With Miguel Cabrera moving to DH, the Detroit Tigers have limited options at first base next season. Could free agent Luis Valbuena be a good fit?
For nearly a decade, the first base position has not been an issue for the Detroit Tigers. Miguel Cabrera has been with Detroit since 2008, and outside of two seasons with Prince Fielder, he has been the team’s primary first baseman.
However, Victor Martinez‘s retirement opens up the door for Miggy to serve as Detroit’s primary designated hitter. Considering he only played 38 games this season thanks to back injury, a move to DH could prolong his career and help him reach some upcoming milestones.
With Miggy at the DH, the Tigers will need someone to fill in at first base in 2019. John Hicks and Jim Adduci are the two most likely internal candidates, although neither are super inspiring. Hicks looked solid this season, but he should be catching instead – where he is more comfortable as a fielder.
Adduci has never played more than 50 games per season in the big leagues, and he’s almost 34 years old. While he is a serviceable bench bat, he should not be considered as a starting first baseman.
That leaves the free agent market, which is littered with veteran, bat-first options. The Detroit Tigers no doubt want to save some cash next season, but finding a left-handed hitting first baseman who they can flip at the trade deadline has plenty of allure for Al Avila and this young Tigers team. While there are multiple options, one of the most affordable ones will be 32-year-old Luis Valbuena, who has been with the Angels for the last two seasons.
Valbuena has seen 613 at-bats in the last two seasons, roughly a season’s worth of at-bats. He has mashed 31 home runs, 24 doubles and collected 98 RBI. However, he has also struck out 206 times and posted a meager .199/.277/.390 slash line with an 81 OPS+.
He was a solid part-time player in 2017, posting a 12.0% walk rate and hitting 22 home runs in 117 games. Those numbers slipped in 2018, when he hit nine home runs in 96 games along with a 6.6% walk rate and a very high 34.7% strikeout rate.
Valbuena is your typical three true outcomes hitter, with 44.1% of his plate appearances in the last two years resulting in a walk, strikeout or a home run. Unfortunately, 29.9% of those were strikeouts.
However, Valbuena is a solid enough defensive first baseman who also has plenty of experience at third base and even second base, if needed. He swings from the left side and has posted better numbers against right-handers in his career.
With no Victor Martinez, the Tigers are lacking hitters on the left side. Jeimer Candelario and Niko Goodrum are switch-hitters, and Christin Stewart hits left-handed. The Tigers could use another player with some oomph on that side of the plate, and Valbuena would give them a very affordable option.
The Tigers could probably snag Valbuena on a minor league contract with incentives for reaching the big club. If he performs adequately at the big league level, teams in need of bench depth and left-handed hitting could show interest, allowing Detroit to recoup a prospect or two for a half season of Valbuena. If he doesn’t improve on his 35% k rate from last season, the Tigers could always release him.
It’s a low-risk, medium-reward scenario and the kind of move that rebuilding teams need to consider making.