Somewhere, somehow Luis Valbena needs to continue to play

Fans want to see Mike Olt play.  I can understand that.  He represents the future — a future that promises better days for the Cubs.  Luis Valbuena, on the other hand, represents the painful part of the rebuild.  He’s the guy who got dumped from another team, picked up on waivers, and found his way to the Cubs starting lineup.  Cubs fans can’t wait to press the fast forward button and to some part of  that means installing Olt at 3rd and relegating Valbuena to the bench.  Rick Renteria’s refusal to do so has caused the wrath to come down on Valbuena as some sort of teacher’s pet that the manager plays irrationally.

I don’t agree — at least not with the part about sending Valbuena to the bench.  That would be the irrational move.  I understand wanting to see Olt in the lineup but Valbuena needs to play.  A while back I suggested a solution where Olt plays at 3B while Valbuena moves to 2B and platoons there with Bonifacio, while Bonifacio plays the OF vs. RHP.  The set-up would also allow the Cubs to still break in Olt at a pace they feel is appropriate, perhaps resting him vs. tough RHPs as Valbuena can always slide back over to 3B.

If you want to know the reasons why he should stay in the lineup, look no further than yesterday’s game where Valbuena grinded out AB after AB, facing a whopping 40 pitches in 5 ABs.  Valbuena himself saw 3-4 innings worth of what the Cubs as a whole normally see in term of total pitches.  Just as importantly, he got on base 3 times and each time he was directly involved in Cubs runs.  His OBP right now is .423, second on the team to Anthony Rizzo.

Behind those two players, the Cubs rank 6th in the NL in OBP, a category in which the team normally finishes at or near the bottom of the league, including second to last in 2013 and dead last in 2012.

The importance of OBP and grinding out ABs cannot be underestimated.  On the surface, more base runners directly correlates to scoring more runs.  Beyond that, it allows hitters to get a better look at what the pitcher has in terms of stuff and what he’s bringing in terms of his approach on the mound.  Then, of course, it chips away at the pitcher in terms of how long he can stay in the game by piling up his pitch count — so even if it doesn’t pay off early in the game, that tends to change as the game goes on as the pitcher tires and, eventually, the team has to go to it’s middle relief.  Middle relievers are a weakness for most teams and getting them in the game can help you score even more runs.

That’s all well and good, you might say — but what about the future?  What about “finding out what Mike Olt can do”?

First of all,  the Cubs have a pretty good idea of what Mike Olt can do, they’ve been scouting him for the past 2+ years, which is why they wrestled with the decision to start him on the Opening Day roster instead of Iowa.  It is also why they’re trying to put him in situations where he can succeed — something they’ve done a pretty job with so far.  They know he still has some things to work on and they know there will certain situations where he’ll be over-matched — those are situations that do nothing for a player’s development and in fact, could harm it.  Remember when Josh Vitters played sparingly and fans insisted on playing him everyday and seeing “what he can do”?    What we find out was that he was over-matched when he played on an everyday basis and giving him that experience has brought him no closer to the big leagues today.

There seems to be a line of thinking that players can only develop if they play everyday regardless of circumstance or situation.   We assume that every player thrives in a sink or swim situation. Where is that written?  As a lifelong educator, that has not been my experience at all.  I find that while there are exceptions, most students thrive when they’re built up to something until they can handle an entire assignment.  Can we not consider the Cubs are taking this kind of approach with Olt, who is still learning the game?  Is it not possible that a front office and manager who have a strong reputation for evaluating and developing talent might just know exactly what they’re doing here by not exposing Olt to situations they don’t feel he is yet equipped to handle?

It’s not like Olt hasn’t been playing.  He’s tied for 6th in games played (same as Nate Schierholtz and one game less than Valbuena) and 8th in at-bats..  That’s pretty consistent playing time, which is what you really want to see.  Olt has had consistent playing time in situations the Cubs feel he is ready to handle right no — I can live with that.

But let’s get back to Valbuena here.  The key to the Cubs success in the future is larger than one single player or prospect.  It depends a great deal on changing the Cubs philosophy and culture.  It’s about changing an approach that used to be about who could get that big hit or that big RBI and re-focusing that to a more team-oriented approach where getting on base is paramount, even if it means letting the guy behind you in the lineup get the glory.  It’s about wearing down a pitcher and taking a disciplined approach to every AB where you make the pitcher work and beat you instead of letting you get yourself out.  Make your opponent beat you.  And even if you don’t beat the pitcher in that particular AB, you still chip away and perhaps those gains come later.  In short, it’s about looking at the bigger picture within an AB, within a game, within a season — and within the scope of what this organization is trying to accomplish overall.  And whether you like it or not, few Cubs players embody this right now better than Luis Valbuena.    The Cubs can preach their philosophy until the players ears start to bleed but nothing beats seeing it in practice from one of the most respected veterans on the team.  Nothing bests seeing first hand what it can do for your offense  — as the Cubs saw last night.  How do we expect the Cubs to put such a player on the bench?  What does that do for  the Cubs credibility when they spend so much time talking about what they want to see in their players?  Does it become just lip service when you bench a player who is doing exactly what the front office is asking everyone to do?

