MILWAUKEE -- Some might be wondering why Chicago Cubs infielder Luis Valbuena is getting so much playing time when longer-term starting options like Mike Olt and Junior Lake have seen the field only about as much as he has.
The fact of the matter is Olt and Lake should be evaluated this season -- and that means getting consistent at-bats. But there are enough ancillary reasons to let Valbuena play as well. That might not have been smart thinking at the beginning of this month, but Valbuena, who will get a day off Sunday, has earned it, partly because of what it means for the rest of the lineup.
Valbuena was seeing 4.60 pitches per plate appearance going into Saturday night’s game against the Milwaukee Brewers. That’s by far the highest on the team and the highest in his career to date. By comparison, he averaged about 4.22 pitches per plate appearance over the past two seasons.
Valbuena has mostly batted second -- or leadoff when Emilio Bonifacio takes a day off -- and that kind of plate patience allows the rest of the lineup a good look at the opposing pitcher and obviously drives up his pitch count. Those are no small things. In fact, it’s the basis of the offensive game plan outlined by Cubs executives Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer.
"I like the pitcher to throw all his pitches because I want everyone on my team to see what he throws," Valbuena said. "I’m an aggressive hitter, but I want to be careful, too."
That’s actually a great way to describe Valbuena, who’s been known for his pop -- his six spring home runs were tops among all hitters -- but not necessarily the ability to get on base. That’s all changed in the first month of 2014. Due to that plate discipline, Valbuena has already walked 13 times, and his .375 on-base percentage is behind only Bonifacio and Anthony Rizzo on the team.
"It’s been a nice run for him to this point," manager Rick Renteria said.
Not only is Valbuena seeing more pitches -- which helps his teammates -- and getting on base more, which also helps them, he’s also playing some really good defense. In the past week alone, there was a diving stop against the Arizona Diamondbacks and a catch and throw home for a double play against the Brewers. He might not possess the Gold Glove that second baseman Darwin Barney owns, but he’s been more than adequate there or at third base.
"Yeah, they’re happy with what I’m doing right now," Valbuena said when asked about how his bosses feel.
And even though Valbuena doesn’t project as an everyday starter when the Cubs' touted prospects start to make it to the big leagues, there’s no reason he couldn't still have a place on the team. So there’s enough to like about him that he deserves playing time.
And remember, he’s actually not taking it away from anyone who should be getting closer looks. If Bonifacio could be the Cubs' everyday center fielder right now, Valbuena could play every day at second while Olt is at third and Lake is in left. The odd men out are Barney and Ryan Sweeney, who currently plays a lot of center when Bonifacio is at second. That’s the mistake Renteria is making.
In any case, Valbuena has shown a new ability at the plate -- plus he hit his first home run of the season Saturday -- that should earn him even more time on the field.
"I’m just focused, waiting for my pitch," he stated. "If it’s not in the zone, I’m not going to swing at it."
That’s actually in the Cubs manual.