defensively.

The Tigers’ offense has plenty of firepower, but the lineup is also guaranteed to have a few holes, particularly against right-handed pitching. Valbuena would be able to pinch hit for James McCann, Jose Iglesias, and the Tigers’ mystery center fielder, limiting the effect of their offensive liabilities. He would balance the lineup at key points in games. The Tigers’ farm system doesn’t have the capacity to plug those kinds of holes. Signing Valbuena would stand in for the minor league depth they haven’t yet developed and make the entire roster much less fragile.

Why should we stay away?

Beyond the payroll issues that make a move like this frustratingly unlikely, Valbuena had season-ending hamstring surgery in August 2016. The Tigers would have to know that Valbuena was on course to be healthy and ready in time for the season.

The most recent rumors surrounding Valbuena centered around the New York Yankees. However it has been nearly a month since that supposed interest came to light, and no deal has come to pass. Valbuena was reportedly looking for a multi-year contract and substantial playing time, something the Yankees could only guarantee were they to trade Chase Headley. For the same reasons, Valbuena probably wouldn’t fit into the Tigers’ scheme even if they could afford to sign him.

Will he end up a Tiger?

Never say never! But no, Luis Valbuena will not be joining the Tigers this offseason. And that’s alright. If the Tigers had $7 million available to spend, there are probably other players and positions that different observers would prefer to see addressed before a luxury bench piece. Still, it’s very easy to see just how important a player like Valbuena could be when you consider how injuries and lack of positional depth buried the Tigers hopes last season.

Much has been made of the end of free spending Tigers this offseason. Even two years, ago the Tigers could’ve picked up a player like Luis Valbuena without a second thought, despite running consistently high-end payrolls. That such a move is now completely unthinkable is a sign that the Tigers are hamstrung, left with no flexibility to exploit the market. Meanwhile, that same trend toward prospect development and youth prevents them from moving their own quality players for a worthwhile return.

MLB Trade Rumors estimated that Valbuena would land $14 million over two years this offseason. There was a time when $7 milion per season was a pitiful sum in Tigertown. Instead, Valbuena functions as a another example of the opportunity cost of a red-lined payroll and the dangers of doling out too many long-term free agent deals. For those afraid that the Tigers may once again find themselves a move short of a real contender, no relief appears in sight.