That is why you have to play Valbuena vs. RHP until he proves he’s no longer an asset in that role and the kids show they are ready to not just hit the occasional HR, but to grind it out and take the kind of approach at the plate that will help the team win ballgames.  After all, that is what this is all about, right?  Teaching players how to win ballgames?  While the Cubs have been one of the worst teams in baseball the past two seasons, they’re still a major league team and the MLB is not a developmental league in the same way that the minor leagues are.  Winning matters and even if you’re not good at it now, you can at least learn the process and the right approach to becoming a winning ballplayer and ballclub.  And while he doesn’t have the talent of Mike Olt or any of the Cubs top prospects, few Cubs players do that better than Luis Vabuena right now.  Yes, players like Olt need to play, but it doesn’t hurt them to watch and learn once in awhile too.


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Tags: Luis Valbuena, Mike Olt


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  • fb_avatar

    Good article John.

    I do want to see Mike Olt in the lineup everyday. And not just for "let's see what he can do" reasons. Excluding Rizzo, he is our biggest power threat in a lineup that doesn't figure to have anyone hit more than 20. We need that. And if healthy he provides plus defense as well.

    But I do agree with you on Valbuena. He should be out there at 2b most days and At this point playing Barney over him, especially against a righty, is unacceptable.
    Valbuena is the better overall player by far and should get most of the reps at 2B.

  • In reply to Marcel Jenkins:

    Thank Marcel. The see what he can do argument is one I got on Twitter, but I agree. If you play Olt everday, it's because the Cubs need that power -- but I'm more about choosing 4-5 good matchups a week than strictly playing him everyday -- for now, then let him work up to everyday if he can handle that.

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    In reply to John Arguello:

    I can definitely see that happening. He seems to be getting better every week so I think its only a matter of time. Agree through that there's no rush to play him 100% of the time.

  • In reply to Marcel Jenkins:

    where will valbuena play when Baez & Alcantera come up?

  • Right on John.

    I'm actually a big fan of Valbuena, and how he plays the game. Never going to be a superstar,.... always a grinder,.... defensively versitile. There should always be room on a ML roster for a guy like him even IF he isn't a regular starter.

    No - he'll never hit for high average. No - he'll never have 20+ HR power. No - he's not a significant base-stealing threat. But before the Cubs picked up Bonifacio - he was THE guy I wanted to see leading off for the Cubs exactly because he was the kind of grinding gamer who can get on base often.

    I would love to see the Cubs try and keep him as the back-up guy and utility IF for a couple more years even if he gets bumped out of an everyday spot by Olt, or Bryant, or Beaz, or Alcantara. He's just a gamer.

  • In reply to drkazmd65:

    John - How would you assess Olt's approach at the plate? Is he showing patience? Does he appear overmatched?

  • In reply to Phaedrus:

    I think he's struggling a bit adjusting to the more precise command that MLB pitchers have, but I think he'll be fine the more pitchers he sees. I think he'll have an average to above average walk rate and that he looks capable of taking the pitch to RF when appropriate.

  • The problem shouldn't be Olt or Valbuena, as for the reasons discussed neither should be losing plate appearances. Got to find ways to get these guys in the lineup at the same time and cut the awful crop of outfielders back.

  • In reply to Eddie:

    Agreed. Either Sweeney goes to the bench or you move Schierholtz to another team -- and maybe both.

  • Does Barney have options? Because if he has some mechanical issues, he could go to AAA and get plenty of at bats to work on it... Meanwhile the Cubs can platoon Bonifacio and Valbuena at 2B and bring up someone like Vitters to give them another right handed option in the OF... Although Vitters has slowed down toon

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    In reply to Caps:

    Technically, Barney has options, but he must pass through Optional Assignment waivers in order to be sent down. It probably won't happen.

    I don't think Barney has to work on his hitting so much as that he was never really that great a hitter to begin with

  • In reply to Zonk:

    Agreed but I don't think he's a .129 hitter either or else he wouldn't be playing pro ball lol... But no matter his defense, he keeps hitting like this and he won't be in the MLB for too long.

