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The Cleveland Indians world post-Luis Valbuena

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The Cleveland Indians once had Luis Valbuena. How two paths diverge.

MLB: Oakland Athletics at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The Los Angeles Angels signed Luis Valbuena to a deal totaling $15,000,000 over two years. This is great news for the Angels in particular and baseball fans in general, because the more talent they have, the more of a chance Mike Trout has to play in October. While it's a tragically romantic tale for someone so great as him to never have a chance at lasting glory, a Ted Williams of the modern day, it's wrong to waste such a thing.

Valbuena has turned into a fine player and should aid the Angels as they battle in a speedily improving AL West. There was a time, though, when Valbuena represented a shot at something new and hopeful with the Cleveland Indians. The Tribe moved on from him and has had a rotating cast at third since then. Would the Indians have been better off with Valbuena?

Valbuena was one of a series of names in the post-2007 rebuild that might have been something to work with the future. he came over in a deal for the then-superfluous Franklin Gutierrez. He was supposed to be a slick glove with enough bat to get through games without sucking away value brought by the glove. He wasn't, instead slashing .224/.283/.344 with the Indians and being worth 0.7 wins above replacement in 211 games. It made sense for Cleveland to cut ties and move on in favor of their first-round draft pick Lonnie Chisenhall. You need to see what else you have to work with when the major league product is increasingly terrible. So he was sent to Toronto for cash in November 2011, then ended up on the Cubs for the 2012 season. Between then and the 2016 season, Valbuena has slashed .234/.330/.415. That's good for a 105 OPS+, so he's at the least been a slightly above average hitter over that stretch. More than that, he's hit 70 home runs in that stretch, including a 25-homer season with the Astros in 2015. From barely a major leaguer to a guy getting tens of millions, Valbuena turned into a solid player. Meanwhile, the Indians third base carousel has run rampant.

Since Valbuena left, the Indians have employed six men who have had at least 50 plate appearances and played at least half their games as an Indian at third base. This doesn't even take into account Valbuena's 2011 season in Cleveland, where he got a meager 44 plate appearances and was all but supplanted by Jack Hannahan and Chisenhall. It's been a murderer's row of vaguely familiar names. We've seen Jose Lopez, Giovanny Urshela, Juan Uribe, Jose Ramirez and the aforementioned Hannahan and Chisenhall make at least a few games' appearances, along with Brent Lillibridge, a light dose of Mike Aviles, the brief Carlos Santana experience and some time from Mark Reynolds. Quite the black hole of who-is-that since Valbuena left. Since I trimmed it at at least 50 PAs as a third baseman and 50 percent playing time, I found those men to slash a combined .260/.313/.396, hitting 61 home runs with 28 stolen bases, being caught 15 times.

This is not to say that none of these men brought value. For one, Juan Uribe's impact is mentioned in helping Ramirez flourish this past year. By helping Ramirez through whatever language and cultural barrier he faced, Uribe signed his own walking papers, but he brought about one of the most fun surprises the Indians have had in years. Hannahan was real good defensively, and in Chisenhall’s case allowed Tribe fans to quickly understand that a decent bat can't cover up a dreadful glove. So it was a learning experience. So in the raw numbers it does look like Valbuena noses in front of the pack. The one sticking point, the Indians spent a combined $8.7 million on these men since 2012. In that same stretch, Valbuena has earned 13.4 million. That's a savings of nearly $5 million, or more than the total salary Bryan Shaw has received to this point as an Indian. Every penny is important to the Indians. That was laid plain when the Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn deals hamstrung the team for years. Those weren't even outsize contracts in the grander, league-wide scheme of things, but the Indians (absent the Encarnacion deal) are usually up against the budget. So at least from a monetary issue, in general the Indians didn't do to bad in dropping Valbuena. They got near the same production over that time AND saved a few mil.

But that's not the end of it all, is it? The whole reason any of us ever saw Valbuena's name pop up in Hey Hoynsie or other media mentions since he left is because of his last three years. He wasn't very good in his first two years in Chicago, slashing .218/.322/.361 and aiding the Cubs in their quest for the cellar. he was much worse than the amalgamated third baseman the Indians employed. His glove did improve in that stretch though, earning 1.4 defensive wins over that stretch. Then, from 2014 to 2016, he exploded, and hit .243/.334/.442, good for a 114 OPS. He averaged 24 home runs per 162 games over that stretch. He earned the Cubs and Astros 6.4 wins. He became a very good third baseman. During that time, the Indians dealt with a year of Lonnie Chisenhall, another where Gio Urshela was the main third baseman, then the Uribe/Ramirez connection. That last was very good, especially post-All-Star break. But Chisenhall held a .770 OPS in 2014 when he got the full time job. This from a man who got to the majors with his bat. Urshela OPS's at .608 a year later. Uribe got booted because his son's emergence made his character and .591 OPS unneeded. As Valbuena emerged the Indians scuffled.

This doesn't make dumping him a bad idea. He became very expensive, took several extra years to get good, and if he'd been held on to the Indians never would have found Ramirez. J-Ram has already been worth 7.2 WAR in his short Indians career, compared to Valbuena’s 8.9. Ramirez's 3.9 WAR 2016 is miles better than anything Valbuena has done, and Ramirez is seven years younger. Plus, Chisenhall's failing as a third baseman made the Indians have to find a place for him. He's been an alright right fielder and his bat is coming around. In fact, he's having a similar offensive career arc to Valbuena, and is about to turn 28. It wouldn't be right to expect a .790 OPS with 20 or more home runs, but it wouldn't be out of the realm of reality either.

Baseball is weird and fun like this. You can look at any trade, release or draft pick that was or wasn't made and create a whole new narrative around it five or ten years later. The Indians would probably be a little worse off if they'd held on to Valbuena, but who knows? He grew up and turned into a decent player. Four years ago I'd have bet anything he was a glimmer in the history of baseball and would disappear like so many before him. Instead he's going to try to help Trout do Trout things in the autumn. I guess everyone wins.