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Angels find their match in Luis Valbuena

Billy Eppler continues to spackle over cracks in the Halos roster

MLB: Houston Astros at Oakland Athletics Lance Iversen-USA TODAY Sports

When Billy Eppler departed the 2016 winter meetings, many were disappointed that none of the Angels’ roster deficiencies were addressed, especially after the swiftness with which he acquired OF Cameron Maybin and P Jesse Chavez. Since then, he has slowly chipped away at his club’s needs, first with the trade for second baseman Danny Espinoza, followed shortly by the signing of fourth outfielder Ben Revere and finally, the curious trade for catcher Martin Maldonado.

Each of the moves made this offseason were done with a clear and distinct purpose, methodically checking off each short-coming from last season’s roster one by one. While there remains work to be done to rebound from a 74-win season, on Thursday he acquired yet another piece of the puzzle in the form of third baseman Luis Valbuena. Unlike the prior moves this offseason, which singularly addressed team needs, this acquisition is of the multi-purpose variety.

Balance the line-up

Before yesterday, this was the Angels’ projected starting nine:

C - Martin Maldonado (R)

1B - C.J. Cron (R)

2B - Danny Espinoza (S)

3B - Yunel Escobar (R)

SS - Andrelton Simmons (R)

LF - Cameron Maybin (R)

CF - Mike Trout (R)

RF - Kole Calhoun (L)

DH - Albert Pujols (R)

Certainly a stronger line-up than what was fielded last season, but extremely right-leaning, even for a team in Orange County. The signing of Ben Revere addressed this to a certain degree, though he is more of a slap-hitting contact guy, not someone you would lean on to neutralize tough right-handed pitching. Switch-hitting Danny Espinoza does his best work against lefties, exasperating the issue.

The lefty-swinging Valbuena more than held his own against righties last season, batting .258/.362/.479 across 254 PA, right in line with his last four seasons. A bit of a classic three-true-outcomes guy, his career strike out rate is 20.2%, fairly reasonable by today’s standards, especially for a guy who carries a 10% walk rate most years. Before a hamstring injury ended his season pre-maturely, he was working on a career season in 2016, with a wRC+ of 123. Among current Angels, only Mike Trout posted a higher number, with a wRC+ of 171.

No one expects Valbuena to be the Angels’ second-best hitter next year, but he has been reliably above average, posting similar offensive value metrics to Kole Calhoun and Albert Pujols the last three seasons. As long as he has the platoon advantage, we can count on him putting balls over the fence and taking his walks, exactly what the team needed from the left side.

Defense at the hot corner

Considering Billy Eppler’s acquisitions of Simmons, Maybin, Espinoza, Maldonado and Revere, Yunel Escobar has stood out like a sore thumb, with a career -9.6 UZR/160 at third base. The Angels were confident that a second full season at the hot corner would allow the former shortstop to clean up his work there, as he was forced into duty at third for the first time in his career the previous season with the Nationals. When that failed to materialize, we all sensed that it was only a matter of time before Eppler would seek an upgrade.

Valbuena’s glove does not live up to the lofty expectations of Eppler’s typical acquisitions. In fact, Fangraphs rated him as roughly the same as Escobar the last two seasons. As is prone to happen with defensive metrics, Baseball Reference has viewed him much more favorably over that time, just a tick or two below the league average third baseman. By comparison, both statistical mavens have been in full agreement over Escobar’s shabby glove work the last two seasons.

Let’s not kid ourselves. Valbuena was acquired first and foremost to swing the lumber, with his ability to play a passable third base making him more desirable than alternatives such as Pedro Alvarez and Brandon Moss. Fangraphs has him below average there the last three seasons, though they still rate him 3.6 UZR/160 over his career. Past success combined with the willingness of a analytics-heavy organization like the Astros to play him there over that time gives me confidence he will be just fine with the glove, especially considering the relative strength of the rest of their fielders.

Insurance for the many questions marks

Upon Thursday’s announcement of his signing, many were quick to speculate on which current Angel would be traded to make room for Valbuena. Some here felt that it would only be a matter of time before Escobar was dealt. There was some concern that this could mean last year’s breakout favorite Jefry Marte would suddenly have to take his reps in AAA. Hell, even team beat reporter Jeff Fletcher was blowing hot air about shipping off C.J. Cron for pitching.

From what we have seen from Billy Eppler, he is anything but impulsive and it stands to reason he would like to go into the season with as much depth as possible. While Pujols is only expected to miss the start of the season after his foot surgery, we have seen these things linger with him before. Obviously, he is not getting any younger, so having another bat around will certainly come in handy.

It is also fair to question how real Marte’s breakthrough really was. While there are no indications in the data that he just ran into some luck, we do have to brace ourselves for a potential sophomore slump as he passes through the league a second time. Having a guy like Valbuena around allows Scioscia to use Marte in the most advantagous situations, while also providing a back-up plan in case he does struggle and requires a trip back to AAA to get straightened out.

If there is one move that truly makes sense, it would be shipping off Escobar and his $7 million commitment for next season. While not a back-breaking amount, his skill set is suddenly redundant on this team and those funds could be used to shore up the bullpen, yet to be fully addressed this offseason. Is there a team out there with an expensive pen arm they would be willing to swap for a solid contact-hitter who can fake it at third? Preferably, a team might be willing to just take his salary for minor league fodder, opening up a bit of room in the budget for a mid-season trade target. It would also not be the worst thing in the world to have his bat around, at least until we know for sure the status of Pujols’ health.

Despite averaging 2 WAR since becoming a regular four years ago, Valbuena saw his stock drop thanks to his ill-timed injury and a general lack of demand for third basemen this offseason. Billy Eppler waited out the market and made yet another incremental improvement to his team’s roster without busting the budget. While not a perfect player, Valbuena is a perfect fit for what ails the 2017-18 Angels.