  • In reply to Caps:

    I think they'll trade Barney rather than send him down. They'd have to put him through waivers and he'd likely get claimed.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    I can see that happening... He brings intangibles, like leadership, smarts and defense, but with his hitting, I think the writing is on the wall.

  • In reply to Caps:

    And he's only had 31 AB's, so I think his future with the Cubs even this year is in a limited role. You have to hit, and there isn't much projection with him at this point.

  • Ryan Sweeney is not a future core piece nor is he producing anything now. He should find himself on the bench, not Valbuena or Olt.

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    I pretty much think the Cubs should do what you suggested John: Play Valbuena at 2B vs. RHP, with Bonifacio taking AB's away from Sweeney in CF (or Kalish, but playing CF vs RHP)

    Advanced metrics don't like Bonifacio at 2B much anyway, so Valbuena is probably a defensive upgrade as well

  • The only drawback I see in that philosophy regarding Olt is confidence. I always felt that when a player is on a streak let them play themselves out of it. Otherwise I'm with you. I have no doubt his vision is back, now to get his confidence level up. He's smart enough to know they are pulling him because they are afraid he will fail. Leaving him in also shows him they have confidence in him as well.

  • In reply to CubsBuck22:

    Confidence works both ways -- you can gain it if you continue to play well but you can lose it if you're being exposed to matchups you're not ready to handle. Cubs need to find a balance there.

  • I was debating the value of Valbuena with someone on here yesterday, and this is basically everything I could ever have wanted to say. I would like to see a lot more lineups that start with Bonifacio-Valbuena at the top vs RHP.

  • In reply to nmu’catsbball:

    Would love to see that 1-2 punch as well.

  • Simply outstanding, John. This type of piece, and especially those last two paragraphs, is exactly why I love this site so much. You can't get this type of knowledgeable perspective and informed analysis anywhere else.

    I've been vocal about playing Olt, Lake and Kalish more regularly. With Bonifacio doing so well, he's gotta be in the lineup and that leaves Luis V as the odd man out -- assuming Nate keeps playing. But Luis V has been a real surprise. As someone commented yesterday in Felzz's column on the game , maybe Valbuena has figured it out and can hit over .250 and produce an outstanding OBP, with good defense. So hard to keep him out of the line up too.

    And here's the best news: For the first time in 3 or 4 years, we are now starting to encounter these "good problems" to have in terms finding sufficient playing time for multiple players. And it looks like (hopefully) we're gonna be encountering these problems on an increasing basis going forward.

  • In reply to TTP:

    Thank TTP. I'm all for playing those guys but I'm also okay with letting them work up to playing everyday.

    It is nice to have all this young talent and having the MLB players performing well enough to make them fight for a job. That brings out the best in everyone.

  • I think the reason the Cubs won last night was due to grinding out those at bats... They got to McCarthy to reach 100 pitches before completing 6 innings and forced the Dbacks to go to their flawed bullpen early.

  • In reply to Caps:


  • I think he needs a full year somewhere to see what he can do, against lefties and righties. He grinds out at bats, so he won't hurt you against lefties as much as most. And, with the platoon righties, they seem to swing for the moon against lefties, so a guy like Val-B is most likely a massive market inefficiency right now.

  • fb_avatar

    When they signed Valbuena, I liked his peripherals, especially his minor league numbers. He looked like he'd turn into the gamer-type that winning teams always seem to have. I hope he'll be around to be a utility guy (maybe 300 abs) a couple years from now.

    Question: does he have any OF or 1b experience? Does he seem versatile enough to do an adequate job if pressed into one of those positions?

  • Pretty much I agree with your assessment, John.

    Valbuena also gives you the ability to occasionally rest Rizzo as well. Insert Valbuena at 3B and slide Olt over to 1B while Rizzo rests on the bench. It doesn't hurt to do this and increase Olt's versatility with more reps at 1B. If Rizzo goes down, you want someone who can play 1B, and Olt should be able to.

    I think the Cubs should trade Barney NOW to a MLB team that needs 2B help NOW. Don't wait a minute longer. Not that I don't like Barney, because I do, but because I have to believe that there are teams that do need help at 2B and we'll increase our return. The longer Barney sits, the more his value, and maybe his abilities, will decline. He's been a loyal asset. Give him a fair shake at doing something for someone else who needs his skills.

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    In reply to Tinker Evers Chance:

    I forgot about shifting Olt to first to rest Rizzo. I like my 3rd basemen able to play first. I always wanted them to get A-Ram some time at first in an effort to keep him healthy.

