Searching for starters: NL Central edition

Christian Petersen

Trying to find players that could provide value in the right situation

As much as we would all like our favorite clubs to employ multiple star sluggers and a handful of true aces, this is more of a fantasy than a realistic situation. I can't even pull it off in fantasy ball, now that I think about it. In any case, filling roster weaknesses is both tricky and a crucial component of team-construction. The trick is simply to identify value where others do not, and that is what I will be attempting to do here. I'll start with two hitters from the NL Central.

Luis Valbuena, Chicago Cubs 3B

It's hard to find value in a guy that hasn't cracked a .220 batting average since 2009, but I strongly believe that the 29 year-old Valbuena is a hidden gem for the Cubs. His walk rate has risen significantly over the years, and it peaked last year at 13.6% Meanwhile, his strikeout rate has dropped at a similar pace to a career low 16.1% in 2013. Of all third basemen with at least 100 plate appearances, his BB% was second only to Miguel Cabrera's 13.8%. He also has some pop in the bat, but his overall triple-slash is severely hampered by his career .260 BABIP. In 391 plate appearances last year, he slashed .218/.331/.378 with a .233 BABIP, which was good for a 95 wRC+.

So, what's the deal with his BABIP? His career line drive rate sits at 18.9%, and he hits more than his share of fly balls at 39%. However, he doesn't hit an inordinate amount of infield flies at 11.1%, so I wouldn't expect his BABIP to continue to suffer much below his career mark. Surely if it rose to his career level of .260, combined with his newly found plate discipline, he'd be able to surpass a league average wRC+ of 100. The first half of 2013 provides insight as to what that BABIP-regressed triple slash may look like, as he hit .236/.345/.394, leading to a 102 wRC+, thanks to a .259 BABIP over 291 PA's. I would suggest that Valbuena represents an offensively capable corner infielder, with a high enough floor (thanks to his BB/K) that he wont be a black hole in the lineup.

The key to Valbuena's value, aside from a somewhat respectable BABIP, is his defense. Prior to 2012, he never offered defensive runs above average. The reason is clear: he became a third baseman. In the last two seasons, he has played 1399 innings at third while filling in occasionally at second (and apparently two innings in left field). He has provided 21.7 fielding runs above average over these two seasons as well as 2.4 runs in positional adjustment. This 24 runs above average defense ranks him fourth among third basemen, despite his limited playing time, as he slots behind only Manny Machado, Juan Uribe, and Mike Moustakas. As objectively as I can be, the numbers suggest that Valbuena is a borderline elite defender at the hot corner and at worst a very good one.

As it stands, Valbuena looks to be in a platoon situation with the righty-swinging Donnie Murphy. He also faces the risk of losing his job to youngsters like Mike Olt and potentially Kris Bryant. Valbuena has actually hit left-handers much more effectively than righties thus far in his brief career, though the sample size is a mere 216 PA's versus southpaws. I would like to see what he could do in a full-time role strictly at third base. In addition, he is under team control until 2017. He had the 17th best WAR among all third basemen last season, and I think he stands for some improvement. Plus, this 2013 bat-flipping GIF exists, thanks to this Carson Cistulli piece. We're so close to actual baseball, fellow readers.

Valbuenabatflip_medium

Jose Tabata, Pittsburgh Pirates RF

Like the 2011 version of Luis Valbuena, it seems as though the now 25-year old Jose Tabata is in the wrong situation to reach his potential. A quick glance at FanGraphs' advanced fielding section reveals a problem: he's a left fielder playing in right. In 1912 1/3 innings in left field, Tabata has a UZR/150 of 5.7. Meanwhile in 942 1/3 innings in right field, he has a UZR/150 of -19.2. The result, which includes brief stints in center, is a collective -3.4 UZR/150. This equates to 8.1 defensive runs below average, which is tacked on to the positional adjustment of -14.5 runs below average over his career. If he were to strictly play left field, his above average abilities should almost recoup the positional adjustment runs below average. Instead, Tabata's career WAR is hindered (by about two wins), leaving us with what looks like a fourth outfielder.

Look at his 2010 numbers as a rookie, for example. He spent nearly all of his time in left field, and the result was defense worth 2.5 runs below average. His offense was a notch better than his eventual career line, as he produced a triple slash of .299/.346/.400, compared to the career marks of .274/.339/.385. In that rookie season, Tabata produced 1.9 WAR over 441 plate appearances (102 games). As he enters his prime, I see no reason why Tabata shouldn't continue to hit. His value is almost entirely drained from being next to useless in right.

Starling Marte isn't going anywhere. Andrew McCutchen is also pretty good. It has been suspected that the Pirates could employ a platoon in right field, where Tabata would receive at bats versus lefties. Essentially, he has become a fourth outfielder, even though he hasn't done much to deserve that relegation. Tabata fares well against same-handed pitching, so a platoon situation would be of no great benefit to him. He is under team control for six more years, the last three of those years in the form of club-options, and the total six years priced at $33.5 million. Not only could another team procure much more value out of this deal than the Pirates currently are (and foreseeably can), but Pittsburgh also has Gregory Polanco on the brink of being ready to take over in right. The following table illustrates Tabata's career splits, that apparently have led him into a platoon situation.

Season Split BB% K% BB/K AVG OBP SLG OPS ISO BABIP wRC wRAA wOBA wRC+
Total vs L as R 9.0 % 13.1 % 0.69 .258 .332 .403 .735 .145 .282 43.5 2.1 .324 104
Total vs R as R 7.4 % 14.8 % 0.50 .279 .340 .379 .720 .101 .325 136.6 4.4 .321 103

I don't really like to speculate potential trade scenarios, so I wont do that here. What I will say, however, is that these two hitters could present greater value to clubs other than those they currently play for.

Teams don't need stars at every position. But, a win is a win, and these two guys could provide one or two wins over some of the weaker projected starters around the game. For a prospective playoff team, that could be the difference from playoffs and golfing.

. . .

All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs .

Bryan Robinson is a Contributor at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @proprojections.

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