Newly signed infielder Luis Valbuena, whose two-year deal with the Angels was officially announced yesterday, is likely to spend a good chunk of time playing first base in 2017, general manager Billy Eppler told reporters on a conference call yesterday (via Jeff Fletcher of the Orange County Register and Bill Shaikin of the L.A. Times). As Fletcher points out, that indicates that C.J. Cron, previously the presumptive starter at first base, will have to fight for playing time in the upcoming season.
“I like the power and the selectivity…” Eppler said of Valbuena, who has posted a .199 isolated power mark (slugging percentage minus batting average) and an 11.5 percent walk rate over the past three seasons. “…He knows he’ll be in the lineup very regularly and the entire time against a right-handed pitcher.”
Eppler’s comments do suggest that there’s the possibility of a platoon between Valbuena and Cron. Valbuena is just a .206/.299/.335 hitter against left-handers in that previously mentioned 2014-16 stretch, but he’s posted a much more robust .253/.344/.473 batting line against right-handers in that same time. Cron, however, isn’t the most natural fit as a platoon partner. While his .252/.289/.409 career batting line against left-handed pitching is better than Valbuena’s output against southpaws, Cron has typically fared better against right-handers since debuting in 2014. (He did carry more traditional platoon splits in the minors, so perhaps there’s some yet-untapped potential against lefties in Cron’s bat.)
Naturally, though, Eppler’s comments will lead to speculation about the possibility of Cron eventually becoming a trade candidate. Eppler said playing time will sort itself out “organically,” (via Fletcher) and Shaikin notes that the GM said he’ll wait until getting through Spring Training before determining whether to trade from his potential first base surplus. The Halos, after all, don’t know exactly what to expect from Albert Pujols, who underwent foot surgery in early December in an effort to alleviate plantar fasciitis.
Recovery time for Pujols was listed at four months in the press release announcing that operation, suggesting that there’s a chance Pujols won’t be ready to begin the season. Eppler cautioned that there’s been no change in Pujols’ recovery that led to the Valbuena addition; rather, Shaikin writes that Eppler said he’s been in contact with Valbuena’s camp since November. However, if Pujols does incur any type of notable setback, the Angels could comfortably rely upon Valbuena, Cron and Jefry Marte to cover the at-bats between first base and designated hitter.
Now is hardly the best time to be marketing Cron (or any player that is limited to first base/DH) anyhow, as the free-agent market still offers plenty of options in that regard. Cron, though, could conceivably present an intriguing option for a team like the Rays (who are rumored to be looking at first basemen such as Chris Carter and Mike Napoli), as he has not yet reached arbitration and be controlled for another four seasons before reaching free agency.
Though he’s not an elite slugger, Cron did take a step forward in 2016, hitting .278/.325/.467 (all career-highs) with 16 home runs in 445 plate appearances. Adjusting for his pitcher-friendly home park, stats like wRC+ (115) and OPS+ (117) pegged him at 15 to 17 percent better than a league-average hitter.
With enough playing time, Cron seemingly has the ability to hit 20 to 25 home runs in a season while providing strong all-around value at the plate. The Angels, though, were set to enter the season with an extremely right-handed lineup, with Kole Calhoun as the only pure lefty penciled into the lineup. Second baseman Danny Espinosa is a switch-hitter but is far better from the right side of the plate, and fourth outfielder Ben Revere would bring a left-handed option to the table as well. Valbuena balances out the lineup and could replace Yunel Escobar at third base in 2018 when he’s a free agent if Cron is retained all season. (Alternatively, the Halos could look to move Escobar at some point and install Valbuena at the hot corner, where he’s spent most of his MLB career, though that’s speculation on my behalf.)