  • In reply to Tinker Evers Chance:

    Olt can certainly play 10-15 games a year at first to increase playing time. He plays the position well.

  • Even though I think Olt, Lake and Kalish should play as much as they
    can, I also think is only fair that hold roster gets involved in trying
    to figure out which players should still be here after Aug. 1

  • In reply to emartinezjr:

    I think they already have a pretty good idea of that.

  • This is a very good piece, John... Very good points... And to add to those points:

    1. The Cubs already know what these guys can do, that's why Vitters wasn't given a full time role right away but Rizzo was and the results showed they knew what they were doing.

    I would like to see Lake play everyday, but it is easy to notice the holes vs RHP and picking the match ups is not a bad thing... After all, 1 year ago, Lake was projected to replace Scott Hairston as the short side of the platoon OF, but he exceeded those expectations, a hot streak and media hype comparing him with Puig may have led to all these emotions but the FO seems to know better.

    2. Two of the best organizations at developing players have been doing just this for years... The A's and the Cards... You see Matt Adams and Carpenter from the Cards, as well ad their pitchers and they are not thrown into the fire sink or swim, they do with them just how RR is doing with Lake and Olt.

    3. Lake and Olt seem to be on pace to get some 400 at bats, if they finish the season with 400 at bats they would have plenty of chances to produce.

  • In reply to Caps:

    Thanks Caps -- and some very good points of your own there.

  • While Valbuena's been pegged as just a utility man, I'm starting to wonder if in his prime years (of which he should be in) if he's more than that. The last two years have been the best of his career, and he's been pretty close to league average OPS, which with his plus defense might mean he's more. Not necessarily a cemented starter, but one of those Mark McLemore types.

  • In reply to Jim Weihofen:

    I think he is passable as a platoon player/fringe starter.

  • I made pretty much all of these arguments on here yesterday, so I have to say I agree with everything you wrote John.

  • In reply to mjvz:

    Thanks. It was a hot topic yesterday here and on Twitter and I figured I'd put my thoughts together in one place.

  • A lot of people are concerned about younger guys getting AB. Would it be possible to send Ruggio, Kalish, Lake, or Sweeney down, so they get more at bats?or trade Nate. And bring up an extra arm for the bullpen? We have several guys who are flexible and can play different positions. That way we have someone getting more at bats in the minors and since we bring up a bullpen arm that would mean less people fighting for spots and could get more field time?????

  • I like players who grind out at bats, but the Cubs have a few, that are much better served to put the ball in play before the count gets to two strikes. I really like the way Valbuena revived his career. He is underrated.

  • fb_avatar

    John, could the giant ice pack seen on Olt's shoulder be the real reason he isn't playing more?

  • In reply to Michael Caldwell:

    I do think that is a factor as well. That shoulder may not be fully healed until next he gets a chance to rest it this offseason.

  • Thanks John nice topic. Didn't Valbuena start off like this last year, get in good with mgmnt with his good approach but then kind-of tail off. I like him a lot as a super-sub but you make a good case for a bit bigger role for him. Seems like last night's lineup was telling us RR is thinking the same way. ;-)

  • In reply to Bilbo161:

    Thanks Bilbo. I think eventually he takes a lesser role, but for now he deserves to play.

  • In reply to Bilbo161:

    I believe he got injured and wasn't as productive after.

  • The real question for today is... Can the Cubs score a run while Jeff Samardzija is on the mound?

  • In reply to mjvz:

    Yeah, no kidding. Maybe Travis Wood should start in the outfield.

  • fb_avatar

    "The importance of OBP and grinding out ABs cannot be underestimated."

    I think I'll print this article out and frame it. I couldn't agree with it more, and the above statement sums it all up.

    Can you imagine what a valuable asset Valbuena would be if he were surrounded by a few established star players? He would be one of the "breaks" in the lineup, except he would be no break. I love watching him bat and agree he needs to keep seeing regular time.

    I'm also glad to read that I'm not alone on Olt. Put him in situations where he can succeed and let him build his confidence. Ease him into a full-time role. It might be different if he were 22 and had dominated the minors and hadn't had the eye issues.

  • In reply to Gregory Shriver:

    Thanks Greg and I agree with you on Olt. It's not like there aren't still questions, let him work his way into the lineup and build confidence.

  • Seeing 40 pitches across 5 AB's is puttin' in work John! You know it has to be demoralizing to any pitcher when they are on pitches #7 - #10+ of an at bat. Thanks for calling that out for us, and all the good work you guys do here. Just wish Luis had a little more to give us against lefties

  • In reply to Ryno2Grace:

    Thank R2G! It's definitely demoralizing for a pitcher to keep trying when they have to work that hard on one hitter. We need more of that.

