It would be easy to get lost in the ceaseless fright parade of Randy Messengers and Bryan LaHairs and just write off all of the unsung late-season callups as worthless nobodies, but amongst all of the misplays and mediocrity, there was one guy who, in my mind, stood head and shoulders above the rest. One guy who really played as if he has a promising future in the big leagues.
You probably haven't heard too much about Luis Valbuena before. There's a reason for that. Prior to this season, he was just a generic small middle infielder with decent skills that he could never put together. As a 21 year old in AA, he only hit .239, and while he was still plenty young enough to get better, he wasn't beating down any doors or blowing scouts away. He was a project who - if everything went right - might sometime down the road be able to make himself a living as a backup. In short, he was worth keeping an eye on, but he wasn't anything special.
Then 2008 came along and Valbuena started to look like a hitter. From batting .304 in AA to batting .302 in AAA, Valbuena took his game to a new level and opened a lot of eyes as a 22 year old blossoming in the upper minors. He still didn't flash much at all in the way of power, but solid defense combined with a pretty good idea of the strike zone allowed him to fly up the organizational rankings and force the Mariners to give him a look in September. A look that, in the end, I think they're glad they were able to get.
Let's get one thing straight: Luis Valbuena is not a future star. He doesn't have the talent. But where a month ago I didn't give his name a second thought, having seen him play, I've come to rather like him. At the plate, he's intelligent. Compared to the rest of these losers, anyway. He has a pretty compact line drive stroke, but more than that, he doesn't swing at many bad pitches. While he only collected 49 at bats, his 22% swing rate on balls out of the zone was the best on the team, and his (small sample) approach was comparable to those of Mark Ellis and Jason Kubel. In other words, he's not a guy who's going to get himself out as often as a Yuniesky Betancourt or Jose Lopez. He knows he doesn't have the most punishing bat in the world, so he's compensated for that by developing a good eye and the ability to hit for a decent average. Those are valuable skills.
The thing that excited me most about Valbuena, though, was his defense. Don't bother looking at his defensive statistics; given the sample size, they won't tell you anything. Trust your eyes. If you watched Valbuena around second base this past month, you saw him make a lot of plays deep to his right, along with a couple that required him to come charging in towards the plate. I don't recall seeing him go to his left very often, but that's kind of out of his control. What's important is that, in his limited playing time,Valbuena was able to showcase both above-average range and above-average instincts with a pretty good arm. That's big. This team badly needs some better defense going forward, and now that I've seen Valbuena play his position, I'm pretty confident saying that he could play a solid second base in the Majors Leagues right now.
Maybe it's just because this team has driven my standards into the cold cold ground, but I love that. I love that Valbuena plays a mean infield while hitting enough to establish a career ceiling somewhere around, I dunno, .290/.350/.380. I don't know that he's ready for full-time action in the Majors quite yet, but I get the feeling like he's not too far away, and that's neat. We've had enough highly-touted prospects flame out over the years. It's nice when you see someone do just the opposite.
If he's able to sustain his offensive gains from last season (which, really, is the biggest and only concern), Valbuena stands to make things pretty interesting for this team going forward. As is, he's a second baseman who could force Jose Lopez either out the door or over to third as a replacement for Beltre. But I saw enough in his footwork to make me entertain the thought of moving him over to short. I don't know if the organization would consider it, and he's never played there before as a professional, but I personally think it would be worth a trial, because I think he has the ability. The rare ability to move up the defensive spectrum. He's not 2005 Yuni good, but few are. Even just being an average defensive shortstop would make him a good value for a handful of years.
I'm getting ahead of myself. It's unlikely that the Mariners would change Valbuena's position just as he's getting comfortable at the plate. And we also don't know how well his 2008 offensive improvements are going to carry over into 2009. What we do know, however, is that where a year ago Luis Valbuena wasn't considered much of a prospect, now he's starting to look like a possible part of the future, and that's exciting. Hopefully he's able to keep swinging a decent bat. Being able to add Valbuena's name to the infield mix would make things more complicated for the front office, but after suffering through the longest of summers, I think that's the sort of problem we deserve.