  • Craig Goldstein ‏@cdgoldstein 2m
    selective endpoints and all that but Olt was 1-14 to start the season and since then is .259/.333/.630 (last 9 games)

    Yeah, yeah, selective endpoints....but man I could live with that line for someone with Olt's power and defense.

  • In reply to North Side Irish:

    Yes, I'd take that kind of line from Olt. And while it is selective endpoints, i think it's more meaningful given the 1-14 came to start the year.

  • Great piece of analysis and writing John. Its interesting that it appears most of the clubhouse leadership is coming form Bonafacio and Valbuena. Who do you think is the odd man out between Kalish, Shierholtz and Sweeney and do you think any have value in the trade market?

  • 88 MPH Fastball right down the middle and Ruggiano takes Rizzo has been great but he really needs to change his approach vs lefty's. Wade Miley is a guy he should be able to hit with a FB topping out in the high 80's. He needs to stop guessing and just go up their looking for a FB, and spit on everything else.

  • In reply to Ghost Dawg:

    Looks like Ruggiano was just giving him the old "rope a dope"!

  • In reply to Ghost Dawg:

    He does? So far this season Rizzo's hitting .385/.433/.423 against left-handed pitching.

  • In reply to Quedub:


  • In reply to Quedub:

    Yes he does. 26 at bats with a .500 BAbip doesn't tell you anything.

  • Well, it's official. RR will not write out 162 different line-ups this year.

    Today's line-up is the season's first repeat, exactly like Saturday's lineup against the Reds (pitchers not included).

  • I don't have a problem with Olt not playing everyday. What I do have a problem with is that Barney shouldn't be playing against right handers at all except late game defensive replacement. And they've given Olt starts against Tanaka and Gerrit Cole, which is the definition of tough RHP and sat him against some mediocre RHP. If you're going to protect him from tough match ups then actually protect him from those tough match ups.

  • My golly gosh, Bud Selig is boring.

  • A bit off topic - but Jeff Samardzija is being really efficient today.

    1 Cheap run scored in 5 completed innings. Only 2 Ks, but also only 3 hits, 1 BB, and only 61 pitches thrown.

    That being said - the Cubs' Lefty pitcher bugaboo is holding them scoreless so far as well.

  • In reply to drkazmd65:

    Way to manufacture runs! That was an UGLY inning - but got 3 cheap runs out of it.

  • fb_avatar

    John: OT, but if you like to do your minor league recaps early, I think all affiliates are 2:45 CST, must be some sort of record. Nice performance today for Corey Black, 6 no-hit innings with 8Ks! (3 BBs).

  • With Bonifacio coming back down to Earth, I could see Valbuena getting more at-bats at 2B. He looked great at the dish last night.

  • RR just lost a lot of points with me. Russel for the last out of the game after Strop just got a K on 3 pitches?

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    My question is you all say Barney will not get through waivers, yet there is not one team that will bother to trade for him either. So where does that leave the Cubs? Does it really hurt them to lose him to waivers? You have players who give almost as good a defense and much better bats. And you can use that spot for a productive player, not just a placeholder, maybe wanabee? Only things I see him on the team is for his leadership/intangables. Thats what you have coaches for?

  • Pathetic

  • John, I haven't read the comments on this article (I usually do), so apologize if I'm just repeating what others have said.

    First - your opinion is the gold standard on this BLOG. Not only because of your very high knowledge of baseball and scouting of the players. But you are very respectful to others, even to those who may not deserve it.

    But Luis is such a hard guy to warm up to. The .230 avg and .330 slugging (career avgs) will do that. Can he eventually exceed the numbers on these two categories? If he can't then he's strictly a platooner on a bad team, pinch hitter on a good one. Yes, he has an excellent approach at the plate, and will provide a higher than avg. walk percentage as a result. But he simply will not sustain an OBP greater than .350 as the season goes on. So if he's playing 3rd he needs to hover at least near the .400 slugging pctg.

    Also, not fair to compare Olt to Vitters when he was on the Cubs. Olt has shown so much more potential, in virtually every category, than Vitters. Heck, he has as many RBIs as Rizzo has, and a lot fewer at bats. Olt's good offensive games have almost always resulted in wins, and I would say the same thing for Valbuena. I know there is no stat for this (the stats snobs would turn up their noses on such an idea, I know that too). But Olt is helping this team win games, which is more than can be said for a lot of Cubs starters over the past few (100+) years.

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